A former energy company executive from Vermont has a shot at becoming the nation's first transgender governor — but she says that's not the main reason she's running.
Christine Hallquist says that in the run-up to Tuesday's primary, people are finally beginning to pay attention to the race, but her status as a transgender woman isn't what's on their minds. Rather, she says, voters want to know what she can do to help them get higher-paying jobs, provide health care for their families and better educate their children.
So she's appealing to Vermonters with a progressive message that includes a livable wage, Medicare for all, free public college education and high-speed broadband access — even to those who live on remote back roads.
"That's how I want to be known in Vermont," Hallquist, 62, told The Associated Press in an interview at her Burlington offices. "Nationally, I want to be known as the first trans candidate."
It's working. The Victory Fund, a political action committee that backs LGBTQ candidates across the country, calls Hallquist a "game changer."
"Because she is open and authentic about the fact that she is transgender, that immediately takes away all the questions, all the whispers, and instead allows people to focus on her personality and what she wants to do," said Elliot Imse, communications director for the Victory Fund. "People are liking what they're hearing and that's what's really cool about Christine."
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Roughly 200 LGBTQ candidates are expected to be on the November ballot across the country for state and federal office, the most ever, according to the Victory Fund. They include Alexandra Chandler, Massachusetts' first openly transgender candidate for Congress, and Kim Coco Iwamoto, who would be Hawaii's first transgender lieutenant governor if elected. Like Hallquist, both are Democrats.
In Vermont, home to independent U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders and the first state to recognize same-sex unions with its landmark 2000 civil unions law — a precursor to gay marriage — Hallquist's gender identity has not been an issue.
She's facing three other Democrats in Tuesday's primary: Environmental activist James Ehlers; dance festival organizer Brenda Siegel; and Ethan Sonneborn, a 14-year-old boy taking advantage of a quirk in state law that doesn't require gubernatorial candidates to be of voting age.
Republican incumbent Gov. Phil Scott also faces a primary challenge of his own from Springfield businessman Keith Stern, who describes himself as a conservative running on financial issues.
As of Vermont's July 15 campaign finance filing, Hallquist had raised about $132,000, although she announced this week she was returning about $16,000 in corporate donations. Ehlers had raised just under $50,000, Siegel about $17,000 and Sonneborn $1,700. Scott, the incumbent, had raised almost $177,000, but a PAC supported by the Republican Governor's Association has raised more than $1 million to promote Scott's candidacy.
Hallquist didn't say how much money she felt she'd need to get elected, but assuming she wins the primary, she plans to start raising money for the general election the very next day.
"We do need to get some money, we do need to run some ads, that will be key," she said.
Typically, Scott would be virtually assured of re-election. No sitting governor has been defeated in Vermont since 1962.
But, as in much of the country, politics are different now. In April, Scott signed what for Vermont was historic — if mild by national standards — restrictions on gun ownership, angering his Republican base. His once sky-high popularity has waned, potentially leaving an opening for a well-funded Democratic challenger.
Hallquist moved to Vermont in 1976. In 1998, well before her gender-identity transition, she went to work for the Vermont Electric Co-operative, becoming CEO in 2005. She was open about her 2015 transition and allowed news organizations to chronicle the change.
She quit her job at the co-op earlier this year so she could run for governor and represent the interests of rural Vermonters, something she feels Scott has been ignoring.
Hallquist said that 95 percent of Vermonters, regardless of their politics, care about the same things: whether their children can afford to live and work in the state, find jobs and afford homes.
"Vermonters are going to elect me on the platform. They are not going to elect me because of the fact that I'm transgender — that's the reality," Hallquist said, conceding: "Obviously, nationwide it's significant, the first transgender governor. It is pioneering."
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