What I learnt campaigning for the first transgender candidate for governor – and why I'm optimistic even though we lost
We broke barriers, challenged people to think about their own biases, and stayed positive and authentic in the process. We introduced many young people to politics and campaigning – young people who will go on to run campaigns and change the course of our future
When I first heard the news that Christine Hallquist was considering a run for governor of Vermont, I knew that people would assume her candidacy was doomed from the start: Christine had never held political office, she’s an openly transgender woman, and Vermont hasn’t rejected an incumbent governor since 1962.
After being involved in the 2014 and 2016 elections, I hadn’t planned to be part of another political campaign, but when I heard that someone had mentioned my name as a prospective campaign manager, I wanted to meet Christine.
Having worked for a number of people in politics, I knew that I could not dedicate my life to someone’s candidacy without feeling that they were choosing to run for the right reasons. When we met, Christine and I talked about our values, about why we believed in what we do, and about our belief in people above all else. I knew taking the job was the right move.
As a campaigner, one of the hardest tasks is walking a line that shows someone’s conviction and ability all while framed in their capacity to govern and best represent voters’ interests. When you add sexism, racism, transphobia, and all the lenses through which the public and media will view someone’s candidacy, it becomes even harder. The game of politics is more theatre than we’d like to admit.
Despite its liberal image, Vermont has never in its history had two Democratic governors in succession. With knowledge of all of this, we had to start the campaign with one-on-one meetings with key political figures Vermont – former governors and candidates, statewide and federal office holders, and so on, making our case for why Christine could pull this off. We had many frustrating disempowering meetings, vitriol from the left and right of the political spectrum, and huge difficulty fundraising. In the last gubernatorial campaign in 2016, all major candidates had raised about half a million dollars by March – by that time this year we had raised nothing. But, to her great credit, Christine was always relentlessly positive. She always looked forward, even if I or other members of the team were having trouble staying upbeat.
In general, Vermonters were focused on policy, not Christine’s identity as a transgender woman, but to suggest that this was not a challenge would be misleading. From the countless unsolicited makeup and hair recommendations, to historically supportive donors deciding that 2018 was the year they’d sit out, there were sexist, transphobic, and first-time candidate prejudices that we had to face.
I am completely convinced that, were Christine to have been a white male heterosexual candidate, our credibility as a campaign would never have faced the scrutiny it did. Christine’s reality as a 62-year-old transgender woman is not one that Vermonters were immediately able to relate with – our job as a campaign was to make the connections without necessarily naming that challenge. We never made it a campaign issue, but the number of media outlets requesting stories about Christine’s family and personal life was suffocating at times. We were constantly fighting people’s attempts to relate her candidacy to her identity as a trans woman.
Though Christine’s policies of raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, pursuing a Medicare-for-all healthcare system, ensuring every child has access to quality public education, and implementing a plan to solve climate change were all very compelling – the headlines sometimes left us feeling that we couldn’t get her message out.
It was a struggle to raise money, and even support, at a national level. The Democratic Governors Association and EMILY’s List offered millions of dollars in support of Vermont’s Democratic candidate in 2016, yet they were noticeably absent this year.
We were never going to be able to compete with the $650,000 (£500,000) or more that our opponent Phil Scott received from the Republican Governors Association, so we had to do our best to gain the support of Vermonters in ways that money doesn’t buy – in local coffee shops, at neighbourhood meet-and-greets, on social media, at press conferences, at local candidates’ events, and so on. We had morning team calls everyday. We didn’t take days off. We hustled. We fought back media requests for endless “human interest” pieces on Christine, pointing out that no stories about Scott’s identity or private life were being published. We stayed issue-focused, drew as much contrast as we could between Christine and Scott, relied on the hundreds of volunteers and thousands of small dollar donors to remind us of why we’d chosen this uphill battle in the first place. We made history on 14 August, with Christine becoming the first openly transgender woman to be a major party candidate in history.
We broke barriers, challenged people to think about their own biases, and stayed positive and authentic in the process. We introduced many young people to politics and campaigning – young people who will go on to run campaigns and change the course of our future. We received over 110,000 votes – more than any other candidate challenging an incumbent in a midterm election in Vermont history.
The Vermont House of Representatives expanded its Democratic majority enough that they can pass legislation without the threat of a veto from the governor, meaning that much of Christine’s platform can now be made possible – we’re confident that the excitement of Christine’s candidacy helped.
Ultimately, Phil Scott’s 18 years in office, the funding he received from outside groups, and Vermonter’s propensity for giving first-time incumbents a second chance culminated in the governor’s re-election.
But we achieved so much when all of the odds were stacked against us. Vermont, the nation, and maybe even the world now knows Christine Hallquist and all of the humility, tenacity, brilliance, and relentless pursuit of progress that make her. I couldn’t be more proud of the campaign we ran, and I hope all who have witnessed will never forget that, as Christine often says: “Nothing is impossible when you’re on the side of justice.”
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