American politics—especially now—is not noted for its graciousness. But last week something happened in Vermont that deserves notice, if only because the example it sets could help other progressives in other places consolidate power.
It came about a week ago, the final filing deadline for this year’s statewide elections. Because the state’s senior senator, Pat Leahy, is retiring after this term, its single representative—Peter Welch—is campaigning for his seat. And so in turn several candidates, all of them women, were jousting in the Democratic primary for Welch’s old chair. (In Vermont, the Democratic primary has lately been decisive for federal offices.)
Two of the women—Kesha Ram Hinsdale and Becca Balint—are staunch progressives; the third, Molly Gray, would be more liberal than most Democrats in Congress, but she’s more centrist than her competitors, and has attracted mainstream money for her campaign. So on Friday, at the last possible moment, Ram Hinsdale withdrew from the race and endorsed Balint. “During our time together in the Vermont Senate, Becca and I have always shared the same vision for the future of Vermont,” Ram Hinsdale wrote in a letter to her supporters (a group that included me). “One that champions the needs of working families, bucks the status quo, and fights for everyone in Vermont to have a seat at the decision-making table. I feel lighter knowing that I can support a woman of deep character who has worked so hard and is going to serve Vermonters so well in Washington.”
It wasn’t an easy call—Ram Hinsdale is an ambitious politician, the youngest state legislator in the country when she first ran in 2008 and the youngest Indian American ever elected to state office. And she would have been not just the first woman but the first person of color Vermont ever sent to D.C.
And it wasn’t entirely selfless: She was trailing slightly in the race according to the only poll, and this way she can retain her state Senate seat (perhaps with an inside edge to become the chamber’s leader) and live to fight again another day for federal office. (Bernie Sanders’s seat could come open if he chooses not to run again in two years.)
But her decision did illustrate several things I wish other progressive candidates would keep in mind. For one, it will probably insure that Balint goes to Washington, where she will be a formidable force (and the state’s first gay federal officeholder). I can remember hoping, when Sanders and Warren were together taking almost two-thirds of the vote in 2020 polling, that some such accommodation might be reached; the point is that there aren’t enough of us that we can split votes.
There’s also something to be said for the proposition that winning an elective office is not the only, or even necessarily the best, way to accomplish important things. There are times when we take elections too seriously as purity tests—if you’re 3 percent better than your opponent, well, that’s good, but it probably doesn’t matter that much (I’d be willing to bet that all three of the Vermont House candidates would vote the same way on 99 percent of legislation). Some people are good at legislating (one of Balint’s strengths over her remaining challenger is a far longer record of figuring out the give-and-take of any legislative body); it’s fine to cede them that job and get on with all the other tasks of organizing.
And finally it reminds us that—though ego is part of what drives anyone willing to take on the somewhat crazy job of politics in the 21st century—there’s something a little lovely when people overcome that ego some. “I had a few sleepless nights thinking about my path to victory, bringing down another woman in this race that I deeply respect and that has earned a broad coalition of support from Vermonters,” Ram Hinsdale told one local reporter, referring to Balint. “That is not the person I am or what Vermont needs.” Balint returned the compliment, calling Ram Hinsdale “brave.” She told VTDigger, the state’s online news source, “[It] feels really, really good to me that you can be super strong in your values and you can stand up for policy that you know is right for working families, and you can also do it in a way that brings people into coalition with you.”
It’s not lost on me that these are women making a smart set of decisions—living in the age of Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert, and Elise Stefanik can make one discount the importance of gender in changing politics, but there’s something there. And of course they are from Vermont, where politics is generally played in somewhat calmer fashion: All-out aggression doesn’t get you as far here as it seems to in some places. But, truthfully, this kind of calculation shouldn’t be beyond anyone anywhere. The point of progressive politics is not, ultimately, to get a particular person elected; it’s to make change. Which can happen in lots of ways.