|Becca Balint Leads with Head and Heart|
|by Susan Z. Ritz|
Senator Becca Balint (D-Windham) brings both a fresh perspective and a courageous heart to her new role as Senate majority leader. As the first openly gay woman elected to the Vermont Senate, Balint, 48, has taken on the challenge of guiding the Democratic Caucus after serving just one term in the legislature.
According to her predecessor, Sen. Phil Baruth (D-Chittenden), she’s a natural for the position. “Becca Balint is one of those rare people who come along every once in a while and electrify the room. I was an early endorser when she ran for the Senate, and I told her constituents that adding her to the ticket would create a dream team. Now that she's here in the State House, they can see I wasn’t exaggerating. After two years, she’s leading our caucus and moving us all forward. In a word, she’s bad-ass, and that’s a proven fact.”
Growing up in the Albany, New York, area, Balint knew by age 11 that she wanted to be in politics. “But,” she explained, “it takes a long time to get there if nobody in your family has ever done it. My dad was an immigrant from Hungary (his own father died in the Holocaust), and my mom was working class. Politics was a pipe dream.” It was a dream she kept on the back burner for 30 years. “I was an openly gay woman in the ’80s, and there were no role models for women in politics, so I just put it on a shelf.”
In the meantime, Balint earned a BA from Smith, a master’s in education from Harvard and another in history from UMass Amherst. She went on to teach school in Guilford, Marlboro, and Londonderry and at the Community College of Vermont before becoming an educational consultant and a columnist for the Brattleboro Reformer—a job she has put on hold to target her energy on her new duties.
Though Balint’s academic background gave her the analytical tools she needed for a political career, she gained her self-confidence and personal insight through less traditional venues. “I always joke that it took me a number of different experiences to finally feel confident in this role.” One was being trained as a coach through the Coaches Training Institute. Another was working as a camp director for eight years (1994–2002) at Farm and Wilderness in Plymouth. “It’s a transformational place for people. I became the person I wanted to be through that organization. A person who is not afraid to speak from a place of authenticity, and that’s not easy in politics.”
In addition, Balint immersed herself in the work of Brené Brown, a researcher-storyteller at the University of Texas, Austin. “She got me thinking about how as a public servant I could bring my vulnerability into the world, because that’s when people start paying attention. If you’re willing to show part of yourself, not come from a place of either ‘I’m impenetrable’ or ‘I know all the answers,’ then we can begin to create answers together.”
With the support of her wife, attorney Elizabeth Wohl, and encouragement from her life coach, Balint finally decided to take the plunge and prepared to run for office. She attended the Women’s Campaign School at Yale in 2013 and then in 2014 entered the inaugural class of the Vermont chapter of Emerge, a national organization dedicated to increasing the number of Democratic women in the State House.
Emerge Vermont executive director Ruth Hardy says, “We’re very proud of Becca and everything she’s achieved during her short time in the Senate. Her quick rise to a leadership position in a body that hasn’t traditionally embraced female leadership is a testament to her ability to build consensus and lead with compassion. She’s exactly the type of elected leader we aspire to promote at Emerge.”
To her own surprise, Balint’s pipe dream became a reality when, on her first foray into electoral politics, she won the Windham County Senate seat vacated by Sen. Peter Galbraith, splitting the Windham County vote with longtime incumbent senator Jeanettte White (D-Windham). Her career as a teacher in three local schools and her columns in the Reformer had provided her with the name recognition many first-timers struggle to achieve. She came to the legislature prepared to tackle some of southern Vermont’s most daunting problems, including an aging workforce, a shortage of young workers to fill vital jobs, rising rates of poverty, a shortage of decent housing, and a loss of jobs and tax income due to the closing of Vermont Yankee. Appointed to the Committee on Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs and the Committee on Education, Balint worked to develop legislation on the issues that had inspired her to run for office in the first place.
She sees four interrelated problems tied into the complex concept of affordability—an aging population, lack of workforce development, declining public schools, and inadequate housing stock. “We’re wrestling with really big issues in Vermont connected to our decline.”
Workforce development and education were the first issues that inspired Balint to run for office. “We’re not replacing our workers. We have this huge bulge of employees who are about to age out, and we don’t have enough young people in the pipeline to replace those jobs. That dynamic really opened my eyes to ask if we, as educators, are valuing all our students, especially those students who want to work with their hands, those students who want to take over their moms’ and dads’ businesses, whether it’s construction, plowing, or plumbing. My gosh, we need more plumbers and electricians. But what message are we sending our children from a very early age? What are we saying to kids about what’s valued and what’s not? I wish I’d had someone tell me, yes, being a woodworker is as valued as being a professor. In our very first caucus, we looked at issues of affordability, making sure people have the training and support they need to go after those jobs that pay a livable wage, middle-class jobs that can’t be exported, jobs that we need to keep our small towns viable. The state colleges have an important role here, especially Vermont Tech, but there’s so much more need. Many of us in the caucus would like to revive some of the old programs we had housed under commerce that related to tradespeople.”
Other problems continue to plague our school systems. “Declining enrollment puts incredible pressure on our small schools. That’s why I supported Act 46 [calling for district mergers]. This is an opportunity to really encourage partnerships so that one particular school district does not have to do it all. If you’re partnering, you increase educational opportunities for all students while allowing the smaller schools to stay open.”
“But we can’t improve enrollment issues unless people have houses to live in. Right now we have a housing crisis that affects different counties in different ways. In Rutland, housing is substandard because of population decline. No one’s there to keep them up.
Where I live, there is an incredible housing shortage across the board. When we talk about affordable housing, we have to mean affordable for all sectors, not just for low-income, subsidized housing. You can’t invite workers to come to Vermont if there’s no housing. But it’s very difficult to build new homes that people can afford because we have lost federal funding that used to pay for infrastructure such as water and sewer. Now municipalities have to figure this out.”
Affordability is clearly a tangled issue, one that leaves legislators like Balint wondering which lever to pull first. “Is affordability just about wage increases and livable wage jobs? No. Is it just affordable housing? No. Is it just tuition reimbursement or loan forgiveness that would help younger people be able buy a house? No. It’s going to take some long hard thinking about where we want to be in 20 years, and then slowly but surely putting those pieces in place so young families can imagine staying here to fill our schools and revive our towns. Heart-stopping stuff.”
With so many big issues to tackle, how does Balint propose to steer the Senate toward solutions? “I’ve been trying to figure that out in the last months,” she said. “The 30 of us in the Senate, some say, come from 30 different political parties. I understand that now in a different way. Everyone wants to be seen and valued, even those you meet who appear to be gruff or impatient or perhaps see right past you. At the heart of it, in any group of people, everyone wants a role that is personally fulfilling to them and allows them to be seen as valuable to the group. People get very discouraged when they don’t feel seen or heard.
“That’s why one of my goals in the first caucus meeting was to really hear from every single senator in the room. It was a wonderful role for me as an extrovert to deeply listen. I didn’t try to direct traffic. I didn’t contribute any ideas or visons because I wanted them to see me as a conduit for pulling together their ideas. Asking the right questions (as Speaker Mitzi Johnson has urged) is critical but even more so is not anticipating the answers. That’s something we do a lot in the State House. We think we know someone’s motivation. We think we know what they’re bringing to the table, and I think that’s what we do all the time as humans. We prejudge. So I want to put my extrovert part into idle so that I can figure out what dynamics I need to pay attention to.
“These political times take real courage. We need to help each other be courageous. We can often garner enough energy to be courageous in moments. What’s difficult is the long-term courage. We need to show our vulnerability and sometimes say uncomfortable things. It’s the ripples we each send out that give each other courage because it’s very difficult to face a ‘post truth’ world. We all have to be in.”
Senator Becca Balint is in for that long haul. As a gay woman, the child of an immigrant, an educator and a columnist, and the only legislative leader from the southern tier, Balint continues to bring a fresh perspective to the committees and the legislative body as a whole. Her courage and her willingness to be vulnerable, especially when the going gets tough, make her a role model for other women leaders—those who are already serving Vermont and those who are still dreaming.
Susan Z. Ritz lives, writes, and works in Montpelier.