Op - Ed
November 21, 2018

Reflections on the campaign of an unlikely candidate

By Cameron Russell

I met Christine Hallquist for the first time on Feb. 10, 2018, just over nine months ago. I grew up in Vermont, graduated from UVM, and left the state for a while after college. After returning home, I was involved with political work in Vermont during the 2014 and 2016 cycles. Most recently, as the Democratic Party’s coordinated campaign director in 2016, I managed the statewide field program for candidates up and down the ballot.

When I first heard the news that Christine was considering a run for governor, I knew that Vermont wisdom suggested her candidacy was doomed from the start. Christine had never held political office, she’s an openly transgender woman, and Vermont hasn’t unelected an incumbent governor since 1962. I hadn’t thought I’d be part of another political campaign, but when I heard that my name had come up as someone Christine might talk to when considering campaign managers, I reached out to Christine directly, suggesting that we meet and talk.

That first meeting, in a small cafe in Burlington, was the beginning of an amazing nine-month-long sprint and marathon of a campaign. Christine and I talked about our values, about why we believe what we do, and about our belief in people above all else. I think I asked more questions of Christine than she did of me. 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.

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Politics is a funny business: It should be about representation, giving voice to people who don’t have one, standing up for justice, making government work equitably and fairly for all. But when campaigning, the focus is always on one person — their ego, expertise, résumé, etc. Walking a line that evidences someone’s conviction and personal ability, all while framed in a candidate’s capacity to govern and best represent voters’ interests, is a very difficult line to walk. And that’s before you bring in sexism, racism, transphobia, and all the lenses through which the public and media will view someone’s candidacy.

The game of politics is more theater than we’d like to admit. After meeting Christine, I knew that her humility, conviction, values, and most importantly, her self-awareness, made her a candidate that I, and others, could and would believe in. I told her in our first meeting: “If I become your campaign manager, my job above all else, will be to make Vermont feel like they know Christine Hallquist as a person, a neighbor, a leader — that they know what makes you you.”

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Since the campaign started, we scrambled for legitimacy. We knew the odds were long and political history was stacked against us, but we ran into Democratic Party roadblocks as well. We had to start the campaign with one-on-one meetings with the political who’s who of Vermont – former governors and candidates, statewide and federal office holders, etc., making our case of why Christine should be the party’s candidate.

We had many frustrating and dis-empowering meetings, vitriol from the left and right, 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.

Throughout the campaign, Vermonters were focused on policy, not Christine’s identity as a transgender woman, but that doesn’t mean her transgender persona was not a challenge. From the countless unsolicited make-up and hair recommendations, to historically supportive donors deciding that 2018 was the year they’d sit out, there were sexist and transphobic realities we had to face. I am completely convinced that has Christine been a white male heterosexual candidate, her credibility as a viable candidate would never have faced the scrutiny it did.

Christine’s reality as a 62-year-old transgender woman is simply not one that Vermonters were immediately able to relate with – our job as a campaign was to make the connections without necessarily naming the challenge she faced. While we never made it a campaign issue, 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 getting fiber optic cable to every home and business, 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.

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Interestingly, Vermont politicos believed that we would receive measurable national monetary support, but that did not happen. We did receive small donations from supporters across the country, but the vast majority of our support came from within the state, both in number of donors and money raised. We did receive an uptick in donations post-primary that included some Vermont donors that have been historically supportive of liberal candidates, but not to the extent many believed would be the case.

We did have the backing of many national groups via endorsements, but not dollars. 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, both in endorsements and financial support.

We were never going to be able to compete with the over $650,000 put into Phil Scott’s race by the Republican Governors Association (mostly for television ads), 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 neighborhood 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 endless media requests for “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 Phil 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 Aug. 14, 2018, by winning the primary. Christine became the first openly transgender woman to be a major party candidate in history.

We researched, prepped for debates, and played a professional game with all of us first timers. 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.

On Nov. 6, 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 Vermonters’ propensity for giving first-time incumbents a second chance all culminated in the governor’s re-election.

Nonetheless, we achieved much even though the odds were stacked against us. Vermont, the nation, and maybe even the world now know Christine Hallquist and all of the humility, tenacity, brilliance and relentless pursuit of progress that make her 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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