By Xander Landen/VTDigger
In 2005, when Christine Hallquist was named CEO of the Vermont Electric Cooperative, the utility was veering toward bankruptcy. It led the state in the number of power outages, a dubious distinction. Its rates were among the highest in Vermont. The Public Utility Commission considered revoking the co-op’s license to operate as a public utility.
Hallquist said that may be why she got the job.
“I think the only way a person with my experience could get into utilities was to go into one that was just about bankrupt,” she said.
Hallquist, 62, had worked for the cooperative for seven years as an engineer. She had been employed before that as a manufacturing manager at Digital Equipment Corp. A major player in the American computer industry until the 1990s, Massachusetts-based Digital had a plant in Burlington. She was also a consultant for large corporations like the Miller Brewing Co., the Keebler Co., and Honda Motor Co.
Hallquist had no experience as a CEO. Nevertheless, she turned the struggling utility into a thriving rural electric cooperative with national name recognition for cutting-edge business practices. Speaker of the House Mitzi Johnson, a Democrat who served on VEC’s board for three years, said Hallquist’s financial management, strategic investments and focus on customer service turned the utility around. The co-op is now the state’s second largest electric power provider, serving 32,000 households in the state’s most rural northern counties along the Canadian border.
It’s not unlike the situation she is in now. Hallquist, who left the Vermont Electric Co-op earlier this year, has never held statewide public office. Her government service consists of commitments to several local boards and her annual role as town moderator in Hyde Park where she resides.
That lack of experience hasn’t deterred her. The Democratic gubernatorial candidate said she saw no reason not to go for the state’s top job.
The governorship is similar to running a business, Hallquist said. And that’s a role to which believes she is well-suited.
“The residents are hiring me to do a job,” Hallquist said. “And the job is what’s the reputation of our state? Do people like to move here? Do people like to live here?”
“Do we have the money to get things done? Are we adequately funding our water cleanup, are we adequately funding everything we need to do?”
In recent weeks, Hallquist’s campaign has gained momentum. Though hardly a household name in progressive politics — Hallquist said she voted in the 2016 election for Republican Gov. Phil Scott — she won the endorsement last month of Justice Democrats. The national progressive political organization backed the campaign of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 28-year-old activist Democrat who beat incumbent New York City congressman Joe Crowley in a stunning primary upset in June.
Hallquist also is making political history of a more personal nature. Having begun a well-publicized transition from David to Christine, in 2015 while she was still head of VEC, she is the first openly transgender candidate to run for governor in the United States.
Even so, a VPR-Vermont PBS poll released in July showed that only 41 percent of Vermonters had heard of her. While she fared better than her Democratic opponents, the low name recognition is an obstacle for her candidacy.
As governor, Hallquist said she would support a number of progressive policies, including a $15 minimum wage and paid family leave, and that she would pave the way for a universal health care system.
One feature of her platform that distinguishes her candidacy from that of her competitors is a bold plan to expand high-speed internet to every home and business in Vermont. According to Hallquist’s plan, installation would be turned over to electric utilities that, unlike telecommunications companies, already have the equipment, the staff and the expertise. It would cut the cost of installation by a third, she said.
“These small companies are losing money on their infrastructure,” Hallquist said of rural telecom businesses. “If you can cut those costs by two-thirds and put them on someone else’s books, now you can compete.”
It’s this kind of out-of-the-box thinking that gives Hallquist her reputation as a shrewd business leader.
When she first took over as CEO, she made a decision to abide by the same union contract as her employees — she received the same raises, and negotiated her benefits.
“That’s the way it should be,” she said. “That’s the way you’re going to get maximum engagement. Because we’re all truly pulling together.”
She said she encouraged her employees to take risks, which spurred innovation. VEC was one of the first electric utilities to install smart meters, she said by way of example, which allow ratepayers to track how they use energy.
“She managed from the bottom up, so everybody is involved and has a say,” said Val Davis, an IT specialist at VEC. “She directs people and leads but gets out of the way.”
“When people feel like they’re being lorded over and there’s ego that drives everything, it’s counterproductive to people being their best,” Davis said. “She empowers people by listening.”
Hallquist admits that her leadership style, at VEC and in previous positions, could be seen as unconventional. As an example she cites an interview with Honda Motor Co. — for consulting work in corporate leadership — during which she directed an exercise that had top executives throwing rubber chickens to one another.
When she was told she had the job, she asked what had set her apart. “He said ‘Because you’re the only one who made it fun,’” she said.
“When you’re excited … you actually do a lot more work.”
For and against renewables
As governor, Hallquist says she would move forward with the state’s goal of 90 percent renewable energy by 2050. To get there, she said, she would endorse the Solar Pathways Vermont plan, a blueprint developed by the Vermont Energy Investment Corp. that calls for the use of more electricity for heat and transportation systems and for the installation of more solar and wind projects.
Hallquist has opposed renewable energy projects in the past. She has argued in testimony at the Statehouse more solar arrays and wind turbines should only be added if the state improves its storage capacity.
Hallquist said, in fact, that the state’s power grid lacks capacity now, and cannot accommodate the energy generated by existing wind and solar projects.
“When the wind’s blowing and the sun’s shining, we have to shut generation down,” Hallquist said. “So putting more renewables into northern Vermont will not help Vermont achieve its renewable goals.”
In 2013, she called for a moratorium on renewable energy projects in the Vermont Legislature. She asked lawmakers to consider a three-year freeze on new projects to come up with a solution for excess renewable electricity.
Tony Klein, chair of the House Natural Resources Committee at the time, said Hallquist opposed projects that she felt could lead to rate hikes for her members.
“Oftentimes there would be a conflict,” Klein said. “If we were going to push the envelope, there was a real possibility for the short term that it could have a negative rate impact. So she was very clear to defend that, as I expected her to be.”
When Hallquist proposed the moratorium, Klein said, he pushed back, saying her messaging strategy was too focused on how the grid in the Northeast Kingdom couldn’t handle more renewable energy projects. What she should have given more time to, he said, was what options were available to modernize the grid so that it could accommodate more renewable energy.
“When I pointed out the optics to her, she realized that. And that’s a good quality. And the tune changed. That’s not what she was meaning to do,” he said.
Hallquist said VEC pursued solar and wind projects because the state and members of the cooperative wanted them.
“The nice thing about running for governor is you get to be yourself,” she said. “But that’s not the case when you’re the head of an electric cooperative. You’re doing what the members want. So the members wanted renewables and we built them.”
Klein said of all the candidates for governor, Hallquist has the best knowledge of renewable energy, and she has the skills to bring about an expansion of Vermont’s renewable energy industry, which her opponents lack.
“She is really, really smart,” Klein said. “And I really, really enjoyed it when she came before the committee, because she could give as good as she could take.”
Corporate cash conundrum
Hallquist has come under fire from political opponents and some Democratic voters for her decision to accept $16,000 in donations from three companies: real estate firm Barrett Singer, animal food manufacturer Green Mountain Animal, and the Vermont Telephone Company (Vtel).
While she said she will no longer accept donations from private companies. She announced on Monday Aug. 6 that she would give back the $16,000, after pressure to do so from her leading competitor in the race, James Ehlers.
“After watching Phil Scott take large sums from Monsanto and other out-of =-state corporations, it has become clear that my leading on this issue of campaign finance resform is more important than ever,” she said.
Her campaign manager Cameron Russell said her announcement was a move the campaing could only make after it could make up for lost donations.
Prior to the announcement, she said she was relying on the money to pay her unionized campaign staff, and that the donations came from friends who happened to sign company checks.
The job of the gubernatorial nominee, she said, is “to pull people together.”
“I’m going to abide by their rules,” she said. “It’s not the candidate’s job to tell the party what to do.”
But if elected, she said, she would be committed to tightening campaign finance laws and outlawing corporate political donations in Vermont altogether.
“We can talk about setting new rules for the next election, let’s do that and codify it into law so that the Republican Party has to live with it as well.”
First transgender candidate
Hallquist’s notable run as the first transgender candidate for governor has brought her national media attention.
Her transition, which began in 2015, was covered extensively in local media outlets and in a documentary,
“Denial,” created by her son, Derek. Derek had set out to make a film about on Hallquist’s work in the energy field, but after she came out to the public, it also became a film about her transition.
Hallquist came out to her family in the late 2000s. Growing up in rural Baldwinsville, outside Syracuse, New York, she always knew she was different.
“I remember when I was 11 years old my mom dressed me up as Little Red Riding Hood, and I said ‘Mommy I want to be a girl,’ and she said, ‘Never say that again,’” Hallquist said. “It turns out they put people in mental institutions at that time for that.”
Hallquist is accustomed to fielding questions about gender identity in debates, and in interviews with reporters.
“It’s an important question, and so I don’t shy away from it,” she said. “Just like you’re a woman running for office, I say I’m a transgender woman.”While some may view her candidacy as a human interest story, she doesn’t think a factor for Vermont voters. “Vermonters are going to hire me based on what I offer to them,” she said, “Not based on my gender.”
Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Christine Hallquist talks to union organizers on the UVM nurses picket line.