Christine Hallquist sailed to victory Tuesday night, beating three other opponents in the Democratic primary in Vermont to become the first transgender person to be nominated for a governorship by a major party. Hallquist’s win is already historic, but her status as a trans woman is by far the least exciting thing about her.
As the former CEO of Vermont Electric Cooperative, Hallquist saw the fight against climate change was her life’s mission — but then came 2016. She counts herself among the Pink Wave, one of the incredible crop of first-time candidates spurred to action by the rise of the divisive politics of Trumpism. She is also one in a smaller wave of trans candidates inspired to run up and down the ballot (from city council to now Governor) following the rise of increased political attacks on trans Americans in recent years, from transphobic bathroom bills to rollbacks in protections for trans kids at school. At the same time, Hallquist says the bigger thing driving her run are the mistakes the Democratic party made in abandoning poor Americans, especially rural ones, which helped create the way for Donald Trump in her opinion. Her plan for the state of Vermont is centred around righting those wrongs — and in the process, re-imagining not just what a politician looks like, but what politicians should use to measure success.
“My passion in life was to fight climate change, and our company was pretty effective at proving that could be done,” she says. “While doing that, we served 18 of the 25 poorest communities of Vermont. One thing I learned from that was we’ve got to solve economic justice issues if we are going to mitigate climate change.” To this end, she supports Medicare for All, the $15 minimum wage, criminal justice and police reform. But the central idea of her platform for Vermont is a plan to bring broadband internet access to every home and business, especially to the rural areas that need it most. One of her campaign promises is to “measure economic success by how it’s impacting the bottom 20% of the economic ladder,” she says. “I really think we need to change our definition of success to looking at how what we’re doing is benefiting those who are the poorest.”
Refinery29 caught up with Hallquist on Thursday, following an outpouring of support and international media attention, for a chat about her political awakening, what her win means for the trans community, and why she regrets voting for her opponent in 2016, the popular Republican incumbent, Gov. Phil Scott.
How does it feel to make history?
“I’m certainly humbled and honoured. I’m also very aware with all this coverage that we’re under a magnifying glass. People are going to be poring over everything we say. We really have to run a perfect campaign. We have an incredible campaign team, of course, so I think we can do it.”
It seems like a fine line you have to walk between running on important issues while also running as a representative of a minority group. Do you feel extra pressure to represent the trans community?
"We worked really hard to win the election. We knew we would get media coverage. But there were over 3,000 news stories across the world — it blew my mind.
"But here in Vermont, it’s all about the issues. It’s not at all about me. Here in Vermont, [my being trans] is not an issue.
“Of course, otherwise, we have a lot to focus on in relation to marginalised communities. For example, we have the highest concentration per capita of African American males incarcerated. We have policing issues, [and fixing those] will be part of the work as Governor. But that said, we have some of the best LGBT protection laws here in Vermont.”
Do you think the media attention is a sign people are ready for a trans governor?
“I think it’s a sign that we’re ready. To be honest, right now I can’t keep up with all of the messages we’re getting. I think I have to declare social media bankruptcy. But what I do know is that the overwhelming majority of messages, 9 out of 10, are telling us that our positive message of hope is something that is needed right now. Our campaign has always been focused on hope and aspiration. We want to talk about the best of Vermonters and the best of what we can do for Vermont. And I think that message is taking hold: this idea that we need to get out of the politics of division and focus on what’s important to all of us.”
You’ve got a long CV as an engineer, then a CEO. You transitioned in 2015. Why decide to go into politics now?
“When Trump got elected, we also got a Republican governor here in Vermont. [I voted for him.] I didn’t anticipate that things would go the way they did. I thought he was a nice guy.
“On Nov 8 2016, in the evening I went into a political depression and stayed there until January 20 which is when I went down to Washington D.C. and marched with 650,000 others at the Women’s March. I felt pretty pumped up that day, because I felt like, Wow we’re really going to unify and be able to resist what’s happening. But then of course things just got worse. A couple of months later, I marched again in the climate march. And things got worse again.
“I was in denial in 2017, I think, because I believed Vermont was a cocoon, that we’d be protected. But by 2018, I had realised that our governor was using the same tactics that the national GOP was using, focusing on division and fear. He’s driven a lot of division and fear into our state. He’s trying to tear down our public education system. So in 2018 I woke up and said I can’t sit by and watch.”
What message do you have for young women and young trans kids that may want to go into politics?
“I think we all have to stand together to represent our communities and we have to stand proud and not have fear. We can’t let fear stop us at all. Fear held me back for 40-plus years of my life, and I broke out of that fear and miracles are happening. Now those miracles, I don’t take credit for all of those miracles. I only take credit for having the courage to be who I am. The thousands of Vermonters who fought before me for what’s right and just are responsible for the rest. I’m riding on their shoulders. So my message to young people — trans kids and young women — is you should think about riding the shoulders of those who came before you. We will support you.”
Part of your plan is high-speed internet for rural areas. Can you explain why that is so crucial?
My plan for Vermont is highly intertwined, and a lot of it comes from things I learned trying to fight against climate change. If you look at the platform, I focus first of all on rural economic development. Rural development is important because we’re having the same problems the rest of rural America is having: 56% of America’s land mass is rural by definition, and seeing increasing rates of poverty, flight to the cities and an ageing demographic. This is the same thing that was happening in the 1930s, when the cities had electricity and rural America did not. And how the rural electrification occurred — and forgive my bias, but I think it’s one of humankind’s greatest accomplishments — is we added a wire to every home and business. So what we want to do now: We will run fibre optics to every home and business, so all Vermonters can be connected to the internet at the same speed as large cities.
Do you think that the Democratic party forgot Rural America? Do you think that’s in part what led to Trump?
“I definitely do. Of course, we have ignored rural Americans, and I’m surprised the Democrats left them because we have always been about representing those who are lowest economic on the ladder. Somehow in 2016 we lost that message.
“I look at my own political activity. I worked hard to get Obama elected. I went over to New Hampshire to canvass for him, and my family was then invited to the inauguration. We went down, and it was a very proud moment for us. I really believed democracy had made it, that we had reached this great place, where from here on out we were going to be an aspirational country, working towards the rights of all marginalised communities. But my mistake was I then walked away. I realise now that democracy is fragile. We all have to stay heavily involved to keep it safe. Donald Trump is a classic despot, like a third-world Banana Republic leader. He’s going to start by attacking the most marginalised communities, but he won't stop there. No community should feel safe when other communities are being attacked.”