Missing from Vermont's congressional delegation? Diversity

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It’s the not-so-secret, disturbing-to-many fact of Vermont politics. Despite a reputation as one of the most liberal states, it has never sent a woman or a member of a minority group to Congress. And in its 230-year history, only one woman has served as governor.

Vermont began carrying the mantle as the only state that has not sent a woman to Congress in 2018, after Mississippi Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith was appointed to the U.S. Senate. She was elected to a full term in November.

“This is our story, and it casts a long shadow on our nationally perceived status as a leader on issues of equality,” said a Jan. 25 letter to the state’s press corps, which has since been signed by more than 500 people. Former Democratic governors Madeleine Kunin, Howard Dean and Peter Shumlin also signed it.

The makeup of Vermont’s congressional delegation was highlighted last month when U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat who is 80 and serving his eighth term in the Senate, was rushed to the hospital while preparing to preside over the second impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump.

He later said he had experienced muscle spasms. He was quickly sent home and, as president pro tem of the Senate, presided over the impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump.

In the past 30 years in incumbent-friendly Vermont, there has been only one opening in the delegation, in 2006, when former U.S. Rep. Bernie Sanders succeeded Jim Jeffords as a U.S. senator. At that time, Peter Welch, then the president pro tem of the state Senate, won election to the state’s only U.S. House seat by defeating Martha Rainville, who had been the first woman to lead a state National Guard.

Since then, the three men – all white – have easily won reelection.

Now Leahy is approaching his 81st birthday, and Sanders will be 80 this year. Welch, at 73, is the youngster of the delegation.

Leahy is up for reelection next year. He has not yet decided whether to seek a ninth term in the Senate. Sanders is up in 2024 and Welch next year. They have not announced their reelection plans.

During their years in Washington, Leahy, Sanders and Welch have well-represented Vermont’s interests in Congress, a body that rewards seniority, said Deb Markowitz, who served as Vermont secretary of state from 1999 to 2011 and who ran unsuccessfully for governor in the 2010 Democratic primary.

“They are all aging, and there will be change,” said Markowitz, who is now the state director of the Massachusetts branch of the Nature Conservancy. “You know, maybe it’s in two years, maybe it’s in four, maybe it’s in six, but there will be opportunities for people to move up.”

Vermont was staunchly Republican until hippies began moving to the state in droves in the 1960s. Now its liberal emblems include socially conscious ice cream maker Ben & Jerry’s and Sanders, the repeatedly reelected political independent who identifies as a democratic socialist.

The state has many female political leaders on a state level. The Democratic posts of lieutenant governor, speaker of the House and president pro tem of the state Senate, and top Republican leadership posts in the state House, are all held by women.

But the lack of gender and racial diversity in Congress is what prompted Natalie Silver to ask Vermont’s political reporters to pay more attention to the ideas of female candidates. Silver, a fixture in Vermont political circles for more than a decade, had the idea and co-wrote the open letter.

Silver, now a law student in Washington who has voted for all three members of Vermont’s current delegation and believes they have served the state well, said the issue is about more than just electing women to top offices.

“It’s not meant to call out candidates and say, ‘Your time is over.’ It’s about saying we want to have a conversation about who candidates are, about their ideas, about what they stand for,” Silver said. “We don’t want to talk about their gender.”

While the letter focuses on women, she said, others are working to help members of minority groups get involved in politics in Vermont, which is also one of the whitest states.

“It’s not just that there aren’t women; we don’t have any diversity,” Silver said.

After Leahy’s illness, Republican Gov. Phil Scott, a white man, was asked about who he would appoint if there were an unexpected opening in the delegation.

He said he would follow his own precedent for filling state legislative seats and appoint someone from the same party as the person whose departure created the vacancy, but he did not mention whether that person would be a woman or a member of a minority group.

The idea of a sudden opening in the Vermont delegation also followed Sanders’ run for president and, more recently, his consideration for a spot in the Cabinet of President Joe Biden.

Meanwhile, Markowitz said women, people of color and others will rise up to fill openings as they happen. It could be someone already well known or it could be someone who is still making a name for herself or himself.

“When those openings happen, I believe we are going to have a lot of good choices of women and people of color for these positions,” she said. “I believe there is a thirst for that in Vermont.”

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