Leahy Retirement May Result in Vermont’s First Woman in Congress

  • Rep. Peter Welch may run to replace longtime senator
  • Several women mentioned as possible candidates

Sen. Patrick Leahy‘s decision to retire provides an opening for Vermont to shed its distinction as the only state that’s never sent a woman to Congress.

If Rep. Peter Welch (D) runs to succeed Leahy in the Senate, the race for Welch’s statewide congressional district in the Democratic-leaning state may include one or more female officeholders. Potential candidates for either seat include Lt. Gov. Molly Gray, state Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint, and state Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale, all Democrats.

Vermont’s status as the only state to never send a woman to Congress owes mostly to its small size, with only one House member since the 1930s, and its male incumbents serving a long time.

Photographer: Samuel Corum/Bloomberg
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) speaks during a news conference with other Senate Democrats at the Capitol on Nov. 2.

Read More: Patrick Leahy, Longest-Serving U.S. Senator, Won’t Seek Re-Election

Leahy is the longest-serving senator in Vermont history. His colleague Bernie Sanders (I) has been a senator since 2007 and was Vermont’s House member for 16 years prior to that. Welch succeeded Sanders in the House after the 2006 election, winning a competitive race over Republican Martha Rainville, the first woman in the National Guard’s history to become a state adjutant general. Jim Jeffords, a Republican-turned-independent, was senator for 18 years before Sanders and was Vermont’s House member for 14 years.

“In Vermont, there’s not been high turnover or opportunity when it comes to congressional seats,” and that has “created a real gap in women’s representation in the state,” said Kelly Dittmar, a political scientist at Rutgers University-Camden and the director of research at the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP).

Even as men dominated the state’s federal offices, Vermont amassed a better record than most states electing women to state legislative offices—frequently a stepping-stone to Congress.

In every year from 2007 to 2018, Vermont ranked first or second among the 50 states in the share of state legislators who were women, according to statistics compiled by CAWP. Vermont now ranks 8th, with women accounting for 42.2% of legislators.

Gray is among 17 women currently serving as lieutenant governor, and Beth Pearce has served as Vermont’s treasurer since 2011. Madeleine Kunin, Vermont’s Democratic governor from 1985 to 1991, was the first woman to win three general elections for governor.

“Many think of Vermont as a friendly state for women in politics, but women haven’t had the opportunities to run and win at the federal level,” Dittmar said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Greg Giroux in Washington at ggiroux@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Kyle Trygstad at ktrygstad@bloombergindustry.com; Bennett Roth at broth@bgov.com

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