hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues February-March 2023


Balint puts focus on housing, mental health

New congresswoman for Vermont sees chance of bridging partisan gap


Rep. Becca Balint, the first woman elected to represent Vermont in the U.S. House, was sworn into office in early January. Courtesy photo

Rep. Becca Balint, the first woman elected to represent Vermont in the U.S. House, was sworn into office in early January. Courtesy photo


Contributing writer


Vermont’s new member of Congress says the nation’s housing and mental health needs are two initial areas where she’d like to focus her legislative attention.

U.S. Rep. Becca Balint, a Democrat elected in November on a progressive platform, says efforts to address both issues have the potential to draw broad support across political and geographic lines.

“Housing has been very important to me throughout my time in the Vermont Legislature,” she said in a telephone interview in mid-January.
Despite the widespread view that the House is sharply divided along partisan and ideological lines, Balint said she is convinced there are areas of agreement between its political factions.

“There are always going to be people on the TV trying to grab the headlines,” she said. “But the real work of Congress is getting done quietly behind the scenes.”
Housing, she said, is a complex issue.

“We have to be creative,” Balint said, adding that successfully expanding the supply of affordable housing will require pursuing more than one approach.

One strategy, she said, is to push for federal funding for water and sewer infrastructure in rural communities. Infrastructure is essential to accommodating new housing, she explained.
Another strategy is to increase the construction of accessory dwelling units, which are secondary apartments constructed on the property of a single-family home.

Among mental health issues, Balint said she wants to focus on alleviating the shortage of psychiatrists and psychologists in Vermont and elsewhere.

Balint said she recently visited a high school in Vermont where students told her there are waiting lists of up to six months for counseling sessions. This is particularly problematic at a time when students are still dealing with the trauma of the Covid-19 pandemic, she said.

Balint said she has spoken with several incoming House Republicans and will be looking to build alliances on these issues with open-minded GOP members of the committees on which she serves.

“I am looking forward to finding these partners wherever they may be,” she said.
Democratic committee assignments had not yet been announced as of Jan. 27, though Balint told television station WCAX in December that she hopes to serve on the Financial Services Committee.


Teacher turned lawmaker
Balint, a former middle school teacher who has lived in Brattleboro for 15 years, represented Windham County in the state Senate from 2015 through the end of 2022 and was the Senate president for the past two years.

She has two masters’ degrees in education and rides a motorcycle. Balint, 54, was born in Heidelberg, Germany, and raised in Westchester County, N.Y. She first came to Vermont in 1994 to teach rock climbing and moved to the state permanently in 1997.

She was elected in November to Vermont’s at-large U.S. House seat, defeating her Republican opponent, Liam Madden, by more than 35 percentage points. The seat was open because Democratic Rep. Peter Welch was running to fill the seat of U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, who retired after 48 years in office.

The 2022 election marked only the third time in 40 years that Vermont’s lone House seat had been open. Welch had held the seat for 16 years, and Vermont’s other U.S. senator, Bernie Sanders, held the House seat for 16 years before that.

Balint took the oath of office at 1:04 a.m. on Jan. 7, after a delay that lasted several days while the chamber’s new Republican majority struggled to unite behind a speaker.

Her parents, siblings and supporters from Vermont, who had come to Washington on Jan. 3, when the swearing in was originally scheduled, wound up returning home, disappointed at missing the milestone event.

“My spouse and kids did stay to the bitter end,” Balint said. “It is an incredible honor to be sworn in. I didn’t lose the enthusiasm.”

Balint is married to Elizabeth Wohl, a lawyer, and they have two children.


Defending abortion rights
Since winning the election, Balint has aligned herself with other progressive Democrats in Washington. Even before she was sworn in, she was appointed in December as vice chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, a position that put her in charge of recruiting other House freshman to the caucus. The group of about 100 progressive House and Senate members had contributed $5,000 to Balint’s campaign.

Balint’s first speech on the House floor, on Jan. 11, was on the topic of abortion rights.
“The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade was dehumanizing and dangerous,” Balint said, according to a transcript of the one-minute speech. “It does not reflect the will of the majority of Americans who deeply value control over their own bodies.”

Balint went on to talk about her role, as Vermont’s former state Senate president, in protecting reproductive freedom as part of the state constitution. That effort led to a constitutional amendment the state’s voters overwhelmingly approved in November to guarantee “an individual’s right to reproductive autonomy.”

The first House legislation Balint co-sponsored also is related to abortion rights. The proposed bill, H.R. 286, would establish a federal grant program for health care providers to improve physical security and cybersecurity for their facilities, personnel and patients. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, who introduced the legislation, said in a news release that the bill is a response to threats at abortion clinics.

Balint’s choice of abortion rights as the topic of her first speech on the House floor, rather than a topic more specific to Vermont, demonstrates her interest in being a national voice on progressive issues, said Matthew Dickinson, a political science professor at Middlebury College.
“That’s something less to do with her constituency,” he said, explaining that the right to abortion is already settled law in Vermont.


New voice, new tone
Balint’s election, as has often been reported, is groundbreaking in that she is the first woman and also the first openly gay person to represent Vermont in the House.

Political action committees focused on gay rights contributed $32,100 to her campaign, representing about 12.8 percent of the total PAC contributions the campaign received, according to Federal Election Commission reports.

There are now 13 openly gay, lesbian or bisexual members of Congress — 11 in the House and two in the Senate, according to the Pew Research Center. That’s up slightly from nine in the House and two in the Senate in the last session of Congress.

Dickinson said Balint’s election represents a shift to the left in ideology from Welch, who he said leans left but is closer to the center politically.

“She brings a noteworthy shift in terms of our regional representative,” Dickinson said. “I think it signifies the change of politics in Vermont.”

Bill Owens, a former Democratic congressman from Plattsburgh, N.Y., also noted a shift in tone from Welch to Balint.

“She’s clearly very progressive, whereas Peter Welch was closer to the middle,” Owens said.
“I had one conversation with Peter about her” amid last year’s campaign, Owens added, “and he was appropriately supportive.”

He said Balint’s rise reflects that fact that Vermont has shifted further to the left politically in recent years.

“She clearly fits in,” Owens said.
Balint won a Democratic primary in August against Lt. Gov. Molly Gray, who campaigned as a moderate, and two other candidates.


Cross-border contrast
Dickinson said that by staking out a prominent role on progressive issues, Balint could offer an interesting contrast with Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, a pro-Trump conservative who represents Owens’ former district on the New York side of Lake Champlain.

“It is something to juxtapose their rhetoric just during the first month of the House session,” he said.

The stark difference in the prevailing political mindset on either side of the lake was clear in November’s election results. Balint won 63 percent of the vote in Vermont, while Stefanik garnered 58 percent in her New York district, which extends the length of the Vermont state line.
It wasn’t so long ago that there was room for collaboration between House members on opposite sides of the state line.

Welch often worked with Owens, who left office at the end of 2014, and with former Rep. Chris Gibson, R-Kinderhook, who left office at the end of 2016, on legislation relating to the Canadian border, international trade, the environment, agriculture, and to some extent, immigration, Owens said.

That informal alliance mostly did not continue after Owens and Gibson left office. But Welch and Stefanik did co-sponsor legislation addressing invasive species in the most recent previous congressional session, and the two worked jointly on funding for Lake Champlain water quality protection.

Dickinson said that despite their ideological differences, there are opportunities for collaboration between Balint and Stefanik on issues of significance in both states — such as agriculture, transportation and Lake Champlain water quality.

“There’s a certain reciprocity in all those,” he said. “That wouldn’t necessarily mean they are working cheek to jowl so much as they are part of a coalition.”

Balint said her parents live in the Saratoga County town of Clifton Park, so she follows New York politics closely.

She said that, as of Jan. 20, she had not yet met with Stefanik or any other member of the House Republican leadership.


The loyal opposition?
Dickinson said that, with Republicans now in control of the House, Balint might have more success in drawing attention to progressive issues rather than in passing specific legislation.
In votes cast over the first few days of the new Congress, he pointed out, none of the legislation that Balint voted in favor of passed, and none of the legislation she voted against failed.
“Becca is just going to be the loyal opposition, for a while, in this Congress,” Dickinson said.
Of the legislation and resolutions Balint had co-sponsored by Jan. 20, none had Republican co-sponsors.

But there are still some priorities — and interest groups — that transcend party lines.
A review of Federal Election Commission reports shows, for example, that there were five political action committees that contributed to the campaigns of both Balint and Stefanik over the course of the 2021-22 elections cycle. The National Beer Wholesalers contributed $5,000 to Balint and $7,500 to Stefanik; the American Dental Association contributed $2,500 to Balint and $7,000 to Stefanik; the Council of Insurance Agents and Brokers contributed $5,000 to each candidate; the International Union of Operating Engineers contributed $5,000 to each; and the National Association of Realtors contributed $5,000 to Balint and $7,000 to Stefanik.
Dickinson predicted Balint likely will continue the focus she had in the state Senate on issues such as housing, women’s equality, the environment, paid family leave and boosting the minimum wage.

“She’s a big advocate for addressing climate change,” he added.