Christine Hallquist, a transgender woman, wins Vermont governor’s primary

Hallquist is the first transgender candidate to be nominated for a governorship by a major party, beating three other candidates in Vermont’s Democratic primary.

Christine Hallquist sits outside a polling location in front of Fletcher Free Library, in Burlington, Vt., Aug. 14, 2018.

BURLINGTON, Vt. — On a cloudy afternoon this summer, Christine Hallquist, a former utility executive from Vermont, listened closely as Danica Roem, the Virginia state delegate who won national recognition when she became the first transgender person elected to her state’s Legislature, offered tips as the pair canvassed a stark residential neighborhood here.

Hallquist is transgender, too, but Roem’s advice had nothing to do with gender identity. Try a light, rhythmic knock. Leave a handwritten note with campaign literature if no one is home. Try to earn every vote.

“I have so much to learn,” Hallquist said, duly incorporating Roem’s lessons with each new knock.

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On Tuesday, those lessons paid off, and Hallquist, a Democrat, made history of her own. She became the first transgender candidate to be nominated for a governorship by a major party, beating three other candidates in Vermont’s Democratic primary, according to The Associated Press.

“Tonight, we made history,” Hallquist said, addressing supporters at an election night party in Burlington. She added, “I am so proud to be the face of the Democrats tonight.”

It is a remarkable milestone, even for an election year already dominated by an influx of women and a record number of candidates who identify as lesbian, gay, transgender or queer.

“Christine’s victory is a defining moment in the movement for trans equality and is especially remarkable given how few out trans elected officials there are at any level of government,” said Annise Parker, the chief executive of the LGBTQ Victory Fund, which trains and supports gay and transgender candidates, in a statement on Tuesday evening. “Yet Vermont voters chose Christine not because of her gender identity, but because she is an open and authentic candidate with a long history of service to the state, and who speaks to the issues most important to voters.”

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Hallquist was not the only transgender candidate on the ballot in the country in recent days. In Hawaii on Saturday, Kim Coco Iwamoto, a lawyer, lost her bid to be the Democrats’ nominee for lieutenant governor.

And more transgender candidates will be on the ballot soon, including Alexandra Chandler, a former naval intelligence analyst who is running in Massachusetts’ 3rd District. Chandler is trying to differentiate herself in a crowded congressional primary in early September by emphasizing both her national security bona fides and the historic nature of her candidacy. “I’m running for Congress,” she said in a recent campaign video, “to be a voice for trans kids out there.”

The Democratic primary in Vermont was a fairly sleepy affair, with no big-name contenders to block a first-time candidate like Hallquist. But from here, her path to the governor’s office could be a narrow one, even though she is a Democrat running in a deeply progressive state. She faces a Republican incumbent, Phil Scott, who is running for his second term with history on his side — Vermonters have not thrown out an incumbent governor since 1962. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates the seat as “solid Republican.”

Scott’s popularity fell, however, especially among conservatives, after he signed gun control measures this year. Still, a poll in July by public media organizations in the state found two-thirds of Vermonters supported the law, and nearly half of Democrats had a favorable opinion of Scott. Only 18 percent of Democratic respondents in the same poll said they had a favorable opinion of Hallquist, and 55 percent did not yet know who she was.

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That may change now that Hallquist is the nominee, and she is likely to draw national attention — and fundraising dollars — because of the historic potential of her candidacy. “She’ll raise more money and her message will get out there more,” said Eric Davis, an emeritus professor at Vermont’s Middlebury College. “Even if she doesn’t get elected governor, the greatest contribution of her campaign could be to raise awareness about the issues transgender people face.”

Before she ran for governor, Hallquist spent 12 years as the chief executive of the Vermont Electric Cooperative, an in-state power utility she helped to bring back from near ruin. Her transition from male to female took place in 2015, while she was at the helm of the company, and was the subject of a documentary film made by her son.

As a candidate, she made it part of her stump speech, drawing knowing laughs from her female supporters at a fundraiser this summer as she talked about what it was like to experience life as a woman for the first time.

“I remember the first time after transitioning, a stranger walking by told me to smile — I’m like, ‘Who the heck are you to tell me to smile?’” Hallquist said. “What my transition has taught me is just how far we have to go.”

But she also emphasized her experience with energy and infrastructure, and made speeding up internet access, which lags in some rural parts of the state, a key campaign pledge. Previous governors have made similar promises, but failed to fully deliver. On Tuesday night, she also called for progressive keystones like universal Medicare and stemming climate change.

Hallquist — who voted for Scott in 2016, according to the newsweekly Seven Days — also sought to tie her victory to the broader Democratic backlash against President Donald Trump.

“This,” she said, “is a reaction to 2016.”

With 96 percent of precincts reporting by late Tuesday night, Hallquist had easily beaten a Democratic field of other little-known candidates, including Ethan Sonneborn, a 14-year-old who garnered 8 percent of the vote.

In a statement, the Republican Governors Association posted an image of Hallquist and called her “wrong for Vermont.”

Vermont is a socially liberal state that in 2000 became the first in the nation to establish civil unions, and Hallquist’s gender identity seemed to fade into the background for many voters.

Deborah Billado, the chairwoman of the state’s Republican Party, suggested it would not figure into the general election in a major way.

“I’m not sure why that plays a part in this — we’re talking about two human beings that are running for an office,” Billado said, referring to Hallquist and Scott. “I think that’s as far as the conversation should go.”