Independent U.S. senator and progressive firebrand Bernie Sanders has been traveling the country rallying support for like-minded congressional candidates as midterm primaries draw near.
But on Sunday, he was back home in Vermont for a three-stop tour of rallies in Rutland, Montpelier and Burlington, where he went to bat for state senator and Democratic U.S. House candidate Becca Balint. It was Sanders’ first major move to support Balint, who is vying to become the state’s first congresswoman, since he endorsed her in early July.
In Rutland on Sunday morning, a trail of Balint campaign signs along Main Street led to the downtown gazebo where a crowd of more than 50 people gathered for the event. Balint made clear she knew she didn’t have the same starpower as the former presidential candidate.
“I know some of you don’t know who I am and you’re coming out to see me for the first time,” she said. “So I want to say: my name is Becca Balint and I’m running for Congress.”
Bob Perkins, a 95-year-old World War II veteran from Rutland Town, said he hadn’t made up his mind which primary candidate would get his vote when he first arrived Sunday morning. He had received pro-Balint campaign material in the mail but was otherwise unfamiliar with her.
Perkins, however, is an ardent Sanders supporter. Wearing a campaign T-shirt from Sanders’ first run for the U.S. Senate in 2006, he quipped, “I’ve been on the right side for a long time.” He trusts Sanders’ word and left the Rutland event convinced he’d vote for Balint.
“Whoever Bernie likes, I’ll probably like,” Perkins explained.
Vermont’s primary election is just over a week away, on Tuesday, Aug. 9, and early voting is already underway. Balint is competing against two fellow Democrats, Lt. Gov. Molly Gray and Dr. Louis Meyers, for the seat being vacated by Democratic U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, who is running for the U.S. Senate. This year marks the first open congressional race in Vermont since 2006.
“In this race, the race is in the primary,” Balint told the crowd Sunday, imploring them to vote. “Whoever wins this primary is going to be the next congressperson, and I hope it’s me.”
When Sanders addressed the crowd, his voice boomed through Rutland’s downtown, drowning out the sound of passing cars. To the applause of the crowd, he covered his usual progressive talking points in his speech: wealth inequality, health care affordability, student loan debt, abortion access and more. And he said Balint was the candidate in the primary field that he wants to see in Washington, D.C., to take on those priorities.
Sanders has “a personal interest” in the matter, he said: With only three members in Vermont’s congressional delegation, whoever prevails in the primary and general election will work closely with Sanders on Capitol Hill, “and I absolutely want one of them to be Becca.”
“This country today sadly faces an unprecedented number of crises,” he told VTDigger after the morning event. “And it’s imperative that we have people in Washington who are prepared to think outside of status quo thinking, who are prepared to stand up to very powerful special interests who dominate the economic and political life of this country. And I think Becca will be one of those people.”
Asked if he believed Balint’s chief primary rival Gray wouldn’t do the same, he declined to answer.
“I don’t want to get into that,” he said. “I’m here to support Becca.”
Jeff Bruce, a 29-year-old from Rutland City, told VTDigger that he liked both Gray and Balint. Bruce said he was familiar with Balint’s work in the Legislature and had voted for Gray when she first ran for lieutenant governor in 2020.
But he classified himself a “huge Bernie supporter,” and Sanders’ endorsement of Balint was a major determining factor in his decision to vote for her. After Sunday morning’s event concluded, he stood in line for a photo opp with the senator, Balint yard sign in hand.
Balint told VTDigger that Sanders’ supporters trust his endorsement because “they have faith that Bernie is not going to bullshit them, right? He just cuts through it.”
“I think that’s because the person that Bernie is as a leader and as a politician is the same person that he is in-person. There’s no false front,” Balint said. “And I think, I hope, that people also see that in me — that the person that they have met out in the community and in the Statehouse is the same person you’re seeing on the campaign trail.”
Several hours and roughly 70 miles later, Balint and Sanders followed roughly the same scripts on the Statehouse steps in Montpelier — Balint’s usual turf. The crowd of roughly 200 at the capital city rally was a who’s-who of Vermont politicos: former Sanders campaign staffer and Balint supporter Julia Barnes, state Sen. Andrew Perchlik, D/P-Washington, Democratic candidate for state treasurer Mike Pieciak, Necrason Group lobbyist Rebecca Ramos, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Brenda Siegel, Montpelier mayor and state Senate candidate Anne Watson and others. And Sunday evening, roughly 300 attended a third rally in Burlington.
Last week, a poll conducted by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center suggested Balint had a commanding lead over Gray, with 63% of respondents saying they’d cast their Democratic primary ballots for Balint and 21% for Gray. Thirteen percent remained undecided. The margin of error was 5%.
In Rutland, Balint told VTDigger that the numbers were “jaw dropping,” but she said she remained skeptical. Balint said she was telling her supporters, “Don’t believe the poll. Don’t believe the hype.”
“The kiss of death for any campaign is to be like, ‘We got this,’” she said. “So we’ve been really trying to hammer home for everybody, until we have the votes, it’s not real.”
But hours later on the Statehouse steps in Montpelier, Balint appeared more confident in that “hype.”
“If you had told me a year ago that I would be standing on a stage with Sen. Sanders, nine days away from a primary election in which I seem to have the lead,” — she threw her head back and laughed as the crowd cheered — “I would not believe it. I couldn’t imagine it.”
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