When Kesha Ram Hinsdale began serving in the Vermont House of Representatives in 2009, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) sent her a note.
Written on congressional stationery, it included a photo taken from one of her 2008 campaign events, showing Ram Hinsdale, then 21, in a lush, green sweater, her hair pulled back, in conversation with the senator and his wife, Marcelle Pomerleau.
“Kesha — Proud of you!” Leahy had written underneath the photo. She keeps the note by her desk at home.
“My history as a young person in politics is very intertwined with knowing his story of going to Washington at a very young age and serving us for a majority of his lifetime,” said Ram Hinsdale (D-Chittenden), who became the first woman of color to be elected to Vermont’s state Senate last year.
On Monday morning, Ram Hinsdale watched from Berlin as Leahy, 81, announced his resignation from the Senate. First elected in 1974 at 34, Leahy is the Senate’s longest-serving Democrat, and had been considering running for a ninth term next year.
“It’s time to put down the gavel,” Leahy said from the Vermont State House in Montpelier on Monday. “It is time to pass the torch to the next Vermonter to carry on this work for our great state.”
While Leahy leaves behind a storied legacy in the small state, many — including Ram Hinsdale — are hopeful that his exit leaves the door open for Vermont to make some long-awaited history: electing its first woman to Congress.
Vermont, especially in recent years, has developed a reputation for being liberal, particularly on social issues — which is why outsiders may be surprised to learn it is the only state that has never sent a woman to Congress.
There are a couple reasons why this is true, said Elaine Haney, executive director of Emerge Vermont, an organization that recruits and trains Democratic women in the state to run for office.
“There has been a sort of … stasis to senior leadership in Vermont because our delegation in Washington has served for a very long time, and they are overwhelmingly elected every time they run,” Haney said.
Because the state is so small — recent U.S. Census Bureau estimates place its total state population behind cities such as Boston and El Paso — Vermont has just one congressional seat to pair with its two Senate seats. And Vermont voters are largely happy with all three long-tenured lawmakers, noted Haney: Rep. Peter Welch (D) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) each earned 67 percent of the vote in their last elections. Leahy won his most recent election in 2016 with roughly 61 percent of the vote.
As Haney put it: “Incumbency is a big deal in Vermont.” And as a 47-year veteran of the Senate, Leahy’s figure loomed especially large over the state’s political landscape.
“We can’t find another example to compare to how well he has served Vermont,” Haney said. “There’s been a big conversation here for a long time now about, ‘Well, if we don’t have Senator Leahy, then who’s going to deliver for Vermont?’ ”
Altogether, Leahy, Sanders and Welch have spent a combined 91 years in Congress. But the popularity of the three means the state’s congressional delegation looks vastly different from even its statehouse.
As the 19th News reported earlier this year, women hold the top three positions in Vermont’s legislature, helping to make it the state with the highest percentage of women in legislative leadership (83.3 percent), according to the Center for American Women and Politics.
And with women making up 42.2 percent of all state lawmakers, Vermont comes in eighth in the nation on CAWP’s 2021 ranking of statehouses with the most women.
With Leahy deciding not to run for reelection in 2022, the stage is set for at least one, and possibly two, seats to open up to a number of qualified women. If Welch opts to run for Leahy’s seat, that could open up both a Senate and House role to a newcomer. In either scenario, whether Welch chooses to run for Senate or to keep his congressional seat, someone would have to challenge the popular politician.
“This is a huge moment for Vermont and an opportunity to put forth someone as a representative who is a more accurate reflection of the people who live in Vermont,” Haney said.
Ram Hinsdale is one of three Democratic women who recently confirmed to the Vermont weekly newspaper Seven Days that she would be interested in running for Congress if a vacancy arises. Also included on that list are Lt. Gov. Molly Gray (D) and Vermont Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint (D-Windham).
Ram Hinsdale said she has “no fire in the belly” to take on Welch in a primary, adding that he has a “very clear path to the Senate seat.”
Her plans to run for Congress are “contingent on Welch making his plans known,” she added.
If Welch does choose to run for the Senate, “I do think that we will see a spirited race for the congressional seat — and one that features a lot of women demonstrating their capacities, passions and experiences,” Ram Hinsdale said. “And I think that will be a really positive experience for Vermont.”
As the first woman of color to serve in the state Senate, Ram Hinsdale added she’s witnessed firsthand that “it really means a lot to Vermont to be part of the national conversation around the changing face and lived experiences in our democracy.”
Haney agreed, noting that Vermonters take pride in how much the small state exerts its influence on national politics.
“We’re very proud of being on the vanguard on many, many things that other states look to Vermont for in terms of new laws and policies,” she said. Vermont’s constitution was the first to abolish slavery. It led the country in legalizing same-sex civil unions and, in 2018, was the first state legislature to legalize marijuana.
That’s also why many in the state are frustrated it’s the country’s lone holdout to send a woman to Capitol Hill.
“It’s high time that women were better represented,” Haney said. “To not have a woman represent us in Congress since 1791 doesn’t speak well to our ability to represent the entire population.”