BRATTLEBORO — As she prepares to become president pro tem of the Vermont Senate, Becca Balint recently took a step one might expect from a former middle school and college history teacher: She gave her fellow senators a bit of homework.
“I asked each of the senators to write a paragraph or two about their home districts really representing what’s the most critical issue that their constituents are facing,” Balint said in a recent interview. “I wanted them to see their work through the eyes of their constituents. And then I can use that perspective.”
The idea, she said, is understanding where the other 29 members of the Senate are coming from, and what might drive agreement or disagreement on a given proposal.
“Maybe it’s actually not about ego or someone wanting to be right, that it’s about them representing the interests of their people back home,” she said.
The request is just part of Balint’s preparation for becoming the state Senate’s 82nd president pro tem. If she’s elected by her colleagues on Wednesday as expected, Balint will make history in the process, as the first woman and openly gay person to hold the position.
The common thread in the answers she received, Balint said, was “anxiety that people are feeling about having their basic needs met” as the COVID-19 pandemic wears on. The responses confirmed what she’s heard from housing advocates and community food shelves, she said. And it’s particularly true for people working service jobs, in the hard-hit hospitality industry, and especially for women Vermonters, who were hardest hit by layoffs.
“People are in survival mode,” She said. “It’s hitting certain sectors much more painfully than others.”
State Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington, said he appreciated Balint’s approach in engaging members on their constituents’ greatest needs. He said his goals are to keep working for hard-hit small businesses and the hospitality industry in Bennington County, assuring the COVID-19 vaccination rollout, and addressing need through the latest federal coronavirus relief package.
“I want to make sure our constituents are not going hungry, are not being closed out of housing, and are not cold,” he said.
Campion said he’s “excited” by the prospect of Balint leading the Senate. “She’s intelligent, she’s committed, and she has her eye on Southern Vermont, which is very important to me,” Campion said. “She knows Southern Vermont and wants Southern Vermont to thrive.”
Asked about how she intends to lead the body, Balint cited the work of business theorist Margaret Heffernan, who has spoken about creating a healthy creative environment in the workplace. “The way that you do that is by really cultivating the individual interests and talents of people and not set it up as a competition,” Balint said. “And I think about that a lot — that we all do our best work, when there is room for debate and disagreement, and really elevating the skills that each individual person brings, but also their perspective that they’re coming from.”
Balint also wants to cultivate and encourage a culture of trust in the Senate.
“I truly believe that trust is critical for doing good work. And it’s not built in grand gestures. It’s built in tiny little moments, when we show curiosity about each other’s lives, when we are compassionate while also being fiercely passionate about issues,” she said.
“And I want to give permission to people to have fun,” she added. “I want people to bring their full selves into their work.”
Balint, a Brattleboro resident and mother of two, is starting her fourth term as one of Windham County’s two senators in the 30-person state Senate.
“When you’re trained as a historian it gives you the perspective of the long arc of history and how long social and cultural change can take,” Balint said. “As a teacher, as a gay woman, I thought I’d never be in this position … it gives me a sense of joyfulness about it because finally I am doing the thing I always wanted to do. When you feel joyful you’re more forgiving of yourself or others.”