Molly Gray in Bennington

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Lieutenant Governor Molly Gray talks with community members during a meet and greet at Loose Cannon Cafe during her visit to Bennington, September 2021. 

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BURLINGTON — Citing her past Washington experience and commitment to Vermonters, Lt. Gov. Molly Gray jumped into the race for Congress on Monday, saying she’s ready to “fight like hell for Vermont.”

Gray, 37, an attorney and former assistant attorney general now in her first year as Vermont’s lieutenant governor, was the first to jump into what’s expected to be a crowded Democratic field to succeed U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt. Welch is running for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Patrick Leahy, who announced last month that he will not seek a ninth term in office.

Gray is the first of three women widely expected to seek the Democratic nomination for the House. Vermont Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint and Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale, also Democrats, are seriously considering a run.

Vermont is the only state never to have sent a woman to Congress.

“Vermonters are my motivation every day, and over the last year, I’ve been to every corner of the state hearing directly from Vermonters the needs that we have,” Gray said.

She listed those needs: “Our workforce crisis; a fourth of Vermont geographically still unable to get online; a disproportionate number of women leaving the workforce because of a lack of childcare, and a lack of paid family and medical leave.

“Those are issues that have to be fought, that will be solved by a strong federal partner, someone who’s ready to step up and lead on day one and fight for Vermont,” Gray said. “I understand the needs of Vermonters and I can be that champion for Vermont.”

In an interview, Gray emphasized her dedication to serving the state where she was born and raised, her experience in Montpelier and Washington in government and human rights and her success in running successful statewide campaigns as reasons voters should choose her as the Democratic nominee. As of Monday, Republican challengers for the seat — last held by the GOP in 1988-90, by Peter Smith — had yet to declare interest.

“What we know is that Vermont’s challenges will not be solved by our state alone. And we will need a strong partner in Washington to fill the hole that’s been left by Senator Leahy to fight for every corner of Vermont, from Guilford and Pownal all the way up to Canaan and Swanton,” Gray said. “I believe I have the skills and the experience and the ability to fight like hell for Vermont and for every corner of Vermont in Washington.”

Asked about the possibility of becoming the state’s first congresswoman, Gray highlighted the women’s issues facing Congress.

“We see reproductive rights under attack right now in the U.S. Supreme Court, and who we send to Washington will matter when it comes to codifying Roe v. Wade in federal legislation,” Gray said.

“We have women leaving the workforce at a disproportionate rate,” she said. “In Washington as Vermont’s Congresswoman, I will be fighting for paid family and medical leave. I will be fighting for universal access to quality, affordable child care. I’ll be fighting for a workforce that’s equitable. Representation matters, and that’s also why it’s so important to have a woman who is ready to lead, who understands the needs of our state and can win in November.”

A graduate of the University of Vermont and Vermont Law School, Gray clerked for the late U.S. District Judge Peter W. Hall in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. She worked for the International Committee of the Red Cross and Harvard Law School’s Counterterrorism and Humanitarian Engagement Project before returning to Vermont and serving in the criminal division of the attorney general’s office.

Gray is in her first year of holding office. She has interned for Leahy and worked for Welch on his 2006 election campaign and on his Washington staff.

Gray, who said she is “deeply proud” to have grown up on her family’s farm in Newbury, has several family and personal connections to Southern Vermont. She attended the Stratton Mountain School, graduating in 2002, before continuing to UVM as part of the university’s ski team.

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“My dad grew up in Putney. My grandfather had an eighth-grade education and helped build and run the Putney School as a handyman. My grandmother Mabel was the home economics teacher there. My mom’s from Marlboro and Dummerston. My mom’s father [Jack Mumford] founded Brattleboro Tire Service. My roots run deep in this state,” she said.

Gray’s uncle, William Gray, was U.S. Attorney for Vermont during the Carter administration and managed Leahy’s 1986 reelection campaign. He was born in Brattleboro and raised in Putney. He died in 1994.

In the 2020 race for lieutenant governor, Gray won the Democratic nomination as a political newcomer, with 44 percent of the vote, and went on to defeat Scott Milne in the general election. While she faced criticism for having not voted in presidential elections between 2008 and 2016, Gray’s performance showed strength in building statewide support — she won the primary despite not carrying Burlington — and in fundraising; her campaign pulled in a total of $424,250.

Even as she jumped into a new role, Gray kept her campaign machinery idling. She reported having raised just over $50,000 in the six months ending July 1, and hired a political adviser, Liz Brown.

But those funds, and the $20,727 Gray had left over from her run for lieutenant governor, can’t be used in the upcoming race. Federal election law prohibits candidates from transferring state campaign funds to their federal campaigns.

As of Monday morning, there was no listing for Gray’s campaign in the U.S. Federal Elections Commission database.

In 2006, the last election year in which Vermont’s U.S. House seat was vacant, Welch raised $2,066,308. The woman he defeated, Republican Martha Rainville, a retired Major General in the U.S. Air Force, raised $921,655. Welch won with 53.2 percent of the vote (139,815 votes) to 44.5 percent (117,023).

As lieutenant governor, Gray has presided over the Vermont Senate and has advocated for policy initiatives that include extending broadband access and expanding the availability and affordability of child care.

Last month, she released the results of her “Recover Stronger” listening tour, in which she crisscrossed the state talking to residents about what Vermont needs to rebound from the COVID-19 pandemic. That report identified workforce development, housing, child care, paid family and medical leave, mental health and internet and cellular service as priorities, based upon meetings in 29 communities in all 14 counties.

Vermont’s lone congressional seat was last open in 2006, when current U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders opted to run for the Senate seat being vacated by the late Jim Jeffords.

Gray’s decision means Vermont will elect its third lieutenant governor in six years in 2022. Before Gray’s election, David Zuckerman held the office for two terms from 2017-20.

Among potential challengers, Ram Hinsdale congratulated Gray on deciding to run, and said the announcement marks the start of Vermont voters’ “job interview” for the position. Balint declined to comment Monday.

“Today represents Vermont’s opportunity to start vetting the candidates. I believe there will be more, “ Ram Hinsdale said. “It’s critical this person represents Vermont’s interests and fights for democracy and civil rights for our entire country.”

Ram Hinsdale said she will continue to listen to Vermonters’ concerns as she prepares for the 2021 session, and is “looking forward to my continued exploration for a run for Congress.”

Greg Sukiennik covers government and politics for Vermont News & Media. Reach him at gsukiennik@benningtonbanner.com.

Greg Sukiennik has worked at all three Vermont News & Media newspapers and was their managing editor from 2017-19. He previously worked for ESPN.com, for the AP in Boston, and at The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, Mass.