Brattleboro's Balint seeks reelection to Senate

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BRATTLEBORO >> A little over 30 years ago, Becca Balint was asked what she wanted to do with her life.

"I had won a local award for citizenship so they were coming out to do this interview," Balint said of a newspaper. "I said I wanted to teach, write and that I really wanted to serve in some way in public office to improve people's lives. And it's been very satisfying for me."

Having just finished her first term, the Brattleboro Democrat said she hopes to continue to do good work for Windham County residents for another two years. She was still in awe over her winning her first election.

"We often don't think about the fact there's only 30 senators for the whole state and it's a tremendous honor to have one of those spots," Balint said. "I feel so grateful voters in the county took a chance on me. I wasn't much of a known quantity outside of Brattleboro. It's been a lifelong dream of mine to serve in this way."

Before being elected to the Legislature, Balint served on the Brattleboro Development Review Board and was a member of Representative Town Meeting. Also, she was a long-time teacher in the county.

Others may have been familiar with Ballint from reading her weekly column in the Reformer. The op-ed is on hiatus during the election season.

Balint was born on an army base in Germany. Her father came to the United States during the Holocaust and met her mother in Albany, N.Y.. After her father went to college through the Reserve Officers' Training Corps in Albany, he was stationed in Germany. That's when Balint was born. Her grandfather had died in the Holocaust.

"It's been a real treat for my dad to see me run for office but also a scary thing. He knows firsthand how unkind people can be to each other," Balint said. "When I first ran, he was proud but really nervous."

Balint's father would ask, "Do you really want to put yourself out there?" and say, "You don't know how people are going to treat you."

He asked Balint whether she had received any hate mail since becoming a senator. So far, she has not.

"I think he was concerned with me being an out-gay woman. I think it was hard for him to accept people would be kind and they've been extraordinarily kind to me and my family," Balint said. "I certainly understand his apprehension. His father was turned in by his neighbors so I think he has this feeling that under the surface, people you think are your friends and allies are not really."

Balint said she was drawn to run after witnessing the increasing levels of poverty in schools. Her children go to public schools in Brattleboro.

"I've been working really hard to improve economic conditions on the ground here in Windham County through housing initiatives for first-time home buyers, families just getting started," Balint said. "I've been working to have workforce development programs that close the gap. Jobs are open but there's a mismatch of skills for those jobs."

She hopes to improve the state's track record for students moving on to higher education. She was part of the effort that provided funding to enhance labs at Vermont Technical College.

Balint served on the Economic Development Committee in the Senate and assisted in establishing the Southern Vermont Economic Development Zone, which consists of Windham and Bennington counties. Currently, Bennington County is putting together a comprehensive economic development plan. Windham County already has one.

"We really share a labor shed. We need to think about partnering on a larger scale in the region," said Balint, who had seen a graphic on the "economic health" of the state that "showed us on a positive trajectory. But if you pull out Chittenden County, you saw a very different picture."

Balint understands people are struggling with health care in both access and affordability. She said she felt proud to secure funding for a study to see whether the state could offer health care to families for their children up to the age of 26. That would allow people "more flexibility in where they can relocate for jobs," she said.

In Windham County, small retailers worry about how the Vermont sales tax is taking customers away. Ballint plans to get data on this issue by the end of the year.

"There's a perception that people cross the river to do their buying," she said. "Through the economic development bill, we made sure money was set aside for the Joint Fiscal Office to do a sales tax study to look at the impact on all the counties in Vermont that are bordering New Hampshire."

As one of two legislators on the Fair and Impartial Policing Committee, Balint works with social justice advocates and police officials to look at "explicit or implicit" police biases in traffic stops. A subcommittee is bringing communities and police together to address the issue.

"We know that we've been very fortunate in Vermont to not have had a high-profile police shooting involving a person of color but our concern is that we need to do the groundwork now to continue to keep people of color safe in our state. That isn't enough to say we haven't had a situation therefore we haven't had a problem," Balint said. "There's a lot of energy around this issue."

Balint also hopes to bring residents who are incarcerated out of state back to Vermont. The effort would benefit the inmates and the state's economy.

Improvements around education in jail and housing after imprisonment are components of the issue.

"We have a significant number of Vermonters who have served their terms but have not been released yet because there's no appropriate or affordable housing for them," Balint said, adding that average Vermonters are also experiencing difficulties on this front. "We have a housing crisis at all levels in Vermont."

She wants to see "wraparound services" enhanced to help people in poverty get back on their feet. She called the opioid epidemic "the big elephant in the room" and said the average person does not know the extent of its effects on schools and families.

Balint was involved in bringing the paid-sick leave bill into law. She said she is proud to have worked with fellow Windham County Sen. Jeanette White, D-Putney, to create an additional way for someone to become certified as a dental practitioner in Vermont.

White is running for one of the two county seats. So is David Schoales, a Brattleboro Select Board member and Town School Board member who would be a newcomer in Montpelier.

This election, Balint is testing "a little experiment." Previously, she accepted checks from political action committees and other groups. She said the money came from organizations she believes in.

"I noticed on the campaign trail, it didn't matter where the PAC money came from. The details didn't matter. People wanted me to be able to say I haven't taken any PAC money or money from businesses," Balint said. "I'm trying to do that this time around."

She said she already returned several checks, somewhere in the range of $2,000 and $3,000. She is trying to get campaign funding from individual donations alone.

"I think that's what voters want, to know their voice is just as important someone else's. A PAC shouldn't have my ear more than they have," Balint said. "It's also an experiment because only 15 percent of Americans will ever give to a candidate."

Call Chris Mays at 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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