By Michael Shank
This commentary is by Michael Shank of Brandon, an adjunct faculty member at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs.
To all the older white men potentially queuing for the 2022 election for U.S. Senate to represent Vermont, please step aside. Speaking as a white man to the handful of you who might run, I urge you to make space.
Vermont is the only state in the union that has never sent a woman to Congress. It’s long past time that we did. And as we work to dismantle pervasive systemic racism in this state, what a powerful message it’d serve to send a person of color to Congress, given that Vermont has never that done that either.
There’s been a lot of chatter among politicos, press and the public regarding whether U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy will run again next year, and whether Gov. Phil Scott, U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, or Attorney General TJ Donovan will vie for the open seat if Leahy retires. How inspiring it’d be if all three of these older white men would, instead, place their privilege, platform and power in service to a female candidate, a transgender or gender nonconforming candidate, and/or candidate of color.
Given the complementary historical privileges afforded white men and incumbents when running for office, these three older white men could easily take advantage of these privileges, seek power, and, based on data trends, have the vote inherently skewed in their favor. And yet what “win” for Vermont would that garner? Little more than to send the message, yet again, that change is a long time coming for Vermont.
Contrast that with what message could be sent by sending a woman, a transgender or gender nonconforming person, and/or person of color to the U.S. Senate. At a time when Vermont is struggling to institute basic policies of inclusivity and equity within its communities and curricula — with white Vermonters pushing back on equity policies in schools, cities and towns and actively defending racist mascots and systemic racism in law enforcement and more — the election of a woman of color, for example, could send a strong signal that Vermont is working toward more diversity, inclusion and equity.
In fact, the election of a woman of color would send three messages immediately.
First, it would send the message that Vermont is finally ready to join the rest of the country in ensuring that Congress more closely represents the whole of America.
Women are still woefully underrepresented in Congress, at just one-quarter of all congresspeople. While that’s a new record, we’ve got another 25 percent to go until we’re seeing more equal representation in Congress.
For Phil Scott, Peter Welch or T.J. Donovan to vie for Leahy’s seat would send the message that equal representation is not a priority for them, that this underrepresentation isn’t something they have a responsibility — in their privileged positions as white men — to redress. Conversely, if all three men would explicitly state their concerns with Vermont’s heretofore all-white-male representation in Congress, step aside, and fully support female candidates, transgender or gender nonconforming candidates, and candidates of color, it would send a powerful message to America that this is how we begin to change inequities in the system. Systemic bias — which have privileged white men for too long — needs active stepping aside and space-making.
Second, it would send the message that Vermont recognizes the social and economic policy benefits that come with more diverse leadership.
We know that corporate leaderships do far better financially with more socially diverse (e.g., gender, race/ethnicity, and age diversity) and professionally diverse experience and representation. State leadership should be no different. As long as older white men are running this state — as U.S. senators, U.S. representative, governor and attorney general — their ability to understand and enact policy that attends to experiences outside their lived experience and privilege is limited.
And while white male leaders in Vermont have claimed they can fairly and justly represent others’ perspectives and experiences — and that to claim otherwise is dangerous — data tell a different story. If we want Vermont to thrive socially and economically, data tell us to diversify. It’s long past time we benefit — socioeconomically — from the incredible bench of diverse leaders in the queue.
Third, it would send the message that Vermonters are keen to put an end to the rampant racism and discrimination that currently characterizes the state.
Story after story of communities of color moving from their home — because they’re not safe due to racism and discrimination — shows how emboldened and unaddressed the racism is in Vermont. Study after study shows the discrimination and bias that plagues Vermont State Police, as one example, in racist stops, searches and arrests. Another story out this month shows, yet again, Vermont State Police — and the Department of Public Safety — discriminating against communities of color.
While electing a woman of color to represent Vermont in Congress wouldn’t change this system overnight — that’ll take a while — it would send the message that there is an active and powerful countervailing movement working to dismantle and transform it.
For Phil Scott, Peter Welch and TJ Donovan to step aside in 2022, and say no to a Senate run, is a big ask. Ego is a strong driver, and so is power.
But a more powerful move that brings myriad benefits to Vermont across the social and economic spectrums is for older white men not only to step aside but to support female candidates, transgender or gender nonconforming candidates, and candidates of color.
Imagine seeing these older white men campaigning for a woman of color across this state. How powerful that would be. What a message that would send. It’s time to step aside, gentlemen.