When Christine Hallquist took over as CEO of the Vermont Electric Cooperative in 2005, the member-owned utility was by all accounts in choppy financial waters.
By transforming the corporate culture, Hallquist says, she was able to right the ship. And if elected governor, Hallquist says she’ll bring that same brand of leadership to state government.
Politics is new territory for Hallquist, who says she decided to run for governor after attending the Women’s March in Montpelier last year. But Hallquist says the same lesson that defined her career as a utility executive is the one that qualifies her to serve as Vermont’s governor.
“As a leader, you own the culture. The culture starts at the top,” Hallquist says. “And that lesson sticks with me to this day.”
When Hallquist took over the reins at the Vermont Electric Cooperative, the utility was still reeling from the ill-fated power deals that led it to file for bankruptcy in 1996. She says she applied the leadership skills she honed as a corporate consultant - “the key one is to drive out fear in your organization” - to restore the utility’s reputation with ratings agencies, and with its customers.
“We went from triple B-minus with a negative outlook … to A-plus rated,” Hallquist says. “And we cut our outages by more than half. And I will tell you that’s all because of culture.”
Jack Slagle, who lives in Belvidere, spent 16 years on the Vermont Electric Cooperative’s board of directors. He was part of the executive committee that recommended the utility hire Hallquist as CEO, and says the situation was dire when she arrived.
“The co-op was in really rough shape,” Slagle says. “The bond rating was bad. Everything was bad.”
Slagle says Hallquist invigorated the utility with a new kind of energy: “Kind of intense, really creative problem-solver kind of person.”
“And I think that’s, you know, one of her great strengths,” Slagle says.
Slagle says he gives Hallquist much of the credit for the utility’s turnaround.
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“You know, if you have good, solid, hardworking employees that are happy, you get a better job done ... And that’s not always the way managers approach things, and it’s something that I valued,” Slagle says.
Not everyone shares Slagle’s praise. Michelle DaVia, who lives in Westford, also served on VEC’s board of directors during Hallquist’s tenure as CEO.
“I can say that I am not a fan of her management style,” DaVia says.
DaVia says board confidentiality agreements prevent her from airing specific grievances, but says her concerns about Hallquist’s leadership intensified after Hallquist, who was once known as David, came out as a transgender woman in 2015.
“She became focused on her notoriety, it appeared to me, more than being the CEO of VEC,” DaVia says.
DaVia was vocally supportive of Hallquist’s decision to transition, and assured a reporter in 2015 that “it isn’t going to be an issue.”
DaVia, however, says it was an issue - not because Hallquist was a transgender woman, but because in DaVia’s view, she began devoting less time and attention to the utility.
DaVia isn’t the only person VPR spoke with who shared this sentiment; she was the only person to do so for attribution.
“She appeared to me to be using her position as the CEO of Vermont Electric Cooperative to promote herself,” DaVia says. “To me, her transition in her personal life is a complete non-issue, total non-issue. What she did with it and how it affected her as a CEO in self-promotion became a real concern for me, and an impact.”
Mark Woodward, who was elected to the VEC board of directors a few years after Hallquist was named CEO, says Hallquist does seem to enjoy the limelight. But he says her performance as CEO never flagged.
“Anybody that chooses to run for governor is not shy about being in front of people or being on a soapbox. And Dave was like that and so wasn’t Christine,” Woodward says. “I mean, look, she’s running for governor. You don’t want somebody that doesn’t have a strong sense of themselves doing that one way or the other.”
Hallquist, according to Politico, is the first openly transgender gubernatorial candidate in U.S. history. That distinction has certainly won her a brighter spotlight then the other three candidates on the ballot in the Democratic gubernatorial primary (a fifth candidate, John Rodgers, is staging a write-in campaign).
That fact that she’s a transgender woman, however, is also a potential political liability.
At a parade in downtown Barre last month, Hallquist tried to capitalize on the retail politicking that will be so critical in what could be a low-turnout primary.
Most of the people Hallquist approached were receptive, shaking hands and wishing her good luck. But a few shot daggers at the candidate, and in a couple of instances even turned their backs to her.
Hallquist’s adult son, Derek, was at the parade with a video camera in hand, gathering footage for a future campaign ad. He produced a documentary, called “Denial,” that chronicled Hallquist’s decision to come out as a transgender woman.
Derek Hallquist says he was afraid for Christine when she initially decided to go public with her gender identity.
“When Christine told me she was running for governor, these same fears all came back again,” Derek Hallquist says.
Derek Hallquist says Vermonters “on the whole”are very accepting.
“I feel like Vermonters share this ability to let each other live the life they want to live,” he says.
But the reactions of some people to Hallquist, he says, are a reminder that “with that comes hate.”
Christine Hallquist herself seems far less concerned with her detractors.
In an interview on a cable access show last July, she shared the story of a prominent figure in Lamoille County who told her he thought her transition was “weird.”
“I said, ‘Weird? You don’t think I know it’s weird? I’ve been living with this my whole life,’” Hallquist says.
Hallquist went on to say the best way she can advance equality for transgender men and women is to be patient with those who aren’t yet willing to accept them.
“So it allows me to be empathetic with somebody who might be hostile to me, because, yeah, I understand your feeling of 'weird', because you’ve never run into this before. But let me tell you about me,” Hallquist says.
That mindset, Derek Hallquist says, is emblematic of the way Christine Hallquist approaches all aspects of life.
“Speaking the truth has been important to her for as long as I can remember,” he says. “[Christine’s approach is], ‘I’m not going to fight back or I’m not going not argue with them, and I’m going to be patient and continue to try to educate them and not give up.’ And that’s really what’s powerful to me as her son, is that attitude of not giving up.”
Vermont’s 2018 primary election will take place on Tuesday, Aug. 14. The Vermont Secretary of State’s website has election-related information regarding voter registration, where your polling place is and more. Find VPR’s candidate interviews and profiles here.