Thursday, Becca Balint will be the first woman in Vermont to be sworn in as Senate president pro tempore and she is being described as, above all, a skilled communicator. Good. It will be the talent most in demand as the Legislature steers its way through the shoals of a pandemic strewn world.
Ms. Balint, a state senator from Brattleboro, was described in a Vermont Digger story as someone who listens, pays heed to the expertise of those who head the various Senate committees, and is a leader who gives more weight to the intent of legislation than a scorecard listing her wins and loses. These are all qualities essential to someone whose job it is to direct 29 other state senators.
The weakness of the story is that it’s set up as a comparative. She’s the first woman to hold the position. She’s the first openly gay woman to hold the position. She’s small in stature. She’s “open and warm. Almost to a fault.” The first sentence of the story reads: “Becca Balint knows some people don’t think she is ready to lead the Vermont Senate, and she thinks some of the 29 other state senators are among the doubters.”
So, from the outset Ms. Balint has to be twice as good just to be seen as equal. If a woman is said to be warm, it’s interpreted as weak. If a woman is not warm, she is seen as heartless. If she is not physically imposing, she may lack the necessary strength? If she listens, she doesn’t have an opinion of her own? These are comparisons that would never be made if the subject of the story were male.
Ms. Balint was quoted as saying: “It’s not lost on me that I’m kind of underestimated because I’m 5 foot tall and 98 pounds. People don’t always realize just how scrappy I am.”
Let’s hope we are long past the point of judging someone on their size and not what rests between their shoulders.
Which gets us back to her communications skills.
Former Senate Pro Tempore Tim Ashe describes her as a story teller, someone capable of explaining a bill’s impact by “putting it in human terms why we would do something or why we wouldn’t do something…”
That’s precisely the skill we will need as we try to sift between the various priorities before us. Most Vermonters don’t understand our choices and they don’t understand them because they are not explained in ways that are relatable.
Being able to articulate a cause in a way that prompts others to follow is a talent in short supply. Being able to take a complicated issue and tell it in a way that connects with how Vermonters live is high art. Pulling it off is the difference between wining and losing.
If communication is Ms. Balint’s skill then all the other comparatives fall by the wayside. Which is the way it should be. Male or female. Gay or straight. Old or young. This is how expectations should be managed. It’s how goals should be set. Most important, it’s what allows us to look far enough into the future to be able to plan with any sort of credibility.
It’s hard to think of a time when being a skilled communicator was more important.
by Emerson Lynn