Cass Gekas is the youngest major-party candidate running for statewide office this year. And before her surprise, last-minute entry into the lieutenant governor’s race, the Progressive-Democrat was largely unknown outside of Montpelier’s political circles.
Just 24 hours before the June candidate filing deadline, 30-year-old Gekas stepped forward to take on an assignment more seasoned Democrats had declined: a tough race against a popular Republican incumbent better known for stock-car racing than politics. Lt. Gov. Phil Scott was well liked heading into his first term, and has done nothing to lose pole position in the two years since.
Gekas spent years as a behind-the-scenes player in Montpelier — with lobbying firm KSE Partners and as the Vermont Public Interest Research Group’s health care advocate — before stepping onto the campaign stage. Political insiders know her as a knowledgeable young advocate for single-payer health care. Now the first-time candidate is trying to convince the public she’s ready to be Vermont’s second-in-command — and to run state government should the need arise.
“I think I really surprise [people] when they hear me speak, because they hear passion and knowledge and political savvy,” Gekas says.
Vermont’s lieutenant governor is a part-time, ceremonial job responsible for presiding over the state Senate and breaking any tie votes — but also for assuming the responsibilities of the governor, whether he or she is out of state, incapacitated or dies while in office. The last is how Howard Dean got the state’s top job.
It’s a role that voters see as both “meaningless” and “really important,” Gekas says. “On one hand, people are like, ‘What does the lieutenant governor do? He doesn’t even do anything.’” On the other hand: “‘Are you qualified to step in as governor?’ Which way is it?”
Promising to treat the $60,000-a-year lieutenant governorship as a year-round job, Gekas is hoping voters will see her as someone who could address the “vacuum of leadership” in the office. She’s pledging to keep Vermont on track to be the first state to enact a universal health care system and proposes using the office as a “think tank” when the legislature is not in session to build policy on affordable childcare, renewable energy and economic development. Gekas shares those priorities with Gov. Peter Shumlin, a connection she stresses on the campaign trail.
But Gekas worries the race won’t be decided on issues.
“I do wish that we focused a little bit more on what people have actually done with their position of leadership, and what they want to do, as opposed to who we would want to grab a beer with,” she says. “Because Phil is a nice guy, I don’t see people asking him a lot of questions or pushing back on him in meaningful ways.”
At 5-foot-9, Gekas is statuesque and striking. The self-described “policy wonk” is also disarmingly optimistic about her vision for the lieutenant governor’s office and the issues facing Vermonters. Chatting over coffee at a Burlington café, she puts her elbows on the table and leans in close. She’s ordered a salad, but in the end appears too engaged in the conversation to take a bite.
Friends and supporters describe her as a dedicated advocate who sends emails at 2:00 in the morning. “Her work ethic is amazing,” says James Moore, a former VPIRG colleague. “She definitely gives everything that she’s got, because she cares a lot about the issues that she’s working on.”
State Rep. Chris Pearson (P-Burlington), who helped recruit Gekas to run, calls her “an articulate champion of things she believes in.” Under Gekas, Pearson believes the lite gov’s office could be used, as it has in the past, as “a platform to raise issues that are currently being ignored.”
State Sen. Anthony Pollina (P/D-Washington) also helped draft Gekas. He says she understands grassroots organizing and thinks she could leverage that experience to help motivate more people, especially young Vermonters, to get involved in public-policy debates.
Adds Pearson, “I think representative democracy should be about including a broader range of voices, and Cass fits that bill.”
By her own admission, Gekas’ campaign is “scrappy.” Jumping in late meant most of Vermont’s experienced campaign managers had already been hired. So Gekas turned to Scott Kirby, a longtime friend with no political experience. Kirby’s a native New Yorker without a driver’s license, which means Gekas does all the driving. Their traveling office is a Subaru Impreza, the backseat of which is covered in dog hair. Gekas has two canines that she says “hate her right now” for being on the road so much.
It’s a campaign focused on personal interactions rather than ad buys — a reality necessitated by finances, but which Gekas says suits her style. Her preference for one-on-one conversations with voters may not be closing the name-recognition gap, but Gekas believes there’s an underground “buzz” around her candidacy.
“After people talk to me, they walk away 100 percent committed and excited,” she says.
In moments of candor, she acknowledges the campaign has had some “hiccups,” including “trying to do this with not enough time or money.” Three weeks out from Election Day, the “issues” section of her campaign website still has a note that reads, “Stay tuned for more!” When she and her campaign manager were sick with the flu, neither returned messages for several days.
Gekas is trying to make up for her lack of political experience with strong public performances. During a Vermont Public Television debate last week, Gekas was poised, easygoing and confident — as though the political newcomer had been campaigning for years.
But running has cost Gekas. She lost her job at VPIRG in a very public way. Her boss said she quit; Gekas maintained she was fired. In an email leaked to the news media, VPIRG executive director Paul Burns told the nonprofit’s board that Gekas’ decision to leave her job and run was “an utterly unprofessional and dishonest move.”
Asked how she’s getting by these days, Gekas replies, “I’m not, really.” She says she’s dipping into her savings, staying with friends and taking on a little freelance work to make ends meet. She’s even used campaign donations to buy clothes for her campaign.
“It’s been incredibly challenging. I’m sacrificing a lot of things … financial security, personal life. It’s been really difficult,” she says, pausing before pivoting back to the political. “It’s really opened my eyes to the challenges of running for office.”
Pearson, for one, thinks Gekas’ perspective — “struggling under the weight of student loans” — could make her a more attractive candidate, especially to young voters.
Gekas grew up in a large Greek and Italian family in Harrisburg, Pa., a place she calls “strip-mall country.” She developed an early affinity for politics and history and studied political science and women’s studies at Pennsylvania State University. She paid for her education by working 40 hours a week at a women’s health center.
After graduation, Gekas packed up her car and moved to Vermont — a state with which she’d fallen in love after just one visit. She had no job and just one friend here, whom she phoned on the drive up to ask if she could crash on the couch.
Gekas says she’d grown frustrated with the “road-blocked” politics in Pennsylvania and D.C. Vermont’s small size and sense of civil engagement gave her the feeling that “things were possible in Vermont that were not possible anywhere else.”
She worked a string of jobs — including in the University of Vermont development office, and at KSE — before landing at Hunger Free Vermont, where she wrote the $1 million grant proposal that allowed the state to bring all food-stamp applications online. She was also responsible for expanding food-stamp eligibility, discovering some 60,000 additional Vermonters who could receive nutritional assistance.
In Montpelier, she’s best known for her two-and-a-half-year stint as VPIRG’s health care advocate. In the June 14 email that followed her departure, VPIRG’s Burns said he believed that Shumlin had pressed Gekas into running — something the governor and Gekas have both denied. Burns was initially scathing in his assessment of Gekas’ odds, writing, “I hope [the governor] has a nice job waiting for her after she loses a race for which she is completely unprepared.”
Gekas says she went into the race with eyes wide open. “I’m not naïve. I was never naïve going into this. I knew what the odds were,” says Gekas. “I’m cynical enough to know that ultimately it’s sink or swim on your own.”
Four months later, Burns describes Gekas as an excellent employee with a strong working knowledge of the political process in Vermont.
That’s what gives former VPIRG colleague Moore hope. “It’d be one thing if she didn’t understand state government,” he says, “but she’s got that in spades.” But in a race where she’s outspent by a well-known incumbent, it’s hard to know how far policy chops and poise will get her. Already Gekas’ supporters are taking the long view.
“I think that ultimately, regardless of how this election turns out, she will have established herself as a voice in Vermont politics,” says Pollina. “She will have left her mark.”
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