Kesha Ram becomes first woman of color in Vermont Senate: Here’s what to know

Kesha Ram is back in politics, even though it never felt like she left. 

On Tuesday, Democrat Ram became the first woman of color elected to the Vermont Senate, placing her alongside five other state senators for the Chittenden County district.

Ram came in third in the six-seat Chittenden District with 46,504 votes, according to unofficial results posted on the Vermont Secretary of State election website. All six seats in the district were won by candidates backed by the Democratic Party or both the Democratic and Progressive parties.

For Ram, born to an Indian father and Jewish American mother, the push to get people of color into state office doesn’t stop with her election.

“I want to turn around and help recruit the first Indigenous woman, the first Black woman,” she said. “Many other firsts and seconds and onward so that we can have a robust conversation and no one is seen as monolithic.” 

The state has struggled with a lack of diversity in politics for some time.

Kesha Ram, who previously served in the Vermont House of Representatives, ran in 2020 for state Senate. Oct. 23, 2020.

Kiah Morris, a Democratic state representative from Bennington, was the only Black female lawmaker in Vermont when she resigned in 2018. Morris faced harassment during her time in the House from “a self-described white nationalist.”  

More than 94% of Vermont’s population is white. In Chittenden County, where Ram won, this number falls to 90.3%. 

Ram, originally from California, studied at the University of Vermont and served as student body president. She hit two milestones in 2008: Graduating and running for the Vermont House. She won a seat as the country’s youngest legislator, but took a break from politics after she lost the 2016 Democratic primary race for lieutenant governor.

More:Meet the major party candidates seeking to represent the Chittenden district in the Vermont Senate

State Rep. Kesha Ram, D-Burlington, launches her campaign for lieutenant governor Monday evening, Oct. 26, 2015, at One Main Street in Burlington.

Now she’s ready to switch gears. 

“To do this well in a state Senate race in the largest county in the state, I think signals that people are ready to listen, they’re ready for change,” she said. “And maybe they’re ready to risk something, because so often equality is felt as losing something when you’re in the majority.” 

Running for Vermont office during a pandemic

Ram’s Senate bid launched before COVID-19 hit Vermont. The politician had an early objective of reaching at least two-thirds of her fundraising goal before the warmer months, when she typically likes to focus on meeting people. 

“I did not know how fortuitous it would be that I had a real cushion going into March and April,” Ram said. “I, like many Vermonters and Americans, was not thinking about politics except in terms of how it affected my personal safety and the public safety of our country.”

In May, the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, while being held by police sparked nationwide conversations and protests around race. 

Rep. Kesha Ram speaks at a rally against the arrests of undocumented workers by ICE agents on Saturday, March 18, 2017.

The events also brought Ram unsolicited support, both a privilege and responsibility as she realized people wanted to not only see her change the visual makeup of politics but to also fight for justice. 

Kesha Ram’s goals in Vermont’s Senate

Ram doesn’t center her focus on one area, though environmental justice lies at the core of her passion. 

“It’s what drove me to get into politics in the first place,” she said. 

Ram’s platform also includes advocating for:

  • “Immediate economic stimulus” in light of the pandemic.
  • Access to high-speed broadband Internet.
  • Access to homeownership. 
  • Paid family leave. 
  • A higher minimum wage. 
  • Social and racial justice. 
  • Gun safety. 
  • Affordable higher education. 

The new senator sees the difference between Senate and House as an ability to pilot projects “that capture the imagination of Vermonters” more easily in the former. 

“I think a lot of what changes people’s lives in the Legislature isn’t driven by a law passing or a bill that’s introduced on the floor,” she said. “It’s driven by the budget being your moral compass for how you really make people’s lives better.” 

‘Hit the ground running’

Members from the Vermont House of Representatives, to which Ram elected in 2008, felt optimistic about her win.  

“Being in the Legislature with her, I got to see just how seriously she took the job and how hard she worked on a bunch of issues,” said Rep. Barbara Rachelson, D-Burlington, who started serving in 2013 and described Ram as a mentor. “I was sort of the rookie and she was so great to kind of collaborate with.”

Rachelson mentioned bills the two co-sponsored, including one related to revenge pornography and another on independent investigations into deaths or serious injuries involving law enforcement. The representative said she looks forward to partnering with Ram in a House-Senate capacity. 

Rep. Kevin "Coach" Christie, D-Hartford, introduces Democratic gubernatorial candidate Matt Dunne in Barre on Monday, Oct. 5, 2015. Christie spoke of his friendship with Dunne's parents, John Bailey Dunne and Faith Dunne.

Another lawmaker described Ram as an individual familiar with the legislative process and felt optimistic about her ability to “hit the ground running.”

Rep. Kevin “Coach” Christie, D-White River Junction, like Rachelson, co-sponsored bills with Ram, including one that favored “the establishment of the National Women’s History Museum in Washington, D.C.” Christie is Black and, like Ram, falls into a small pool of nonwhite legislators in Vermont. 

“She’s going to bring that clear understanding of what it’s like to be a person of color in Vermont,” he said. 

‘Probably going to make people feel uncomfortable’

Ram’s respite from politics gave her time to attend the Harvard Kennedy School and reevaluate what matters to her. 

“Nothing ever feels like a break for me from politics, ’cause I pay such close attention,” Ram said. “I feel ready to go back really energized and renewed.” 

Ram considered herself someone with a one-track mind when she was in her 20’s, when she spent much of her time in politics. During this period she felt herself shift from building consensus to maintaining the status quo after she received pushback from those around her.

Kesha Ram, who previously served in the Vermont House of Representatives, ran in 2020 for state Senate. Oct. 23, 2020.

Ram supported movements around Vermont, like getting Columbus Day changed to Indigenous Peoples’ Day, but considered wins like this largely symbolic. 

Ram has always been ready to address the issues some considered too sensitive to touch. She plans to tackle them even if the energy around her fades. 

“I have told people I’m not going back just to make friends and hold a seat,” she said. “I am probably going to make people feel uncomfortable.”

Contact Maleeha Syed at mzsyed@freepressmedia.com or 802-495-6595. Follow her on Twitter @MaleehaSyed89