Updated: 7 days ago
By Joshua Sherman, M.D
PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY MOLLY GRAY Molly Gray is a politician, lawyer, professor, and proud native Vermonter. As the newly elected Lieutenant Governor of Vermont, Molly aims to use her background in human rights law to advocate for the collective interests of Vermonters from all corners of the state.
To listen to the extended audio interview with Molly Gray, go to VTVOICES at OldMillRoadRecording.com
Sherman: Where were you born?
Gray: I was born in South Newbury on a vegetable and dairy farm. My older brother was born at Gifford hospital in Randolph, but my mother decided that she wanted to do a home birth for her second pregnancy. I was actually born on the farm with a
midwife. My younger brother was, as well.
Sherman: How did your family end up in Vermont?
Gray: During the campaign, I did a little bit of family research. On my dad’s side, I’ve been told that my great-great grandfather came to Vermont from County Leitrim in Ireland. He fought in the Civil War and represented Vermont for the Union. On my mom’s side, I believe that her ancestry is more of a mix of English and Irish. My grandfather founded Brattleboro Tire and spent a lot of time in Southern Vermont. My dad is from Putney. My mom is from Dummerston and Marlboro, so their roots go back to Windham County. I enjoy learning everyone’s story. I strongly believe whether you’ve been in Vermont for four days, four years, four decades, or four generations, it doesn’t matter. We’re all Vermonters at the end of the day, that’s important to remember.
Sherman: How did your parents meet?
Gray: My folks were both former ski racers. My mom went to Brattleboro High School and graduated early so she could race as a downhill skier. She made the U.S. Ski Team at a really young age and traveled overseas to race World Cups. After an unfortunate accident at Val-d’Isere, she came home to Vermont. She always wanted to have a farm, and I think she put a lot of the competitive drive that she had once channeled into her skiing into working the land. My dad was a cross country ski racer. He was on the U.S. Ski Team and raced in the ‘68 and ‘72 Olympics. He retired from skiing, and he and my mom started farming together in Hartland, Vermont. The farm today is called “Four Corners Farm” after the first farm they worked in Hartland (Four Corners). When they first met, they ran the farm in Hartland during the summertime, and in the winter, they ran a ski and touring center in Randolph. They did ski lessons and operated a rustic touring center for folks who wanted to come to Vermont and ski and sauna and enjoy what Vermont had to offer. Ultimately, they bought the farm in Newbury, where they still live today. Both of my brothers now help run the farm with their families. In any family business, there are a lot of hard days, but there are also a lot of shared successes. They work together well. The farm is a special place to me. It’s also a “one-stop-shop”, where I get to see my parents and brothers all at once.
Sherman: What was it like to grow up on a farm?
Gray: Growing up in the summer months, it was an “all-hands-on-deck” situation at the farm. I think a lot of my friends had summers where they went to camp or were on vacation, but at Four Corners Farm, my summers consisted of helping to pick vegetables, helping to run the farm stand, and helping to get produce washed and on the trucks for different farmers’ markets and stores. Friends who would come over to hang out and play, knew that coming to Four Corners Farm on a summer day most likely meant being put to work, but it was still a lot of fun. Although it wasn’t always easy, I wouldn’t trade my childhood on the farm for the world.
Sherman: How did you end up at Stratton Mountain School?
Gray: I went to Newbury Elementary School first and then Oxbow High School. I really got into skiing around that time. Growing up, we did a lot of skiing as a family. It was something we did with my parents - and not necessarily with our friends. In high school, I found out about Stratton Mountain School and Coach Sverre Caldwell, who was and remains a legend. I don’t think my parents even knew that I applied, at first! I remember filling out the application, sending it in, getting accepted, and then having to tell them that I wanted to leave home to attend a ski academy. It wasn’t what they necessarily had in mind, but we all went and met with Sverre together, and I ended up going. I will never forget my parent’s sacrifice to make my dreams possible. We sold vegetables from the farm to the school to help pay my tuition. I remain incredibly grateful to the school for letting us do that. I’m not sure it would have been possible otherwise.
Sherman: What were some of the most important lessons you learned at Stratton Mountain School?
Gray: Coach Caldwell tried to teach a lifestyle of sustainability. Not only were we training ourselves for the upcoming ski season, but also for whatever life goals we set for ourselves. We learned how to build mental and physical strength and endurance in a way that was gradual, enjoyable and sustainable. I was also surrounded by student athletes from around the globe who were part of the same experience. We all learned together, trained together, and rose to meet our challenges together. When not studying, we were outside. We ran on the Long Trail. We swam at Pikes Falls. We did time trials at the Ball Mountain Dam and on the track at Mount Anthony Union High School in Bennington. It was an extremely formative experience, and I grew to love southern Vermont in the process.
Sherman: When was the last time that you were back at Stratton?
Gray: I went back there during the campaign. It was like a walk down memory lane. I drove through the different areas where we used to roller ski and the places where we used to bike and train. I also had the opportunity to reconnect with classmates and their families, including D.J. Wassick, whose folks own Wassick Family Tire in Bennington; Andy Newell whose father David Newell helped on the campaign; and Carson Thurber, who is now back at SMS as the Headmaster. These classmates remain lifelong friends and I am inspired by the work they are doing in their communities and for Vermont. In the end, I think we all learned through our time at SMS how to care for each other, to fight for the things we care about, and to give back to the land and community that has given so much to us.
Sherman: What happened after Stratton Mountain School?
Gray: After I graduated from Stratton Mountain School, I was ranked as one of the top female skiers in New England and was offered a scholarship to ski for the University of Vermont. It was such a big honor. UVM was - and still is - one of the top ski teams in the country. I raced all four years as a proud Catamount. I’ll admit, it was not always easy. I had a full course load, plus double practices some days. I remember riding my bike to the ski room as the sun was rising, getting in the van, heading to the mountain, and getting back to campus just in time to sprint to my first class of the day. I focused my studies on international relations and political science and truly loved it. Ultimately, at the end of four years, my passion for government and international affairs took over. I was ready to focus the energy I had put into ski racing fully into a career.
Sherman: Do you think that your years as a competitive skier helped you to better navigate the challenges of a political campaign?
Gray: Someone once told me, “Molly, you know that if you focus on the trees, you’ll hit them, right?” With downhill skiing or mountain biking, you’ve got to focus on your line and run through it in your head before you jump on the course. You can’t focus on the trees. With cross country, it’s a little bit different. It’s more about being able to keep skiing through a certain amount of pain. The pain cave, endurance athletes know it well. I think there is a link between running for office and training or racing. You have to be really disciplined. You have to be mentally fit enough to avoid getting dragged down into political fights. You have to realize that there are going to be days when the press won’t report something the way that you think it should be reported (or even entirely accurately). It’s important to just stay focused, stay positive, remember the Vermonters you serve - and do what you can to address their needs. I believe that my experiences as an athlete have truly benefited me throughout this whole process and will continue to benefit me in the future.
Sherman: What piqued your interest in international relations?
Gray: Growing up, we watched a lot of Peter Jennings on ABC News. He was in our living room every night. We would sit around and watch the news together before eating dinner, and then talk about it. I remember his coverage of the breakup of Yugoslavia, the Bosnia conflict, and the first Iraq war. It gave me a sense (which only continued to grow) that there was a lot happening outside of Orange County and Stratton and UVM. I wanted to know more and understand more. I don’t know if there’s an exact source, but I feel like I can still see Peter Jennings today and remember his coverage and programs.
Sherman: Would you consider your parents to be politically-minded?
Gray: I remember talking with them a lot about what was happening globally or nationally. My parents did a lot to foster conversation, but I don’t remember them being political. They’re definitely competitive skiers and hardworking farmers who care deeply for the community they serve, but they are not engaged in politics. My late uncle, Bill Gray, ran for the U.S. Senate in 1988. He also served as U.S. Attorney. I really looked up to him. He loved Vermont and cared deeply about fairness, integrity, and justice. Over the years I’ve learned more about his life through his former colleagues. He remains an influential figure in my life.
Sherman: Have you always had an interest in politics and leadership?
Gray: I was not the fifth-grade class president, but I may have been out on the soccer field, trying to get the team to run a little bit faster and play a little bit harder. Honestly, I find that as I get older, I become more and more of an introvert. I increasingly treasure the times where I get to reflect a bit or be with loved ones away from the limelight. That might sound weird coming from someone who decided to run for Lieutenant Governor! I do think that there comes a moment in every life where one finds their passion. My passion is the state that I love - and working to leave Vermont better than I found it. In the past, wherever I’ve been working in the world, I’ve always had that moment of “it’s so good to be home” when I’ve come back. I think we also have talent that we realize is there at some point, be it the endurance to commit to an issue for a long time or the endurance to continue to train, practice, or grow a skill set. Committing to serving for Vermont and enduring for Vermont, that’s something that I feel really, really good about.
Sherman: What was it like to work for Congressman Peter Welch after you graduated UVM?
Gray: In 2005, it was announced that Senator Jim Jeffords was retiring and that Bernie Sanders - who was then a Congressman from Vermont - was going to run for the U.S. Senate. Peter Welch then decided to run for the vacant congressional seat. I started volunteering on his campaign during my senior year of college. I ended up getting a job, which was pretty terrific. I began working as his scheduler during the campaign. After he won, I moved to Washington to serve as a scheduler and executive assistant. I had never really been out of Vermont before. I can distinctly remember the day I took the key and opened up the door to the Longworth House Office Building, where his office was. It was a historic moment for Vermont - and for me, personally. After that, I went to the International Committee of the Red Cross, which was motivated by my longstanding interest in human rights and international relations. I wanted to understand humanitarian assistance, especially because my own brother was serving as a Marine and had been deployed to Iraq.
Sherman: What made you decide to return to Vermont?
Gray: As cheesy as it may sound, you can leave Vermont, but Vermont never leaves you. No matter where I’ve been in the world - and I’ve been in some pretty challenging places, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, and elsewhere - people ask, “Where are you from?” I immediately say, “I’m from Vermont,” with a deep sense of pride and an enthusiasm to help people understand what is so special about this place that we’re lucky enough to call “home.” At some point, I realized that I wanted to play a part in protecting, caring for, and helping this place that I love so much. After working for the International Committee of the Red Cross for a few years, I came home to Vermont. I wanted to get a law degree, I wanted to be closer to my family, and I wanted to start a career here. I went to Vermont Law School, which is in South Royalton. It’s a top public interest and environmental law school, which also has a pretty fantastic international law program. What I loved most about the Vermont Law School is that it was like a large law firm in many ways. You would see classmates in the cafeteria, at the co-op, on the town green, and at one of the town’s two bars. At some point, you realized that you had to be kind to each other. Not only did you have to - you wanted to, because you would see the same people, your fellow aspiring public servants and lawyers, again and again. It created a sense of accountability and a sense of community. There’s a lot that I learned that didn’t come from just reading case law!
Sherman: Tell me about your experience working as an adjunct professor? Do you feel that the culture that existed when you were at Vermont Law School as a student continues to exist?
Gray: I think it certainly exists. It’s so wonderful walking into the classroom. Before COVID, I taught on Monday nights and hope to again in the fall. I teach international human rights law - everything from the creation of the United Nations to Genocide and the Global War on Terror. Really tough subjects. Students often come to me and say, “Professor Gray, I want to work for the United Nations” or “Professor Gray, I want to work overseas.” I always encourage them to do that and try to help, but also remind them of the needs in Vermont. Eleanor Roosevelt once rhetorically asked, “Where do universal human rights begin? They begin right here in our communities at home.” Even in South Royalton, or Tunbridge, or Bethel, or in communities around Vermont, there’s so much work to be done to promote equity. I don’t know if any one of my students are now thinking they want to work in Rutland instead of New York or Geneva, but I really hope that more and more are thinking that way. They say that all politics is local, but the same goes for human rights and the way we think about caring for people and communities. Hopefully, that’s imparted in some way.
Sherman: Did you have any aspirations of becoming a politician when you made the decision to go to back to law school?
Gray: I wasn’t thinking about politics then. The reason I decided to go to law school is because I had spent a lot of time working in Congressional Affairs for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The Red Cross was working to promote the Geneva Conventions, working on Guantanamo detention issues and trying to help the U.S. and its international partners understand the legal issues and humanitarian impact of the “Global War on Terror”. I was constantly bringing lawyers and field delegates from the ICRC to meet with lawyers on the Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees. At some point I realized I was tired of being the person who took the lawyers to meet with the lawyers - I was ready to be the lawyer. That was the impetus. I spent a lot of time in law school focused on constitutional law, national security law, and international human rights laws. Today, I regularly draw on that experience and knowledge base because increasingly global and national issues relate to everything that happens at a local level in state government and in municipalities.
Sherman: How did your family feel about you running for Lieutenant Governor?
Gray: I talked with my family before making the decision. I wanted to make sure as a family we were all comfortable with it. They were supportive, because they knew and shared my deep concern for the demographic crisis and population decline facing Newbury and Orange County and the State. They stood by me from the beginning - and through it all. I remember the spring, I was at home with my family, and we were all eating dinner together. My brother said, “You know, Molly, you’re going to have to have a really thick skin if you’re going to be in this business.” I said,
“It’s going to be fine. Don’t worry about me. I’ve got it!” Several months later in the fall – when there were endless nasty personal and political attacks – he texted me and said, “I hope you’re doing okay.”
Campaigns are hard for family, too. They see a loved one getting poked and prodded and exposed in ways that aren’t always fair or accurate, but that’s politics. I was raised with the strong belief that it’s important to maintain a sense of integrity, no matter what. I’m really proud of the positive, issue-focused campaign that I ran, and I’m proud to have a family that stood by me throughout the whole process.
Sherman: With all of the changes that we are currently facing, what do you think the future will bring for Vermont?
Gray: In many ways, COVID-19 has put Vermont at a crossroads. We can either long for the past and try to return - or realize that from our greatest challenges come our greatest opportunities. Vermont has an opportunity to rethink everything anew. As Lieutenant Governor, I’ll be working every day to bring the voices of Vermonters into Montpelier - and as soon as it’s possible again, will be getting out around the state to better understand the needs of our rural Vermont.
When I think about the future, I not only think of the challenges of rural Vermont, but also of rural America and the opportunity we have to get it right. Whether it relates to accessing broadband for all Vermonters, affordable childcare, local and resilient food systems, or a diverse, innovative 21st century economy able to hire a skilled workforce, I think Vermont can be a laboratory for rural America. And let’s face it, our economic future depends on our ability to keep a generation here, bring a generation back, and draw a new generation to Vermont. We have to be innovative, and rethink the Vermont that we want for each other and the Vermont that we want for the future. We must think beyond this pandemic and consider, for example, what the future of education looks like – as well as remote work. We also need to tell new stories of Vermont. Stories that promote our thriving culture of arts, music, and crafts, and an extremely diverse food economy. Vermont is vibrant. It’s sustainable. It’s forward-looking, resilient, and persistent. We always have been – and always will be. But I also think we have to think beyond our borders and continue to recognize the ways Vermont has and can continue to lead nationally and globally, be it in responding to this pandemic or in rebuilding U.S. relations with the world. Vermont’s former senator George Aiken was on the Foreign Relations Committee and was a vocal advocate for bringing U.S. troops home from Vietnam. He often said “you can do more with food and assistance than you can with bombs.” Today, Senator Leahy is the same way. For decades he has led the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs which sets the budget for the State Department and all U.S. foreign assistance. He has also been a tireless advocate for the protection of civil liberties on the Judiciary Committee. When I think of Vermont’s future, I see a Vermont that is sustainable and has found resiliency locally, but also serves as a model for the nation and brings its values and an openness to engaging the world.
Sherman: What is your general approach to problem solving?
Gray: I think compassion is extremely important. We want compassionate leadership, and we want inclusive leadership. I’ve been observing Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand. She talks a lot about the question of “How do you bring more voices into problem solving?” I was always raised on the idea of “listen twice, speak once.” It’s important to truly listen and to take the time to understand as many perspectives as possible. Recently, for example, I’ve started convening groups working to address broadband accessibility across Vermont. I want to understand the problems of those who are most impacted by the lack of internet access as well as the providers. The needs are diverse. There are people who need access to the internet because they’re struggling with online learning, remote work, telemedicine, or accessing public safety and health services. I think that it’s equally crucial to have multiple perspectives when addressing any issues that can come up in state government. It’s important to meet with all stakeholders in order to listen, learn, and understand where they’re coming from, but also where strengths lie, so we can come up with the best possible solutions.
Sherman: Do you have any rituals or mantras that have helped to get you through difficult times?
Gray: I know this sounds a lot like Rocky and maybe a little too competitive, but lately I have been just dropping down to the ground and doing a quick set of ten push-ups. After Law School, I had the incredible honor of serving as a Law Clerk for Judge Peter W. Hall of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. He is a native Vermonter from Shaftsbury, and he has been a mentor to me and so many. He is a model of integrity. When I was clerking for him, I would be reading old cases and trying to help draft opinions. I would get antsy at my desk. My fellow law clerks and I got into this routine of taking quick breaks where we would get law books and use them as weights, we would do wall sits, we would do planks, and we would do push-ups. When the going gets tough, I still love just doing something to distract the mind for a little bit. I think the key to mental fitness is physical fitness. It can be as simple as just trying to get out, catch the sunset, and breathe some fresh air.
Sherman: What advice would you offer to someone who is looking to begin a political campaign?
Gray: I’m still doing quite a bit of reflecting being away from the heat of the campaign. I daily return back to the question, “Why did I decide to run?” There can be a lot of distractions, at times, and it’s important to get back to what spurred you to want to act. Being able to answer that question, allows you to stay grounded, to be true to yourself. It’s all about knowing why you’re doing what you’re doing, being able to come back to that, and letting it be the center of your work every single day. I still know what I’m doing and why I’m doing it – and I’ll keep doing it until we’ve solved the problems that we’ve set out to solve. I’ll also say sometimes, even here in Vermont, political campaigns can get really nasty, especially when outside groups and money come into the state. I promised myself and the campaign team we would run a positive, issue-focused campaign supported by Vermonters, no matter what. And we did.
Sherman: For those who may not know, what is the primary role of the Lieutenant Governor?
Gray: It’s defined by the Constitution primarily. The Lieutenant Governor serves as the President of the Vermont Senate. The Lieutenant Governor presides over the Senate, much like a judge presides over a courtroom, is the tie-breaking vote in case a majority isn’t reached in the Senate, and helps appoint Senate Committees. As Lieutenant Governor, I must also be prepared to step-in should the Governor be unable to fulfill his duties. The Lieutenant Governor is technically part of the Executive Branch but holds an Office in the State House and works most closely with the Vermont Senate.
Sherman: What are some of your favorite places to go to and things to do in Vermont?
Gray: I think I join just about everyone in looking forward to the end of COVID. I really love getting on the road, getting out around the state, and meeting Vermonters in their communities. Every time I am able to get out and walk a downtown or tour a new business, I just fall in love with our state all over again. In my free time, I’m always chasing a new hike or a vista or swimming hole. Lake Willoughby is a place I really love. I also enjoy a good brewery stop and Vermont IPA - or joining friends for a concert and enjoying any number of incredible musicians. I also just love getting home to the farm and back to my roots. This place, Vermont, is such a treasure.
To listen to the extended audio interview with Molly Gray, go to VTVOICES at OldMillRoadRecording.com