She could be the first Jew of color in Congress

A self-described ‘HinJew,’ Vermont state Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale is hoping to make history in the House

It seems almost comically overdetermined that Kesha Ram Hinsdale, a progressive state senator and former assemblywoman in Vermont, is now mounting a bid for Congress that in many ways embodies the fears of her old high school classmate, the former Trump administration advisor Stephen Miller.

The two occasionally butted heads when they crossed paths as students at Santa Monica High School in the early 2000s, just as Miller was honing his reputation as a young conservative provocateur eager to puncture such long-standing liberal precepts as multiculturalism, diversity and inclusion — all of which are core to Ram Hinsdale’s newly launched campaign for Vermont’s at-large House seat.

“I hope to be able to advance the experience of immigrants in the United States, of Black and brown people in the United States,” Ram Hinsdale said in a recent interview with Jewish Insider, “but first we have to undo a lot of the damage that people like Stephen Miller have caused.”

The 35-year-old state lawmaker of Jewish and Indian descent wants to upend the status quo in historic fashion as she seeks to dismantle what for generations has been an unbroken chain of congressmen who have exerted their dominance over federal politics in the Green Mountain State.

Despite its reputation as a national standard-bearer of progressive politics, Vermont is the only state in the country never to have elected a woman to Congress, much to the dismay of local political activists who have regarded the distinction as a historical blemish in urgent need of being corrected.

With three female candidates now competing to succeed Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT) in the Democratic primary this August, Vermont stands poised to send a woman to Congress for the first time in history.

Should Ram Hinsdale prevail in the upcoming general election, the Chittenden County legislator would not only become Vermont’s first congresswoman but also the first member of a racial minority ever to hold the state’s lone House seat.

Rounding out the list is another unprecedented achievement that, in something of an unexpected inversion, would represent what no other state in the country seems to have done before at the congressional level, according to a variety of Jewish leaders, professors and activists who were consulted by JI. If elected, Ram Hinsdale would likely enter the House as the first Jew of color, a possibility that, for the most part, has so far flown under the radar.

State Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale (Courtesy)

For her part, Ram Hinsdale said she only recently made the discovery during discussions with Jewish organizations in the state and nationally, including J Street, the left-leaning Israel advocacy group. While she is still actively mulling what it means for her personally, not to mention the state and the country, the Vermont lawmaker suggested that the insight has helped underscore what she regards as a key tenet of her campaign.

“This is a critical moment in our nation’s history,” Ram Hinsdale, who lives in the Burlington area of northwestern Vermont, told JI. “I believe we need to truly meet the moment and think about how, particularly the Democratic Party, works to align around the most marginalized and unheard voices.”

As a self-described “HinJew,” Ram Hinsdale occupies somewhat rarefied political territory in Vermont, which, as the second-whitest state in the nation, has long been defined by a lack of diversity, even as recent census data showed that its minority population is on the rise. The first-term senator, who announced her candidacy in mid-January, believes that her background speaks to a pressing need that has long been unfulfilled at the federal level.

“Even though it’s a truly unique story, it’s also a very American story,” she said, “and one that Vermonters really resonate with as they think about the complicated backstories they may have as well.”

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If Ram Hinsdale wants to make history of another sort in what would amount to a hat trick of previously unaccomplished political feats, her electoral track record as a local lawmaker in Vermont suggests she is in no way pursuing a quixotic mission for the House.

Ram Hinsdale was just 22 when she defeated a Vermont Progressive Party incumbent to become the youngest state legislator in the country in 2008. She assumed the role just after receiving her bachelor’s degree in natural resource planning and political science from the University of Vermont in Burlington, where the California native became so enamored of her newfound environs that she never left. In 2016, after eight years and four terms in the Assembly, Ram Hinsdale set her sights on statewide office, placing third in the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor. 

Following a short break from public office, during which she received her master’s in public administration from the Harvard Kennedy School, Ram Hinsdale marked her return to politics with an exclamation point of sorts, mounting a state Senate bid that would result in her election last cycle as the first woman of color to serve in Vermont’s upper house.

Throughout a combined decade or so as an elected official, Ram Hinsdale has carved out a diversity of legislative niches around issues such as environmental advocacy, healthcare, affordable housing and social inclusion in public schools and beyond.

Jen Ellis, a Burlington-area resident and public school teacher who is better known as the woman who crafted Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) famous mittens, told JI that Ram Hinsdale is the kind of legislator who “shows up for people.” Last April, for instance, Ellis recalled that Ram Hinsdale was “the only senator” to have appeared alongside public school teachers who were rallying against proposed pension cuts in the state capital of Montpelier. 

“She brought letters that her constituents had sent to her and she read them out loud. I was so moved by her speech that I actually gave her the mittens I was wearing,” said Ellis, who furnished the Vermont legislator with a bright-red pair of the highly coveted hand coverings that, as Ram Hinsdale enthused on social media at the time, had matched the scarf she was wearing. 

Last Thursday, Ellis announced to her more than 20,000 Twitter followers that she had made a new pair of personalized mittens for Ram Hinsdale, whose congressional campaign she has endorsed enthusiastically. For the “Bernie mitten-maker,” such gestures seem designed to draw parallels with Vermont’s progressive godfather. “She’s so similar to Bernie, actually, in her politics and in her intelligence and her work ethic and the way that she approaches Vermonters,” Ellis said of Ram Hinsdale. “The thing I really admire about her is she’s not a performative ally.”

Ram Hinsdale is among three Democratic candidates vying to replace Welch, who announced last November that he was vacating his seat after Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), the longest-serving member of the upper chamber, said he would retire at the end of his current term. While Welch is favored for the Senate seat, having earned a high-profile endorsement from Sanders the day he launched his campaign, political observers in Vermont believe the congressional primary is comparatively more mutable at the moment.

A recent poll from Vermont Public Radio and Vermont PBS suggests that race remains in flux, not least because Ram Hinsdale announced her candidacy just after the findings were published and, consequently, wasn’t included in the survey. Among 600 respondents, Molly Gray, the current lieutenant governor of Vermont, earned the most support, pulling in 21%, while Becca Balint of Brattleboro, who serves as president of the state Senate, came in with 7%. Still, the overwhelming share of those who were surveyed, 70%, were largely undecided with seven months to go until the primary.

“I think it’s far too early to anoint a front-runner based on that survey,” said Matthew Dickinson, a professor of political science at Middlebury College who specializes in state elections in Vermont. “At this point, I wouldn’t say anyone’s a longshot.”

While one of the three candidates is expected to claim the rare open seat after advancing to the general election, thanks to a political environment that is widely viewed as hospitable to Democratic House candidates in the state, they are all largely aligned in the progressive lane, having expressed their support for such policies as the Green New Deal, Medicare for All and affordable housing, among others. 

Beyond such commonalities are some distinguishing stylistic approaches, said Dickinson, who suggests that Gray, 37, is in some ways presenting herself as a sort of establishment figurehead, owing to her longstanding ties to both Welch and Leahy as well as what appears to be strong name recognition throughout the state. For her part, Balint, 53, began her recent campaign kickoff video with a reference to her Jewish grandfather, who was murdered in the Holocaust, before transitioning to a testimonial about her efforts to achieve social and political inclusion in Vermont as the first openly gay woman elected to the state Senate.

Elaine Haney, the executive director of Emerge Vermont, a political organization that supports women candidates in the Democratic Party, said in an interview that Ram Hinsdale is “far more deeply involved with communities of color,” including Indigenous groups across Vermont, than her primary opponents. “She’s always been very engaged,” Haney told JI, “in making sure representation happens at whatever table she’s at.”

Ram Hinsdale, who in addition to her role as a state legislator works as a consultant on what she has described as “equity and community building work with school districts, municipalities and nonprofits,” is a founding member of Emerge, which, according to Haney, won’t be making an endorsement in the primary. 

The congressional hopeful has characterized herself as a “practical progressive,” and experts suggested that she may prove capable of tapping into the national grassroots fundraising network that has buoyed several left-wing candidates in recent years who have also renounced contributions from corporate political action committees. Just hours after announcing her candidacy, Ram Hinsdale’s campaign trumpeted that she had raised nearly $130,000. By comparison, Balint’s campaign reported a first-day fundraising total of more than $125,000 this past December, while Gray pulled in $50,000. 

When she launched her first bid for the legislature, “it was pre-Obamacare, and I was running without access to health care,” said Ram Hinsdale. “It was very real for me that we have bold ideas, but we take incremental steps forward, and we don’t leave the negotiating table empty-handed. I think we’ve seen a lot of practical progressive champions in Washington who would otherwise be accused of being inflexible or too far to the extreme left, and nothing could be further from the truth.”

Ram Hinsdale voiced her admiration for both Leahy and Welch, the latter of whom she described as “incredibly responsive to constituent needs,” while identifying with prominent members of the House Progressive Caucus such as Reps. Jamie Raskin (D-MD), Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) and Ayanna Pressley (D-MA).

***

Born and raised in Santa Monica, Calif., Ram Hinsdale has long found herself in liminal territory. She is the daughter of an Indian-American Hindu father, whose family was displaced during the violent partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, and a Jewish mother, whose descendants fled the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv before the Holocaust. They met as college students at UCLA and were married in a Hindu-Jewish ceremony that long predated what Ram Hinsdale described as a now “fashionable” trend in Silicon Valley and beyond for so-called “HinJew” weddings that invoke the customs and traditions of both religions.

While childhood wasn’t so harmonious for Ram Hinsdale, including moments of financial upheaval, such circumstances have since contributed to her appreciation for government services such as free lunch programs that, she says, helped the family subsist during trying times. Though her parents found some early entrepreneurial success with a cleverly named Indian restaurant, New Delhi Deli, in Los Angeles, the premature closure of their ill-fated Irish pub would expose the family to a series of mounting business woes that were compounded by a subsequent divorce.

Still, Ram Hinsdale looks back on her adolescence, when she and her two siblings were raised primarily by their mother, with a sense of gratitude for the values that she describes as core to her personal and political self-conception.

“I think it gave me an incredible lens on the ways that our cultures and our religions often have much more in common than they are different,” Ram Hinsdale said of growing up in a household in which every aspect of her heritage was emphasized. “Both of my parents felt really strongly about the environment and environmental protection. They felt really strongly about giving back to the community and having a sense of justice and fairness.”

Equally formative, she suggested, was her experience attending a Jewish preschool that would “shape” much of her “early leadership and exploration” on the path to elected office. “This idea that you could question everything,” Ram Hinsdale mused, “feels particularly based in my Jewish faith.”

State Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale at the state Capitol (Courtesy)

During her time at Santa Monica High School, the future lawmaker found herself clashing with Miller as he unleashed his litany of stridently right-wing arguments that she now regards as presaging the anti-immigration policies and conservative culture war fixations that he would help enshrine years later as a senior Trump advisor.

“He would find me in the hallway and argue that climate change was caused by volcanoes, and I was wrong that it was man-made,” Ram Hinsdale, who at the time was finding her voice as an outspoken progressive advocate, said of her interactions with Miller, though she clarified that they had not always been so fractious. In her recollection, Miller had seemed innocuous enough when he traveled in her brother’s middle school social circle, but the young conservative provocateur became increasingly radical in the ensuing years, “and shed a lot of his friends who didn’t present as white” or align with his views.

In December of 2020, Ram Hinsdale enjoyed some measure of personal and professional vindication as one of Vermont’s three electors to cast a vote for incoming President Joe Biden, gleefully remarking in an interview that “nothing” had given her “greater pleasure” because her teenage foe would soon be gone from the White House.

Speaking with JI, Ram Hinsdale was careful not to suggest that her decision to run for Congress had been motivated, at least in any overwhelming sense, by a desire to undo the policies of her old classmate, even as she acknowledged that any reasonable Democratic mandate would naturally require such an approach.

“I don’t want to give him that much credit, and I don’t want our politics to be so winner-take-all that someone like him could impact people’s lives in that way,” she said of Miller, who is now 36 and the founder of a recently launched political group, America First Legal, that targets the alleged indiscretions of the Biden administration. “In many ways, perhaps going to a diverse, pretty socially liberal school like ours helped him sharpen his insidious conservative arguments and become an architect of so many damaging policies.””

***

As her campaign moves into its third week, Ram Hinsdale has also distinguished herself by proudly and somewhat playfully embracing her Hindu and Jewish heritage — in contrast, say, with Sanders, who has often kept his Jewish identity at a distance even as he has become more outspoken about his faith in recent years. The state senator identifies as a “HinJew” in her Twitter biography, and, near the beginning of her campaign kickoff video, characterizes the mixed-religion household of her childhood as “your average Hindu-Jewish family that celebrated Christmas alongside Hanukkah and Diwali.”

In a concession to her Christian husband, Jacob Hinsdale, whom she married last year in a weekend-long lakeside wedding in Vermont that included a two-hour-long Indian ceremony as well as a conventionally American celebration, Ram Hinsdale said she dispensed with some of the more traditionally Jewish customs such as the ritual glass breaking, which they had briefly considered before abandoning the custom. “Honestly, my husband, who is French Canadian and Congregationalist, is like, ‘There’s a lot going on,’” she said with a laugh.

Still, “Hava Nagila” found its way into the festivities, as did a “bagel brunch” that her Jewish family members — who in Vermont include Jonathan Goldsmith, the former Dos Equis spokesperson more widely known as “The Most Interesting Man in the World,” and his wife, Barbara, a “direct cousin” of Ram Hinsdale’s mother — found inclusive enough. “My family felt very celebrated and seen as Jews,” she recalled.

“I’m very impressed to see someone running for office embrace their Jewish identity,” said Rabbi Eliyahu Junik, a program director at Chabad of Burlington who has known Ram Hinsdale for years and recently saw her when she participated in a public menorah-lighting ceremony during Hanukkah. Owing in large part to rising incidents of antisemitic violence, he said, “we feel that she is a great example for the Jewish community of how you can embrace it and celebrate it and not be intimated by all the hate that’s going on around these days.”

Susan Leff, the president of Temple Sinai, a Reform synagogue in South Burlington, and the founding director of the nonprofit organization Jewish Communities of Vermont, agreed. “We’re excited about the prospect that she might represent Vermont in Congress as a Jewish woman,” she said of Ram Hinsdale. “We’d be proud to have the first Jewish woman of color in Congress.”

Even before she took office, Ram Hinsdale had sought engagement with her Jewish roots both locally and internationally, including a Birthright trip to Israel a decade ago that marked her first and only visit to the Jewish state. “We had a lot of in-depth conversations about Judaism on the trip,” said Rabbi Zalman Wilhelm, who runs the Chabad Jewish Student Center at the University of Vermont and traveled with Ram Hinsdale to Israel, where she had a bat mitzvah at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. “I know it was something that was very emotional for her.”

“What was meaningful to me about that was this idea that I had grown up with a sense, in some ways, that you had to have the resources to have a fancy coming-of-age event, and that was never in the cards for my family,” Ram Hinsdale said of her own experiencing participating in the Jewish rite of passage. “It actually meant a lot that some of the Jewish people I was around, when I visited Israel, made it clear that all I had to do was really believe in the words I was saying and have that faith.”

By extending the trip an extra day so she could visit the Knesset, Ram Hinsdale said she was further “moved to see how much imagery and art was in the building,” with an emphasis on “living close to the land and being in relationship, peacefully, with one another,” that particularly appealed to her as a Jewish Vermonter.

“The harvest has a place in so many of our numerous holidays, and that is a lot of what I would consider to be the Jewish experience here in Vermont,” Ram Hinsdale said while highlighting a program that she participates in with the local Hillel in an effort to provide students with local vegan and vegetarian Shabbat meals. “We’re constantly talking about ways that we can live into those Jewish values of thinking about how to take care of others when we take care of ourselves and repair what’s broken.”

On Middle East foreign policy matters, Ram Hinsdale largely aligns with J Street’s approach to the region. By way of example, she expressed support for Rep. Andy Levin’s (D-MI) Two-State Solution Act, which, among other things, would bar Israel from using U.S. military assistance to annex the West Bank, while also endorsing legislation sponsored by Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN) that would place additional restrictions on American aid to Israel.

State Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale lighting the menorah (Courtesy)

The state senator suggested that she supported legislation to provide $1 billion in supplemental funding for Israel’s Iron Dome missile-defense system that passed the House by an overwhelming margin last September. Still, she did not explicitly state whether she would have voted in favor of the measure and, instead, reiterated a broader goal of ensuring “that the resources we send do not support occupation or annexation.” Ram Hinsdale voiced some sympathy for a small handful of lawmakers on the left who criticized the manner in which the legislation, now stalled in the Senate, had been introduced, while emphasizing her appreciation for Sanders’ suggestion that the U.S. provide the same amount of funding for Gaza.

Such hesitancy is a departure from comments Ram Hinsdale made to eJewishPhilanthropy following her visit to Israel years ago. In the interview, published in 2012, Ram Hinsdale said she had been inspired by the IDF soldiers who accompanied her as they traveled through the country. “It is Israel ‘Defense’ Forces not the Israel ‘Attack’ Forces,” Ram said, offering what the publication described as a full-throated defense of Israel’s right to defend itself. “The media is often skewed against Israel and it was important for me to see firsthand how it feels to live in Israel and, in the case of the soldiers, to defend it.”

In the interview with JI, Ram Hinsdale argued that she would bring a “unique lens” to such issues if she is elected this November. “I personally cannot imagine what it’s like to be a child in the West Bank, to be a child directly impacted by the Israel-Palestine ongoing conflict,” she explained, recounting an experience from her youth in which she was detained by the police for what she described as a “bogus” curfew charge that left her feeling “dehumanized” after a court appearance. “I do know what it’s like to be arrested at the age of 13 in Los Angeles simply for looking too brown and how traumatic that experience was for me,” she said, noting that the officers were “joking about getting overtime” and questioned whether she “was Mexican or not.”

“That kind of one-time experience of detention and feeling like my rights were being stripped from me left a deep mark on me, and I can only imagine what that’s like to go through daily,” she elaborated. “I don’t know that a perspective like mine, as a Jewish person of color who also has family who fled a Muslim country in 1948, can be replicated in Washington without my presence and that lived experience.”

Ram Hinsdale said she believes the U.S. can learn from Israel when it comes to environmental issues such as “water retention,” and she expressed reservations with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which came up last fall in Burlington during a heated City Council meeting that drew national attention. “I would weigh that very carefully,” she said of the movement, “even if we were talking about our greatest enemies, because ultimately, what that does is punish hard-working, peaceful people who have nothing to do with any of these conflicts. I get very concerned when that is brought up first as a possible action against Israel.”

Describing Israel as “an important partner” even beyond questions of foreign policy, Ram Hinsdale said that America’s relationship with the Jewish state is one she looks forward to “continuing” as a member of the House. But she argued that debates over Middle East policy can, at times, distract from engaging with Jewish issues that have little to do with what she recognized as a meaningful alliance between the U.S. and Israel. “So often,” Ram Hinsdale said, “we frame Jewish identity around that conflict in a way that we lose track, in the United States, of the other important facets of Jewish identity.”

The aspiring congresswoman believes that her Jewish background provides her with a rare vantage point from which she can explore such matters. In the initial weeks of her campaign, for instance, Ram Hinsdale said that she has invited “a number of temples in the state” to participate in open dialogue with her about a question she has been mulling since recently discovering the added factor that indicates her election would be historic for Jewish community members not only in Vermont but across the country.

“What does it mean to other people to potentially send the first Jewish person of color to Congress?” Ram Hinsdale said she is now wondering aloud, though the aspiring congresswoman suggested that she hadn’t yet alighted on an answer. “Let’s have an open conversation, because we as Jews very much like to ask questions and answer them in community. I’m really open to doing that. I think it would be a really meaningful process.”

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