Vermont Voices: Faisal Gill, chairman of the Vermont Democratic Party

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MANCHESTER — For Vermont Democrats, politics these days may feel more like a tight-rope walk between state Republicans, many considered moderates within their own national party, and a large swath of progressives still resentful towards the Democratic National Committee.

Faisal Gill, the newly elected interim chair of the Vermont Democratic Party, may be just the man to bridge the gap. Gill is the first Muslim state party chair in the nation, and as a former Republican, he holds a unique perspective for our fairly progressive, and largely white, state.

I had the chance to sit down with Faisal on Vermont Voices this week, and learn about his hopes for the future of the Democratic Party and his experience as a Muslim-American politician in this tumultuous political era.

"Politically I think we're in a very interesting time," said Gill. "There's a lot of energy out there and I think the best thing the 2016 elections have done is sort of galvanize everyone to do something, but now the question is what."

Having been elected a mere two days before the signing of President Trump's executive order on immigration, Gill has found himself at a political nexus of sorts. "I've never really worn my religion on my sleeve," said Gill. "In this day and age when you've got the President of the United States trying to divide us and trying to say that Muslim-Americans are not patriotic or should be worried about, I think it's important for people to see that Muslim-Americans are just like everybody else."

In fact, Gill first lapsed from the Republican Party in response to the ultra-conservative social policies that have come to define the Trump administration.

Gill served in the Deaprtment of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush and ran as a Republican candidate for the House of Representatives in Virginia prior to crossing the aisle permanently. Gill has been accused by activists on the far-right of ties to questionable Muslim groups, which led to intense coverage on conservative blogs and media outlets such as Fox News. Republican Senators called for an investigation into Gill by the Department of Homeland Security, which eventually cleared him of all wrongdoing. "After a while you start to look at the Republican party policies and see that they just aren't working," said Gill. "I just didn't want to be associated with a party like that."

Though he sees many flaws in the modern Republican Party, Gill hopes that in Vermont bipartisanship can be more attainable.

"I think the biggest strength about Vermont is the people; they're very resilient, they help each other out, and they're very honest and open," said Gill. "The problem we have right now is understanding why the other side thinks they way they do."

This understanding will be found most expediently in continual discussion and dialogue, insists Gill.

"That's the beauty of Vermont, we have a lot of small communities and often everyone knows everyone else," said Gill. "Invite Republicans over and listen to them, don't judge them. Let's not have any negative feelings, let's listen to each other and solve these issues in that way."

Gill hopes that this middle ground can be found statewide by encouraging community forums and conversations, no matter how small. Indeed, the politician envisions the Vermont Democratic Party as a thoroughly active body in the future.

"The party has to be a very activist party. They have to be out there and they have to be addressing serious issues, they can't speak in uncertain terms," said Gill. "We have to see how we're going to solve health care costs, the issue of higher education, and tax reform; these are all very difficult issues, and there's no easy solution, but we have to have the discussion. "

Statewide, Gill hopes that the phenomenon of widespread political activism across the nation will lead to all of Vermont's political parties — Democrats, Republicans, and Progressives — finding more widespread political engagement that leads to bipartisan solutions.

"I want to harness all of this energy that exists within these various groups to bring about actual change," said Gill. "Instead of just coming out and voting on Election Day and town meeting day, be active the entire time. Make sure your legislator knows how you feel on those issues."

Reach Cherise Madigan at 802-490-6471.

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