BARRE, Vt. — Christine Hallquist is the first transgender person to be nominated for governor by a major party, and she knows people are interested in hearing her life story.
She is more than happy to tell it, but the thing she really wants to talk about is the electric grid.
“The foundation of all humanity, way back to the beginning, has been energy,” she said, walking outside the Washington County Treatment Court, a drug-treatment program, on a brisk fall day. “The rise and fall of empires has been based on energy.”
Ms. Hallquist, 62, a plain-spoken Democrat who spent more than a decade running an electric utility company, has been enthralled by science and engineering ever since she was young, when classmates mocked her for being feminine and the nuns at school beat her and recommended her parents treat her nonconformity with an exorcism.
Back then, she would retreat after school to the attic of her home in rural New York to relax, pick an outfit from her hidden stash of women’s clothes and tinker beneath the eaves on homemade electrical circuits and other projects.
“I had my own little fortress, and it was cool. I never got caught,” she said. “It was kind of like Christine’s playground.”
Ms. Hallquist has attracted attention thanks to the historic nature of her campaign, which is based on the marriage of wonky policy ideas — about taxes, infrastructure and economic development — and an unconventional sensibility that rejects labels and binaries. Victory in November against Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican whose approval ratings have sagged, depends on her ability to communicate all of that to the people of Vermont.
“My whole life has been about understanding that most things are non-binary, including my gender,” she said. “Some things are really obvious, but most issues are pretty complicated, and to be self righteous and believe that you know the answer does an injustice to the issue.”
As a candidate, Ms. Hallquist believes the electric grid — that vast reservoir of energy that powers everything from smartphones to sonogram machines — can, if managed correctly, fight all manner of social ills, among them rising global temperatures, rural poverty and the opioid epidemic.
But the national spotlight on Ms. Hallquist has tended to overlook her nuts-and-bolts policy ideas in favor of her gender identity.
“Immediately after the election I was like, ‘What the hell happened?’ I felt like Forrest Gump,” Ms. Hallquist said. “You stumble into this historic thing and then you have to understand what it means.”
But transgender rights activists said they immediately knew what it meant.
“This could be truly life saving for some trans kids,” said Mara Keisling, the executive director for the National Center for Transgender Equality Action Fund. “That she won the nomination — or just that she got to be the C.E.O. of an electric utility — shows that transgender people can have any kind of position. Christine has been a trailblazer.”
And in an age when Democratic politicians stake positions around terms like “socialist” — one of many labels for which she has little use — Ms. Hallquist has made the electric grid central to her political identity.
“We can grow the hell out of this rural economy if we connect every home and business to fiber optic cable” strung alongside power lines, which could bring high-speed internet to the state’s many remote towns, she said. And by moving electricity production away from fossil fuel she believes “the electric grid could be the tool to solve climate change.”
She has also pledged to raise the minimum wage and sign paid family and medical leave into law, two proposals that were vetoed last May by her opponent, who was elected in 2016.
A once popular governor, Mr. Scott’s approval rating has fallen 38 percentage points in recent months — largely among Republicans and independents — after he backed a bill that tightened gun laws. Ms. Hallquist has attacked him as a Trump supporter in a state that gave the president his lowest approval rating — 26 percent — earlier this year.
Polling data shows Ms. Hallquist trailing Mr. Scott by eight points among likely voters. To win, her campaign manager, Cameron Russell, said she needs strong turnout in traditionally left-leaning counties around Burlington and Montpelier, the capital, and a competitive showing in rural areas. She hopes her experience at the Vermont Electric Cooperative, which serves many rural customers, will boost her appeal.
Vermont has the second smallest population of any state in the country — with roughly 620,000 people, it is smaller than El Paso, Tex. — but has the highest percentage of self-identified L.G.B.T. people, with 5.3 percent, according to a 2017 Gallup poll.
Many voters have shown little interest in Ms. Hallquist’s gender. She transitioned publicly in 2015 by making an announcement four months in advance that she would start going by Christine that December. “It was like a product launch,” she said.
Ms. Hallquist said they have since reunited (“Both of our Facebook statuses say, ‘It’s complicated,’” she said), but her campaign declined to make Pat available for an interview, citing her desire for privacy.
Safety is also a concern. The campaign has received roughly a dozen death threats that lead them to stop publicizing Ms. Hallquist’s schedule and to assign an aide to travel with her in public.
At a recent Burlington rally, attended by Ms. Hallquist and Kiah Morris, a former state representative who resigned after racist harassment, state police scanned attendees with metal detectors.
“I get hecklers at parades, sometimes people say things like, ‘What’s his problem?’ or, ‘I’m not voting for that,’ but I don’t let it bother me,” Ms. Hallquist said outside the venue. “Vermonters have welcomed me with open arms.”
Mr. Scott has largely avoided the subject of Ms. Hallquist’s gender identity and in August issued a statement denouncing “hateful and ignorant comments about my opponent on social media” as “disappointing and totally unacceptable.”
(Others on the right have been more derisive, including The Daily Caller, a conservative website that used male pronouns to refer to Ms. Hallquist in an article on her primary victory.)
Mr. Scott has campaigned on his record as a tax cutter — he has cut income taxes by $30 million — and zeroed in on her refusal to join him in pledging not to raise taxes. She has called the pledge a divisive stunt.
Ms. Hallquist has been embraced by progressive groups and endorsed by Democratic leaders, including Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Barack Obama.
And she has focused her fund-raising efforts on small donors. According to campaign finance reports, she raised raising roughly $370,000 from some 2,500 donors by the beginning of October, compared to almost $500,000 that campaign filings show her opponent raised from 990 donors.
She credited that ground game for her commanding win in August, when she received more votes than her two strongest competitors — both liberal activists — combined.
After she won, she kept her team in place rather than hire consultants from out-of-state.
“Emotional commitment will more than compensate for what you don’t know,” she said. “One of the key things about Vermont is you can’t get elected if you’re not nice.”
Perhaps with that in mind, Ms. Hallquist said she “abhors” labels. When asked to describe herself politically, she declined to use words like “progressive” or “liberal” in favor of “pragmatic, loving and decent.”
Beneath that sentiment is an independent streak that can sometimes irk supporters. Over three days of interviews last month, she occasionally bemoaned “extreme progressives” and the “purity tests” of social media “thought police” who criticized her as insufficiently leftist for accepting the endorsement of Mr. Biden.
That streak was also on display at a Burlington house party, where she refused the urgings of the progressive guests (and potential donors) to denounce Air Force plans to base F-35 fighter jets at Burlington International Airport. “I want to understand something before I criticize it,” she said.
And as exciting as Ms. Hallquist’s campaign has been for many transgender people, she has also faced criticism in the past for some of her statements on L.G.B.T. issues.
Last year, when a gay bar in Winooski, Vt., was criticized by people who called its name — Mister Sister — transphobic, Ms. Hallquist defended the bar’s owners.
And she has upset some transgender people by preferring to call herself a “transgender woman” instead of simply a woman, and sometimes using her male birth name when telling stories about her past. “It would be an injustice to women,” she said, for her to describe herself as a woman without specifying that she is transgender. She calls it “the woman label.”
Brenda Churchill, 61, an L.G.B.T. activist who also works for the campaign, described those tensions as a byproduct of the many generations contained within the wider transgender community.
“Did she get into any kind of pitched battle with folks? No. did she annoy some of the younger trans community? Yeah,” said Ms. Churchill.
“They don’t like me saying this, but I am going to say it anyway because it is my belief,” Ms. Hallquist said. “I tell the transgender community, ‘Hey, look have some tolerance. Let me be who I am.’”