Young representative with big ambition

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When Kesha Ram launched her campaign for a seat in the state Legislature in 2008, she was a senior at UVM in the midst of writing a thesis and serving a term as SGA president.

Nine months later, she was decisively elected over an incumbent Progressive to represent Burlington’s Old North End, Hill Section and University District in Montpelier.

Ram attributed her victory not to partisan politics, but to her tireless efforts to connect with the constituent base.  

“I listened to what the community wanted, and then came back with feedback or answered questions, and focused on issues that they cared about,” she said.

By election day, Ram had knocked at least twice on every door in the district and had registered more than 1,000 students to vote.

Engaging students in the political process has always been a priority for Ram. She said she takes great pleasure in talking to students about anything and everything – academic, political or social. 

“If we want to have young people in the highest levels of power in this country, we need them to think about running early on,” she said.  “I’m always encouraging students on campus to think about running for office.”

At the age of 25, Ram is currently the youngest member serving in the state Legislature.

At the beginning of this year’s legislative session, Ram was appointed to the influential Ways and Means Committee, through which she manages the state’s revenue.

“It’s a huge responsibility to be the caretaker, in a sense, for people’s hard-earned money,” she said. “I take the responsibility very seriously.”

Ram has had a hand in a number of important pieces of legislation over the years.

One of the first bills she sponsored enabled tenants whose security deposits are being contested partially by a landlord to immediately reclaim the uncontested portion.

During the current legislative session, Ram has sponsored three pieces of legislation, all of which passed the House and will be considered by the Senate in the coming weeks.

Her top priority this session is a bill that would prohibit discrimination in land use and permit decisions against affordable housing.

“This bill is intended to address a statewide housing crisis,” she said, adding that it would provide protection for the poor who are often subject to indefensible discrimination.

Another bill, dubbed “GMO Right to Know,” would require the labeling of food produced with genetic engineering.

“We could make history,” Ram said, if the bill were to pass. “We are one of the only developed countries that doesn’t have a distinction between genetically modified food and naturally produced food,” she said.

But Ram was crafting legislation even before she was elected as a representative.

The policy recommendations contained in her senior thesis, which focused on environmental and social injustice in Vermont, ultimately became enacted as law.

“It was a huge boost of confidence,” she said of the experience.

 “A lot of young people worry that they’re not qualified – that they don’t know enough about how policy is made to ever approach the political arena,” she said.

Ram said she faced the same aversion, but was emboldened by encouragement from future President Barack Obama in 2006.

At a senatorial campaign event for then-Rep. Bernie Sanders, Ram delivered an impassioned introduction for Sanders and then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), calling on her peers to engage in political affairs.

When Obama took to the podium to deliver his remarks, he rendered Ram starstruck.

“Kesha, you made an outstanding presentation,” Obama said, peering back at her. “And if Bernie doesn’t behave himself, we might run you instead.”

After the event, Ram said Obama made a point to shake her hand and encouraged her to expand her involvement.

One year later, Ram ran into the junior senator from Illinois in Washington, D.C. while she was interning for Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.).

She approached him, eager to deliver her mentally prepared remarks.

“I barely got two words out – I just said ‘I don’t know if you remember me’ – and he turned to Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and said, ‘This woman is so impressive; I met her in Vermont, and she is going to be a senator one day,'” she said.  

Inspired by the endorsement of a political heavyweight, Ram made a successful bid for SGA president her senior year.

“It was a meaningful role,” she said of her presidency. “I really learned how to aggregate peoples’ interests and how to be a voice for a large population.”

Ram’s unwavering dedication to civic engagement and leadership is an attribute she said she has always possessed.

“It feels innate,” she said.

As early as high school, Ram began to pursue these passions to improve the lives of those around her. 

“I was always coming up with ideas for how I thought we could make the world a better place,” she said, citing the creation of a recycling program at her high school and fundraising $10,000 for a student trip to India as two examples.

When she arrived at UVM in the fall of 2003, she said she “jumped right in.”

As her first order of business, she formed the Honors College Diversity Task Force to increase minority enrollment and diversify the curriculum.

In 2008, Ram graduated magna cum laude with degrees in natural resource planning and political science, and was the recipient of a number of honors. 

On March 7, Ram travelled to Washington, D.C. to represent Oxfam as a “sister of the planet” climate change ambassador, where she met with members of Congress and women from around the world to discuss reforming food aid conventions.

While this trip to D.C. isn’t likely to be her last, Ram said she is content with her current positions and sees no need to rush.

“I’m really just enjoying what I’m doing, so we’ll see what happens, but I’m perfectly happy right now,” she said. “I’m 25 and this is the first year I’m eligible to run for Congress, so the future feels wide open.”

She maintains an active Twitter and Facebook presence, frequently updating her followers.

“I just try to be really open to students because there were a lot of people in the Burlington community that made sure I had the support I needed when I graduated,” she said. “That’s what’s helped me to be so successful.”