MONTPELIER — It’s been two years and four months since Sen. Debbie Ingram had a drink.
That’s because two years and four months ago, in October of 2017, the Chittenden County senator ran her car off the road 100 feet from her home while she was heading to the grocery store. She had a blood alcohol content level of 0.195 — more than twice the legal 0.08 limit. She was found by a trooper and arrested for driving under the influence.
She said the DUI was a rock bottom that drove her into recovery for the second time; the first came in her 20s, when Ingram’s struggles with alcoholism began. But this time, she had to reckon with the consequences of her disease as a public figure, accountable to media, constituents and her fellow lawmakers.
But, miraculously to some, Ingram won back her seat in 2018.
“I think most people do realize their legislators are human and that we all have our faults,” Ingram said. “I think people really appreciate when you take responsibility for your actions.”
Now, she’s aiming to further this philosophy that she says got her reelected to her Senate seat as she heads into a crowded race for lieutenant governor. She’s sponsoring legislation that some of her colleagues are keeping their distance from: S.291, which proposes lowering the blood alcohol content limit from 0.08 to 0.05.
The idea has been criticized for being too severe, specifically by the American Beverage Institute. In a statement provided to VtDigger, the ABI said: “We all want to save lives on the road, but the data suggests lowering the legal BAC limit for driving from 0.08 to 0.05 will do little to accomplish that shared goal.” It referenced data that shows that more than half of drunk driving fatalities in Vermont involved people who had a BAC above 0.15 in 2017 and 2018.
But Ingram thinks the change could be effective. She believes that by lowering the legal BAC to 0.05 — so that one drink could put a driver over the legal limit — the state could force a cultural shift in the way Vermonters approach casual drinking.
Under this change, anyone who goes out drinking would need to find a ride home, Ingram said, which she believes could save lives.
“How impaired is a little impaired?” she said. “Any impairment is dangerous.”
Ingram said she fell back into harmful drinking habits a few years before the October 2017 incident. She said she was stuck in a complacent mindset — she was functioning, but ignoring the fact that her drinking had become heavier. By lowering the BAC limit, Ingram thinks the change could disrupt that complacent thinking often felt by people who suffer from alcoholism.
“The disease tells you that you don’t have the disease,” Ingram said. “I started thinking, ‘Oh, when I drank before, I was just young and, you know, I overdid it. But maybe I’m not really an alcoholic. Maybe I can drink moderately now.’
“But when you do have this disease, sooner or later it’s going to catch up with you.”
The legislation was introduced by Sen. Andrew Perchlik, D/P-Washington. He was compelled to support the bill by research, which has found that lowering the BAC reduces crashes overall and that other countries with lower BAC limits record fewer alcohol-involved crashes.
Perchlik asked Ingram to become a sponsor because of her DUI experience. And she was the only one of Perchlik’s colleagues who signed on. While he acknowledges he didn’t try to lobby vast support among the Senate, he said he received negative or lukewarm reactions from everyone he approached.
“A couple were like, ‘Definitely not, are you crazy?’ ” Perchlik said.
He said similar proposals to lower the BAC level haven’t been popular in the past out of concerns for the political risk. Nobody wants to be the lawmaker who limits the drinking rights of Vermonters.
But when Perchlik told Ingram, he said she immediately recognized that the bill had potential.
“He said, ‘I thought maybe because of your experience you might be interested.’ And he was right,” Ingram said. “Because one of the things I asked when I was going through the alcohol education classes, and all that I had to do for my DUI, I thought to myself, ‘What can I do as a legislator that can help people and that would make the DUI process better for people to recognize that they have a problem?’ ”
And while Ingram views the DUI as an experience that has made her a better lawmaker, some have disagreed. Others used the DUI as a way to discredit Ingram when she was up for reelection.
The summer after the DUI, then-chairman of the Burlington Republican Party Paco DeFrancis posted an edited version of the police dashboard video of Ingram’s arrest with the caption, “Just say NO to drunk driving.”
A few months later, DeFrancis tweeted “If (Ingram) cared about her ‘disease’ and cared about others who may be using that public infrastructure then she should recognize that she is NOT capable of driving and should give up her car and license.” The tweet drew swift condemnation from other Republicans including Gov. Phil Scott.
Sen. Phil Baruth, D/P-Chittenden, was a supporter of Ingram’s from the beginning after the DUI. He attended her arraignment and supported her through the “brutal” social media criticism.
“That’s where my heart truly went out to her,” Baruth said. “She made a mistake, she admitted she made a mistake. But there is a class of internet troll out there that can’t wait to keep that in perpetual circulation.”
But Baruth said she remained unfazed. “I’ve always found her to be one of the most level-headed people I know,” he said.
Ingram said she wasn’t surprised to see that others were capitalizing on the DUI for political gains. While her innate stoicism may have carried her through the experience personally, Ingram said that honesty saved her political career. She owned up to her mistakes, pleaded guilty to the DUI and enrolled in a 12-step program.
Plus, she said, that rock-bottom moment ultimately made her a better lawmaker.
“You can view a person in recovery as really having great strengths,” Ingram said. “People in recovery, they practice regularly being self reflective, being honest. … And then secondly, since we do have such a huge substance-use problem in Vermont, people do appreciate that they have officials in office who really truly understand what it’s like.
“I’m not removed and empathetic,” Ingram said. “I actually know.”