Leahy looks back on her decades-long career, the changing landscape of U.S. politics, and her cautious optimism for the future


US Senator Patrick Leahy announces he will retire at the end of his term at a press conference in Montpellier on Monday, November 15, 2021. Photo by Glenn Russell / VTDigger

When asked US Senator from Vermont Patrick Leahy how he decided to retire at the end of his current term in 2023, he jokes that he “wasn’t supposed to be in the Senate in the first place.”

At just 33 years old during his first campaign in 1974, in a state that had never elected a Democrat or Catholic to the Senate, his election was considered unlikely. When he talks about that time now, he says he expected to serve only one term and decided he would do the best job he could in those six years.

It’s almost ridiculous to think about it now, as Leahy, who is 81, is completing eight terms and nearly 50 years in the Senate, where he is among its most senior and senior members.

He chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee in the aftermath of September 11, presided over the impeachment trial of then-President Donald Trump, and chaired the Appropriations Committee as the federal government distributes the largest sums in dollars recovery that Americans have seen since the Great Depression.

In an interview with VTDigger, Leahy said it was in the quiet times at home on his farm in Middlesex that he made his decision to retire. Isolated from other people during the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, he said he and his wife, Marcelle Leahy, would walk around their property and just talk. They were talking about what he had accomplished, what he had not done, and what more they wanted in life. And it was finally more time together, with their family and friends from Vermont.

He said he always felt on top of his game and looking at the poll numbers he knew he could easily win a ninth term. But that’s exactly when he wanted to bow out – on his own terms.

The country’s political landscape has become almost unrecognizable from what it was when Leahy was sworn in almost 47 years ago. Social media and the 24-hour news cycle have been a game-changer, and he said the increased polarization in Congress and among the American public is “disheartening.”

He entered the scene immediately after President Richard Nixon’s resignation, filed just before his impeachment, and the decline of the Vietnam War (Leahy began her term by casting the decisive vote to end the war). Around this time, Leahy said he looked at his colleagues much older than himself and saw that the Senate was truly “the conscience of the nation.” Even on the most controversial issues, he said, Republican and Democratic senators voted in the best interest of the country.

Leahy said he was choking on a helicopter ride he took in 2011 to assess the damage left by Tropical Storm Irene. When he landed, he said, he had received two voicemail messages from fellow Republicans, who assured him that whatever help Vermont needed to recover, they would co-sponsor him.

“We have to come back to this,” he said. “We are doomed if we don’t do it.”

On his laundry list of legislative accomplishments, one legacy Leahy said most important to him is his dedication to bipartisanship and compromise. He said he made a point of inviting colleagues from both sides of the aisle to co-sponsor legislation, join his legislative outreach trips or visit his office overlooking the National Mall just for a chat.

“If I can leave enough people with the feeling that we need to do better, then it’s worth it,” he said. “I’m going to leave what excites me the most in place. “

Leahy considers herself an optimist. (“If I wasn’t optimistic I wouldn’t have stayed that long.”) But that doesn’t mean he’s not worried.

He watches the advent of “alternative facts”, social media videos depicting violence among members of Congress, and is scowled knowing that such things would not have happened a generation ago. With the weather so hot in Washington, he worries that this divide is seeping into the American public and breaking the fabric of the nation.

“Each member of the House has the right to their own opinions, but they also have a responsibility,” he said. “What kind of example do you set for the country? “

The most heartbreaking for him came on January 6, 2021, when Trump supporters stormed the Capitol with the intention of overturning President Joe Biden’s election and physically injuring members of Congress. That day “really made me question my optimism,” he said.

Still, he hopes for the best. He talks to his colleagues who “at least in private” agree that the tone needs to change.

“I hope I’m right. I hope I can be, because if I am not, we are leaving a disaster for the next generations, ”he said. “I watch my kids and they have kids of their own now. I want them to feel comfortable in the sense that they can be optimistic about the future.

He describes a recent trip home, where he was on Lake Champlain with his children and grandchildren. On the lake, surrounded by his family, he was at peace.

“We were all saying the same thing, that we hope there can be this kind of world in the future.”

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Tags: Middlesex, Patrick Leahy, Senate Appropriations Committee, Senate Judiciary Committee, US Senate

Sarah mearhoff

About Sarah

Sarah Mearhoff is one of VTDigger’s political reporters, covering Vermont State House, the Executive Branch and the Congressional Delegation. Prior to joining Digger, she covered Minnesota and South Dakota state politics for Forum Communications newspapers across the Upper Midwest for three years. She has also covered politics in Mississippi, New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, DC Born and raised in Pennsylvania, she is a proud alumnus of Pennsylvania State University where she studied journalism.

E-mail: [email protected]

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