U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy is embraced by his wife Marcelle after announcing he will retire at the end of his term during a press conference in Montpelier on Monday, November 15, 2021. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

By Lola Duffort and Sarah Mearhoff, VtDigger

MONTPELIER — After eight terms and nearly five decades in office, U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., is retiring.

Vermont’s senior senator announced his decision during a press conference at the Statehouse Monday morning, in the same room where he announced his first Senate campaign as a 33-year-old Chittenden County state’s attorney in March 1974. In attendance Monday were numerous reporters and supporters, and at his side was his wife, Marcelle Leahy.

“While I will continue to serve Vermont, Marcelle and I have reached the conclusion that it is time to put down this gavel,” Leahy said. “It is time to pass the torch to the next Vermonter who will carry on this work for our great state. It’s time to come home.”

At the close of his speech, his supporters gave him a standing ovation and he hugged Marcelle.

VERMONT’S SEN. PATRICK Leahy announced his retirement to a room full of friends and media at the statehouse capitol on Monday. The senator is retiring after serving the state in the Senate for more than 47 years. Reporter photo/Emerson Lynn

Upon his retirement in January 2023, Leahy will close a 48-year career in the Senate that began, as he said Monday, “in the aftermath of a constitutional crisis” in 1975. With the country “broken by the Watergate scandal, the resignation of President Nixon and an endless war,” Leahy famously began his tenure casting the tie-breaking vote to end the Vietnam War.

From there, he forged his political legacy as an environmental conservationist in the Agriculture Committee, advocate for women and LGBTQ+ people in the Judiciary Committee and fiscal guardian for small states like Vermont in the Appropriations Committee.

FIRST OPEN SEAT SINCE 2006

The longest serving senator in Vermont history and fifth-longest serving senator in U.S. history, Leahy’s retirement will have profound implications for the political landscape at home and in Washington. His retirement opens the door to Vermont’s first open congressional seat in 15 years, during an election cycle where Democrats and Republicans will be fighting tooth and nail to clinch a Senate majority.

While his longevity in Congress has helped give the tiny state of Vermont an outsized influence on the national stage, it has also created a political bottleneck back home.

Many would like to see a changing of the guard, and the opportunity for new leadership. But plenty fear the state will lose out on funding when Leahy, now 81, steps down.

When there was last an open Senate seat in Vermont’s delegation in 2006, then-U.S. Rep. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., decided to vacate his seat and make a play for the upper chamber. His successor in the House, U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., who has held Vermont’s lone at-large congressional seat for the last 14 years, is widely expected to follow in Sanders’ footsteps and run for Leahy’s now-open seat. 

Vermont is also the only state in the country that has never sent a woman to Congress, and there is enormous political pressure — particularly in Democratic circles — to change course. 

Three Democratic women are already considered top contenders in a congressional race: Vermont Senate President Pro Tem, Becca Balint, D-Windham; Democratic Lt. Governor Molly Gray; and Vermont Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale, D-Chittenden. All three have suggested that if they run, they would not challenge either Leahy or Welch.

Balint and Ram Hinsdale both declined to specify any intentions to run in phone interviews with VTDigger on Monday, as did a spokesperson for Gray. All three said they wanted to keep the focus on Leahy for the day.

Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican who enjoys extraordinarily high support among Democrats, is certain to face strong pressure to throw his hat in the ring. The governor and his team have long maintained that Scott has little interest in going to Washington, but in a glowing profile that appeared in The Atlantic this spring, Scott stopped just short of closing the door on a congressional run.

Pressed on Monday, a spokesperson for Scott responded to VTDigger via email, “No chance! Governor Scott has been clear that he is not running for the U.S. Senate or House next year. That has not changed.”

HOW VERMONTERS REACTED

In a written statement Monday, Sanders commended his colleague’s work throughout his many years and several chairmanships in the Senate, calling him “a towering figure as chairman of the Agriculture Committee, the Judiciary Committee, and the Appropriations Committee.”

“I know I speak for all Vermonters in expressing the deep gratitude we feel for the extraordinary role that Pat Leahy has played in representing Vermont in the U.S. Senate for the last 46 years,” Sanders said. “He leaves a unique legacy that will be impossible to match.”

Welch said in a Monday statement that it was “a historic and bittersweet day,” and “it is hard to imagine the United States Senate without Patrick Leahy.”

“No one has served Vermont so faithfully, so constantly, so honestly, and so fiercely as Patrick,” he said. “Patrick’s life as our longest-serving senator has been dedicated to serving Vermont, always putting Vermonters and their values and aspirations first. Patrick loves Vermont and Vermonters love Patrick.”

In a written statement, Scott said Leahy’s “leadership and experience has ensured our state is well represented in Congress.”

“It is thanks to him, and the funding he’s secured for our state, that Vermont is in a position to come out of this pandemic stronger than before and tackle big challenges from broadband and infrastructure to the opioid crisis,” he said. “We are indebted to him.”

Gray said in a written statement that Leahy is an “inspiration” to her, and that he has “served tirelessly with an increasingly rare humility, compassion and commitment to service, good government and meeting human needs.

“Over the last five decades, when at times our nation’s moral compass has wavered, Senator Leahy has remained steady, standing by Vermont’s values and working to ensure our nation respects and protects those values,” she continued. “From human rights and civil liberties to international engagement and humanitarian relief, Senator Leahy has served as Vermont and our nation’s north star.”

LEAHY’S LEGACY

Leahy was in the national limelight when he presided over the second impeachment trial of President Donald Trump earlier this year. As former chair of the Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, he oversaw the expansion of school lunch programs and benefits for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as SNAP. As former chair of the Judiciary Committee, he played major roles in the confirmation processes of federal judges, as well as the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.

But the depth of his influence comes chiefly from his place within the all-powerful Appropriations Committee. He became a ranking member of the panel in 2017, and this year, after Democrats took the Senate, he finally became its chair. 

“My approach on Appropriations was simple: Help all states in alphabetical order — starting with the letter V, Vermont,” he quipped Monday.

Leahy’s perch on the money committee has helped steer billions to the state, and he is credited with creating the small-state minimum that so disproportionately benefited Vermont when the federal government doled out Covid relief aid. Leahy is also the president pro tempore of the Senate, a largely ceremonial position that nonetheless puts him third in line for the presidency.

Balint told VtDigger that even once Leahy retires, his impact will continue in Vermont because the federal dollars funneled into the state under his chairmanship are “going to be invested in things that are going to be Leahy’s legacy until the day I die.”

“We’re going to be able to see his work visibly in communities around the state,” she said. “His impact is going to be felt long after he leaves that chamber for the last time.”

Luke Albee, who served as Leahy’s chief of staff from 1993 to 2005, told Digger Monday that Leahy has “left an incredible mark on the state and on the country, and really on the world.”

“You can’t go anywhere in Vermont without seeing the product of his efforts,” Albee said. “And I think so much of what he’s done, the beneficiaries may never even know. … He’s had a hell of a run.”