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Discussion focuses future of state’s Congressional delegation as Vermonters await Sen. Leahy’s decision

from left: Senator Patrick Leahy, Governor Phil Scott and Senator Bernie Sanders at the Statehouse in Montpelier
Pat Bradley/WAMC
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from left: Senator Patrick Leahy, Governor Phil Scott and Senator Bernie Sanders at the Statehouse in Montpelier in July 2017

Vermont has the smallest possible Congressional delegation: two Senators and one House member. All have been repeatedly reelected and are over 70 years old. Amid speculation over whether or not the state’s senior senator will run for reelection, a panel discussion this week focused on the future of the state’s Congressional delegation.

Democratic U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy was elected to his seat in 1974 and is currently ProTem of the chamber.

Independent Bernie Sanders has been in the Senate since 2007 after serving in the House from 1991 to 2007.

Democratic at-large Democratic House member Peter Welch has been in the House since 2007.

There has been considerable speculation this year about whether Senator Leahy, at 81 years of age, will run for another six-year term next year.

VTDigger held a discussion with a bipartisan panel of former political aides. Moderator and VTDigger managing Editor Paul Heintz posed the first question, which he referred to as “the elephant in the room.”

“What are you hearing about Senator Leahy’s plans? Will he or won’t he run for reelection next year?”

VTDigger political and state government reporter Lola Duffort says it is the subject of wild speculation among Vermont politicos.

“A lot of people take him at his word when he says that he hasn’t decided yet.”

Burlington based political consultant Julia Barnes has served as Vermont Democratic Party state director and worked for the Bernie Sanders 2016 presidential campaign. She notes that similar speculation on Leahy’s future has occurred in the past.

“I think the chatter means very little at this point in time. If Senator Leahy decides to run again his continued service in the Senate will be critical to any chance of retaining a functional Democratic majority in the Senate.”

The conversation then moved to not if, but whether, the elder Vermont Senator should run for reelection.

Liz Bankowski was former Governor Madeline Kunin’s chief-of-staff and also worked on the congressional staff of Democratic Massachusetts Representative Reverend Robert Drinan. She believes each of Vermont’s three member delegation should consider not seeking reelection.

“I think the question needs to be asked: is it time to really participate in a generational handoff?”

Dennise Casey was deputy chief of staff for former Republican Governor Jim Douglas and has also worked for the Republican Governors’ Association. She noted that Vermont’s delegation wields enormous influence in Washington, but at some point a change will occur.

“We need to be realistic. It has to change at some point, right? With that is going to come a shift in power and a shift in influence and new leaders. And so it’s a matter of when. It’s bound to happen. Probably sooner than later. And there will be changes for Vermont.”

Congressman Welch is expected to seek a Senate seat if either Senator retires. Barnes and Casey anticipate he would have a lock on election to the higher chamber.

“Not only does he already have the advantage of being able to create a good pool of fundraising for his campaign but he’s also extraordinarily popular in Vermont.”

Dennise Casey breaks in, “Julia I would just add to that he’s also the most accessible member of our delegation.”

Barnes nods, “Yes.” and Casey continues, "That’s another distinguishing factor for Congressman Welch that will play very well.”

Panelists also speculated on a possible run by Governor Phil Scott if a Senate seat opens. Duffort notes that Scott has maintained he will not run. She adds he will face considerable pressure as the state’s most prominent Republican to run for an open Congressional seat.

“Obviously it would be very hard for him to figure out how to position himself against the argument that electing him would hand the Senate over to Mitch McConnell. I think that that would be an extraordinarily difficult argument to make in Vermont. But I think he will face enormous pressure to run and that if he did obviously he would receive enormous support from the RNC.”

Audio is courtesy of VTDigger.