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Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy discusses his decision to retire and career highlights

Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy announces his retirement at the Statehouse in Montpelier
Pat Bradley
Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy announces his retirement at the Statehouse in Montpelier on November 15, 2021

Last week, Vermont’s senior Senator Patrick Leahy, the dean of the Senate, announced he will not run for re-election after his eighth term. First elected in 1974, the Democrat says he is satisfied with the decision he made jointly with his wife Marcelle.

“It actually was an easy decision. We'd talked about it this summer and talked with our family on walks. And I wanted to leave so I would have no regrets. And if there was any difficulty it was obvious from our polling and everything else that I could easily be reelected. But I wanted to leave when I pick the time not somebody else. And everybody in the family was comfortable with it. And I have felt more liberated than I have in a long time. I feel very, very comfortable with the decision.” Senator Leahy continues, “But of course I'm going to miss the Senate. Forty-eight years there, being dean of the Senate, longest serving ever from Vermont, President Pro Tem, all these things I will miss that but I'll also miss many of the very, very good men and women I've worked with."

Both you and your wife have been treated for cancers. Was health a factor at all in your decision to retire?

“No. My cancer was always various kinds of skin cancer and easily taken care of. In my last physical a few months ago, they said I was in great health and one of the things I asked was okay, can I go snowshoeing and if I get a chance can I go scuba diving? He said absolutely. Marcelle has had a form of leukemia which is curable. It just takes forever. You have to go through chemotherapy and all that, which tires her out. But she is doing very well. The doctor says all the prognosis is good. Soon she'll be able to go off the chemo. And what she's looking forward to is not just getting off the chemo but being revaccinated. We were both vaccinated early on but her chemotherapy knocks that out.”

As mentioned many times in the last week, the length of time that you have been in the Senate, are there initiatives, bills, actions of any sort that you want to complete before the end of your term? You've got a little over a year left that you will be in the Senate.

“That's a good question. And I'm already talking with a number of senators in both parties to continue on with things. Obviously from a very parochial I want to make sure that the money that I've gotten to clean up and preserve Lake Champlain continues, I'm sure it will. Also on a national scale I wrote the law that establishes organic farming, which is now $55 or $60 billion industry across the country. I want to make sure that continues. And I want to make sure that the things that I've done to bring nutrition to children, to schools, to school lunch, and to the older people throughout the country that continues,” says Leahy. “And then I've done a lot on human rights around the world. I passed the first law to ban the export of landmines. We used the, what they call the Leahy War Victims' Fund which has helped out not just war victims but victims of natural disasters like earthquakes. And they also have the Leahy Law, which I have pushed for to make sure it's maintained in both Republican and Democratic administrations. And that says that American aid, American taxpayers' money, cannot be given to military units anywhere in the world that are involved in human rights violations. And that has helped bring about reforms in a number of countries around the world.”

One of the bills that you often mention as a key piece of legislation that you got passed was the Violence Against Women Act. Why do you point to that one so frequently?

“You know, I was a state's attorney for eight years. I remember, actually have vivid memories of going to actually murder scenes at two and three o'clock in the morning with the police, finding a woman who had been beaten and suffered all kinds of abuse for months before she was finally killed. And nobody knew about it. She had no place to go. She had no way to report it. And I found a number of lives were lost because they hadn't been reported. Obviously when we had cases that were reported I made that a priority as a prosecutor to put those who have been molesting women in jail. I worked with Joe Biden when he was a young senator for the first Violence Against Women Act. But then when I became chairman of judiciary I expanded it to include the LGBTQ community and Native Americans. And another thing, the sexual exploitation of children. Because we found so many runaways, young teenagers, these people who want to exploit them, sexually abuse them, are out looking for them, and increased considerably the penalties and the authority to go after them. So I, in many, many times, I've seen things that I knew about when I was a prosecutor. I knew where there were a lack of adequate laws and I've continued with it. And I use that as an example of the fact that I am working with other senators now to make sure they carry on with that. I probably, in fact somebody said they had a study that I have passed more bipartisan legislation that anybody else in the Senate. And what I've done is gone to Republicans and Democrats and said, look, these are things you should be able to agree on. These are things that you should continue. And many have said they will.”

Speaking of continuing, what do you make of Peter Welch's announcement that he will run for your seat?

“I wasn't surprised by it. I've had a lot of talks with Peter. He's a good friend. He's worked very hard as a member of the House of Representatives. But we only have one member from Vermont and so it carries extra obligations. He's worked hard there. I'm not surprised that he's running although I'm sorry we'll be losing his seniority in the House.”

With his announcement obviously there's going to be people who will line up to run for his seat, the sole congressional seat in Vermont. And I would expect that he would have some challengers for your seat. What do you think the odds are that a woman and/or a person of color will be elected from Vermont to serve in Washington, whether in your seat that you're leaving or in the congressional seat?

“Well I trust Vermont voters to decide who they want and will support whoever the Democratic nominee is. And I'm not going to try to convince my fellow Vermonters, after all I'm a native Vermonter I know the state pretty well. The last thing in the world, Vermonters would want is for me to suddenly announce this is who you should elect or nominate. I will rely on them who they will nominate and I will support the nominee.”

Senator Leahy, they said that you would have about 10 minutes and I think we're coming up fairly close to that in the conversation. So...

"You are.”

“I will ask one last question. Looking....”

I always worry when they say one more question!”

Well, I'm not sure how long it may take to answer but, you know, looking back at nearly 47 years in the Senate, what would you change if you could In those 47 years?

“Well I don't think I've changed anything in my behavior. I've been fortunate to have some of the best women and men on my staff over the years both in Vermont and in Washington. I have learned from them every single day. To me I get as if I'm going to college or graduate school every day in the briefing memos. I get briefings from classified matters to what's happening in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont or anything else. And that I thought was wonderful. I have been delighted. We started very early on. Actually almost the first month I was there with a good and paid intern program. Many of these interns have gone on to become either permanent staff members, or have gone on into business or law, in federal service. So that I would not change,” Leahy says. “What I wish could be changed is the kind of hyper partisanship that we see in the Senate today. It is not the way it was when I came there. I tried to change. When I lead a Congressional delegation to either meetings in the United States or meetings overseas I always insisted we have major Republican senators as well as Democratic senators so that they can see how important it is to work together.”

So do you think democracy is in better or worse shape than when you went in?

“Well I think when you see something like the riots and insurrection on January 6th that causes worry about democracy. But our country's gone through a civil war, two world wars and we've come back stronger. I'm hoping that we will come back again. But it's going to require men and women who go into Congress, the House or the Senate, to say what's the most important thing for the country? Not what's the most important thing for me politically or for my party? What's the most important thing for the country? And if we can get back to that democracy will thrive.”

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