Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy won’t seek reelection

Published: Nov. 15, 2021 at 6:29 AM EST|Updated: Nov. 15, 2021 at 7:08 PM EST
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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - Political shockwaves went through Vermont on Monday as U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy announced he will not seek reelection next year.

The 81-year-old Democrat made the announcement during a news briefing at the Vermont Statehouse. It comes as Leahy winds down his eighth term and close to five decades in Washington, D.C.

Friends, family and colleagues celebrated Leahy’s outsized impact on Vermont, domestic and international policies.

A standing ovation for Leahy from dozens of friends, family and current and former staffers, celebrating a lifetime of service to Vermont and the U.S.

In the room where he announced his bid for U.S. Senate in 1974 as a 33-year-old state prosecutor, Leahy said the time has come to lay down his gavel.

“It’s 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,” said Leahy, D-Vermont.

His term expires in January 2023. Leahy, the longest-serving member of the U.S. Senate, is pro tem and third in line for the presidency. He is chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee and the senior-most member of both the Judiciary and Agriculture committees.

He touted a career of accomplishments and how they have shaped Vermont and the nation.

“I’ve helped bring Vermont’s voice to the United States Senate and Vermont’s values to around the world,” Leahy said.

“There’s been so much history in this span of time, it’s just really extraordinary. He’s been in the middle of everything,” said Luke Albee, Leahy’s chief of staff from 1993 to 2005.

Leahy’s career spans nearly 50 years, from his time on the Agriculture Committee to the Judiciary Committee to the powerful Appropriations Committee.

Journalists who covered Leahy over the decades call his impact on Vermont immense.

“More than half of all Vermonters have been born since Pat Leahy was elected to the Senate in 1974. It’s hard for many people to imagine a U.S. Senate without Pat Leahy there,” said Chris Graff, the former chief of The Associated Press bureau in Vermont.

Leahy brought billions of dollars home through the small state minimum, from Irene to COVID-19.

Leahy did not address health concerns Monday. Both he and his wife, Marcelle, have battled cancer.

Former staffers say stepping back from Washington wasn’t an easy decision for Leahy. They say it took lots of mulling over with Mrs. Leahy.

“I think he thought long and hard about this, but at the end of the day, you can’t answer maybe to a question like this. You’re not signing up for a campaign but another six years,” Albee said.

Leahy’s retirement means Vermont will lose a big influence in the Senate and a voice at the table when federal funds are doled out.

Colleagues say Leahy will continue to serve Vermonters but also take a respite from Washington.

Leahy thanked Vermonters for being the inspiration and motivation for his work over the decades.

“I’m confident for what the future holds and Marcelle and I will pray for that future,” he said.

Monday afternoon, Leahy joined the president at the White House where the infrastructure bill was signed into law. He said he would then return to the Senate to deliver the news of his retirement to his colleagues.


So who will replace Leahy in the U.S. Senate?

Leahy’s decision to retire is expected to set off an immediate scramble to succeed him by the state’s Democratic and Republican politicians. It’s a tremendous opportunity that doesn’t come around very often.

There is a slew of names from across the state, both Democrats and Republicans.

This has been one of the biggest questions facing Vermont’s political atmosphere over the past several years.

Because Leahy has been in the Senate for nearly 50 years, there’s a logjam of people who could seek higher office.

The last open congressional seat was in 2006 when Peter Welch beat out Martha Rainville.

Political observers say Welch is the linchpin. When he decides if he’s running for House or Senate, others will then pick their race.

In Democratic circles, there is consensus that Vermont should send a woman to Washington, either as a senator or House representative.

Vermont is the only state that has never sent a woman to Congress.

Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint, Sen. Kesha Ram-Hinsdale and Lt. Gov. Molly Gray have all been floated as potential candidates.

“I suspect there will be a lot of pressure to nominate a woman and a lot of people in our delegation, the Democratic Party has a lot of high ranking women, so it’s going to be interesting to see this primary contest,” said Matthew Dickinson, a political science professor at Middlebury College.

The Vermont GOP on Monday afternoon said the current 50-50 split in the U.S. Senate gives Republicans the ability to make Vermont more competitive than ever before.

Paul Dame, the new chair of the Vermont GOP, says the vacancy will give Vermonters a clean slate.

“We’re going to have better candidates, a more engaged primary and I think there will be a lot more support coming into Vermont to help Republicans win the seat than we would have had in any other circumstance because with a 50-50 tie, every seat is going to be important,” Dame said.

But Vermont’s most popular Republican is definitely not running. A spokesperson for Gov. Phil Scott says the governor will not be a candidate for the U.S. House or Senate next year.

“Governor Scott has been clear that he is not running for the U.S. Senate next year. That has not changed,” Scott’s press secretary Jason Maulucci said by email.


The fallout from Leahy’s decision will send shockwaves not just through the Green Mountains, but across the national political landscape, as well.

Along with Vermont’s delegation, Democrats and Republicans-- especially those who have served with him for decades-- sang Leahy’s praises Monday.

President Joe Biden did not acknowledge the move at Monday’s bill signing but our Kyle Midura was told the long-time colleagues chatted about the decision over the weekend.

Whether Democrats or Republicans control Congress next year, Leahy would have had a firm grasp on the levers in power.

He’s currently third in the line of presidential succession and exercises more control over the nation’s spending than any other lawmaker.

That’s power that comes with nearly a half-century in office.

Leahy used it to ensure Vermont’s interests are given top priority and plenty of cash flows back to the Green Mountains.

When it comes to filling Leahy’s seat in 2023, most of those connected to Vermont’s lawmakers wanted to keep the focus on Leahy.

But, those who agreed to speak with me so long as I left their names out of it say the expectation is that Rep. Peter Welch will run for the job and is well-positioned to win it.

Assuming Gov. Phil Scott holds to his word that he won’t run, Democratic insiders say they’re not concerned Republicans could compete.

If Welch does take over, that could compound the loss of influence here on Capitol Hill.

Welch wields significant power in the House but would start on the backbench in the Senate.

As for who else could run, or look to back-fill Welch’s seat in the House, much of the focus is on women.

Vermont is the only state in the union that has never sent a woman to Washington and insiders suggested Senate Pro Tem Becca Balint and Lt. Gov. Molly Gray are well-positioned.

Spokespeople for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee did not respond to our interview request but a spokesperson for the Republican National Committee says he sees an opening for a Republican, emphasizing Gov. Scott could still change his mind about a run.

A spokesperson for Leahy says the senator is not answering questions about what if any influence he will wield over the politics surrounding picking his successor.

Vermont rarely swaps out its lawmakers but more turnover is all but guaranteed over the next decade:

Sen. Bernie Sanders wields both substantial real and soft power, and while he shows no sign of slowing down, he turned 80 in September.

Welch is 74, meaning he likely only serves a term or two if he takes over for Leahy.

So, Vermont could see a long and complete rebuild of its political capital on Capitol Hill in the years to come and it’s far from a guarantee that it will ever have this much sway again.

Fallout from Leahy's decision will send shockwaves not just through the Green Mountains, but across the national political landscape, as well.


Leahy’s announcement marks the end of a political era.

Few political leaders have endured as long as Leahy or had such an outsize influence over the fortunes of this tiny state.

Here are some notable facts about the senator:

  • He was the youngest senator Vermont has ever elected, just 34 when he won in 1974.
  • He was the first and only Democrat to represent Vermont in the Senate.
  • He is the longest-serving senator we’ve ever had.
  • He is currently the most senior member of the Senate.
  • As the president pro tem of the Senate, he is third in the line of succession to the presidency.

In Washington, few things matter more than seniority. And over his 46-year career at the U.S. Capitol, Leahy has amassed immense power and influence over his party, the operation of key committees and the distribution of tax dollars.

After a stint as county prosecutor in Burlington, Leahy pulled off a surprise victory in the 1974 Senate race, knocking off Republican incumbent Richard Mallary to become Vermont’s first-ever Democratic senator.

Leahy was among 55 Democrats who rode the anti-Nixon tide to victory in Congressional races that year, the so-called Watergate Babies.

So began a career that has spanned six decades in Washington.

Leahy won re-election seven times, and with each passing year, his growing seniority earned him greater power and influence.

“I remember when I first came to the Senate they told me everything is based on the seniority system, I thought it was a lousy system. Now that I’ve studied it for 34 years, I think it’s a wonderful system,” Leahy said in December 2008.

As chair of the Agriculture Committee, Leahy helped shape federal farm policy and worked to protect the livelihoods of Vermont dairy farmers.

As a member of the Judiciary Committee, Leahy helped determine the fate of Supreme Court nominees, including all of the current high court justices.

He currently leads the powerful Appropriations Committee, controlling the nation’s purse strings, where he helped craft the $1 trillion infrastructure bill signed into law by President Biden Monday.

“Consider what the alternative is,” Leahy said last week. “The alternative is to have waterways, roads and bridges deteriorate and then cost twice as much to fix them up.”

Leahy’s seniority and influence have paid off for Vermont. The Green Mountain State consistently has one of the most favorable ratios for federal tax dollars coming in versus going out.

That’s in part due to Leahy’s long run in Washington, but that seniority will retire with him in early 2023.

His successor-- whoever it is-- will start at the bottom of the seniority ladder. That person certainly will not be able to “bring home the bacon,” as they say, the way Senator Leahy has done.

Leahy will leave the Senate with a record of promoting human rights, working to ban landmines and protect individual privacy rights. He has been a champion of the environment, especially of Lake Champlain.

Leahy said he was proud of his service to his state and his work to make a difference for residents of Vermont.

“I know I have been there for my state when I was needed most. I know I have taken our best ideas and helped them grow. I brought Vermont’s voice to the United States Senate and Vermont values across the world,” he said.


Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, said Leahy has played an extraordinary role in representing Vermont in the U.S. Senate. In a statement, Sanders said, in part: “He has been a towering figure as chairman of the Agriculture Committee, the Judiciary Committee, and the Appropriations Committee. He leaves a unique legacy that will be impossible to match. Jane and I wish him and Marcelle a wonderful and well-earned retirement.”

Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vermont, called it a historic and bittersweet day, and said it’s hard to imagine the U.S. Senate without Patrick Leahy. In a statement, Welch said, in part: “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. While Patrick has been a giant in the U.S. Senate, consulted by presidents and world leaders, he is always happiest on his farm in Middlesex and being with his fellow Vermonters.”

Gov. Phil Scott, R-Vermont, says he has mixed emotions about the move.

“On the one hand, we’re losing an incredible leader and powerful voice for Vermont as a result. But he and Marcelle deserve a retirement. He spent his whole public life fighting for Vermont and it’s about time he gets to enjoy some of it as well,” Scott said.

White Correspondent Jon Decker joined our Darren Perron to discuss Sen. Patrick Leahy’s legacy.


The reactions Monday from Vermonters we spoke with were overwhelmingly positive about what Leahy has done for the state.

And people are also starting to talk about who might replace him in Washington.

“He’s done so much good. But I believe it’s time. He needs to come home to Vermont and retire and enjoy his time,” said Kathy Giroux of St. Albans.

“He’s brought a lot of programs, a lot of federal funding for various projects that are very beneficial to Vermont,” said Mike Blouini of St. Albans.

“When I think about him how he helped the farmers. And he’s just helped the economy in the state of Vermont,” said Lena Brown of Enosburg Falls.

“I’m kind of ambivalent,” said Dave Maher of Burlington. “He’s been good for Vermont. Like everyone says he brought a lot of money to Vermont.”

“I think it hurts the state a little bit because he’s had so much seniority and has been such a big supporter of the state,” said Wally Mick of Burlington.

Many people said they will miss Leahy because he did such a good job bringing federal funding home.

Others said he was in Washington too long, and criticized his involvement in bringing the F-35 to the Green Mountains.

“The only thing I didn’t like is that he had the planes in Burlington and what that has created for the citizens of Burlington,” said Char Anderson of East Montpelier.

Voters also wanted to talk about who might replace Leahy in Washington. Rep. Peter Welch’s name came up a lot but several said this is an opportunity to vote for somebody new.

“I would personally love to see a couple more Millenials in there starting to represent the working class,” said Elaine Limanek of Shelburne.

“Although it is unlikely, I would like to see a resurgence of Republican politics here in Vermont,” said Mike Doyle of Montpelier.






Thank you all for being here this morning. This room is special to both Marcelle and me, and not just because as a kid I used to ride my tricycle down these halls. Having grown up right across the street, Marcelle and I gathered here with our parents, our children Kevin, Alicia and Mark, and my sister Mary and announced my candidacy for the United States Senate. At the time, I was a 33-year-old, four-term Chittenden County state’s attorney, launching a campaign knowing that Vermont had never sent a Democrat to the United States Senate.

What propelled me was a belief that I understood the needs and values of Vermont and thought it was time for a new generation to address them. Dublin-born parliamentarian Edmund Burke’s speech to the Electors of Bristol served as my North Star. He said, “Your representative owes you not his industry only, but his judgment.” Burke also said that a representative “ought not sacrifice to you” his “conscience.”

After what many described as an improbable win, I began my time in the United States Senate in the aftermath of a constitutional crisis. We faced a nation broken by the Watergate scandal, the resignation of President Nixon and an endless war in Vietnam.

Within just a few months of taking office, and as the newest and most junior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, we were asked to vote to reauthorize and continue the war in Vietnam. In Vermont, where support for the war was strong, I had always opposed it. The authorization was defeated by one vote. I was proud to be that vote. My hope was Vermonters would respect my judgment and my conscience, even if they disagreed with my vote to end the war. I learned early in my career that good judgment and hard work are exactly what Vermonters expect from their representatives.

The hard work part began for me as a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, where I would eventually become its Chairman. We used it to bring several ‘born in Vermont’ ideas to Capitol Hill, such as Farms for the Future and the Forest Legacy program. These programs have conserved hundreds of thousands of acres of working farmland and forestland in Vermont and throughout the country.

That is where I began a program that has since brought tens of millions of dollars to aid in the cleanup of Lake Champlain and now Lake Memphremagog. It was also the place where I was able to add more than 140,000 acres to Vermont’s Green Mountain National Forest, one of the greatest treasures in our state.

And it was after Marcelle and I spent time in the homes of some farm families in Vermont that I was convinced we needed a law to set standards in organic farming. As Chairman of the Agriculture Committee, we were able to pass the law that established the national organics standards and labeling program, helping to launch an organic farm sector that now is a $55 billion a year industry and an important new avenue for Vermont’s farmers.

I also changed the Committee name to Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, because the former chairmen had left out nutrition. Again, by meeting with Vermonters all over the state, I realized the need to have a law that allowed SNAP benefits to be used in farmers’ markets, to increase our student lunch programs, and to give the means to create the Farm to School program. Today, more than 30 million children receive nutritious school lunches and we have established a national program to source school lunches from local farms.

We also added competitive bidding to legislation for the popular but underfunded Women, Infants and Children nutrition program. Because of that change, today more than 7 million women, infants and children receive much needed food and formula. Every time Marcelle and I are home, we see these programs thriving and growing in Vermonters’ everyday lives.

Open land. Cleaner water. New markets for our farmers. Providing nutritious food for those in need. That will be a legacy to our state for generations.

On the Judiciary Committee, I served as Chairman or Ranking Member for 20 years. My oath was to protect the Constitution and I fiercely defended our civil liberties, the First Amendment, our right to privacy and the free flow of information from the government to the people it represents. This has resulted in legislation including the Innocence Protection Act, the Justice for All Act, and Freedom of Information Reform Act.

It was in this capacity that we advanced the first update to the Violence Against Women Act. In subsequent reauthorizations, we added protections for the LGBTQ community, Native American women and the sexual trafficking of children.

Serving on the Judiciary Committee also meant being there at times of crisis such as the attacks on 9-11. We not only had to protect our nation from outside threats, but from a zealous administration that advocated some of the most serious roll backs of basic civil liberties.

Year after year, I worked with and at times pushed back, on administrations and their judicial nominations. I always worked to keep the Federal Judiciary independent for all Americans, regardless of their political background. I recommended and worked to confirm some of the top judges in the land, including Christina Reiss, who became the first woman to serve on the Federal District Court in Vermont. And most recently, Beth Robinson’s historic appointment to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. I am proud of them, and of the many other superb Vermonters I recommended for the bench and other appointments.

After a couple of years, I was assigned to the Appropriations Committee.

My approach on Appropriations was simple: help all states in alphabetical order. Starting with the letter V, Vermont.

Perhaps the most beneficial tool to help Vermont are small state minimums. Because of these funds, Vermont had the tools and resources we needed for first responders after 9-11, when Tropical Storm Irene devastated our communities, and to help those afflicted by the scourge of the opioid epidemic.

My advocacy for the small state minimum most recently meant over $2.5 billion to help Vermont with the devastating impact of the COVID pandemic. It will also mean funds for long overdue projects and investments that can be transformative for Vermont.

These accomplishments have come because of that first commitment I made to Vermonters. A commitment to bring Vermont values to the challenges we face at home and around the world. Marcelle and I visited victims of landmines in hospitals and rescue facilities around the world. What we’ve seen has allowed me to write and pass the first law in the world banning the export of landmines. It also led to the Leahy War Victims Fund to help innocent victims of the indiscriminate weapons left long after wars have ended.

We have traveled to Vietnam to restore relations between our countries through assistance with landmine removal and mitigation of Agent Orange. Our trips there, backed by presidents of both parties, have shown what positive steps can do.

We have worked to re-establish relations with Cuba and are working to undo the misguided policy of the last administration. And I am especially proud of the Leahy Law which requires us to withhold American aid to units of government in other parts of the world involved with violations of human rights. It has long been regarded as the most effective human rights tool in our diplomatic arsenal.

Throughout it all, I was supported by family and the most remarkable women and men who worked with me both in Vermont and in Washington. I am uniquely blessed to have served with fellow Vermonters who share my deep love of and commitment to Vermont: Senator Bob Stafford…Senator Jim Jeffords…Senator Bernie Sanders…Congressman Peter Smith, and of course Congressman Peter Welch. Our collective efforts are why, in so many ways, Vermont continues to set an example for the rest of the nation to follow.

I am proud to be Vermont’s longest serving Senator because I know my time in the Senate has made a difference for Vermonters and often well beyond. I know I have been there for my state when I was needed most. I know I have taken our best ideas and helped them grow. I brought Vermont’s voice to the United States Senate and Vermont values across the world.

So yes, I am proud to be Vermont’s longest serving Senator. While I will continue to serve Vermont, Marcelle and I have reached the conclusion that it is time to put down this gavel. 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.

I will forever carry with me the enduring bond with my fellow Vermonters, whose common sense and goodness are what I strive to match as their representative. Thank you for being the inspiration and the motivation for all the good that has come from my work in the Senate. Rest assured our state and our nation will remain resilient and the next generation will ensure our democracy remains whole and thriving.

Today, I will join President Biden and other members of Congress at the White House. The President will sign into law the largest investment in our nation’s infrastructure since the Eisenhower administration and, despite all odds, has done so with bipartisan support. We will take on the challenging yet essential tasks of passing the reconciliation bill and the appropriations bills.

When I return to the Senate, I will tell the other members of the Senate what a privilege it has been to be one of only 1994 Senators in the history of our country. I will tell them how humbled I am by the support I received from my fellow Vermonters the 24 times my name appeared on the ballot.

I will tell my fellow senators that I will not be on the ballot next year. I will not run for reelection. It is important to me to announce that here at home, just a few yards from where I grew up as a child in Montpelier.

Representing you in Washington has been the greatest honor. I am humbled, and always will be, by your support, and I am confident in what the future holds.

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