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UPDATED: U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy won’t run for re-election

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, Nov. 15. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

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.

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.

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.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, shown at the groundbreaking for a solar array in Middlebury last month, announced today that he will not seek re-election to a ninth term in the U.S. Senate.
Independent photo/John S. McCright

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 guards, 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.

 

Vermont Lt. Gov. Molly Gray stood for a photo with Sen. Patrick Leahy during a groundbreaking for a solar project in Middlebury last month. Leahy’s announcement Monday that he would not seek re-election will have implications for Gray’s political career.
Independent file photo/John S. McCright

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.”

Leahy was in the national limelight when he presided over the second impeachment trial of President Donald Trump, and he previously chaired the Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry and Judiciary committees.

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.

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.

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