Editorial: Leahy leaves a legacy ‘impossible to match’
The tributes started flowing moments after Sen. Patrick Leahy’s historic announcement Monday that he would retire after his current term ends in 2022, that it was time, he said, “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.” He paused for a moment that seemingly took in the past 46 years of his senatorial career, then added softly, “It’s time to come home.”
His Senate colleague Bernie Sanders said Leahy 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.”
Vermont’s lone congressman Peter Welch said Monday was an “historic and bittersweet day… 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.”
Republican Gov. Phil Scott praised Leahy’s “leadership and experience” for securing so much for the state. “It is thanks to him and the funding he has secured for our state,” Scott wrote, “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. We are indebted to him.”
And Lt. Gov. Molly Gray said in a written statement that Leahy has been an “inspiration” to her as he has “served tirelessly with an increasingly rare humility, compassion and commitment to service, good government and meeting human needs. Over the past 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. From human rights and civil liberties to international engagement and humanitarian relief, Senator Leahy has served as Vermont’s and our nation’s North Star.”
Vermont’s journalists shared their personal stories and praise of Leahy as well.
Long-time editorial writer at the Rutland Herald, David Moats, recalled that Leahy engaged “in the log-rolling and other compromises that legislators must do to get anything done…. Mostly, he associated himself with issues that made a difference to people… Two of the causes that Leahy takes greatest pride in are his work to help land mine victims around the world and to curb the export of land mines. He is also author of what is known as the Leahy Law, which curtails military assistance to nations guilty of human rights violations.
“Politicians choose the issues they will focus on,” Moats continued. “Leahy had nothing to gain politically by devoting himself to the welfare of children whose legs have been blown off. He did not choose issues that the high rollers with the big bucks would reward him for…Leahy has never revealed much about himself personally,” Moats added. “Like many politicians, he is guarded, perhaps shy, relying on the familiar rhetoric about ‘Vermont values.’ He uses a few quirky interests — his fondness for Batman, his photography — to show that he is not all serious… He mentioned in his retirement announcement that as a boy he used to ride his tricycle in the corridors of the Statehouse. He hasn’t forgotten that boy.”
My brother, Emerson Lynn, long-time publisher of the St. Albans Messenger and still its editorial writer, notes that while the impact of Leahy’s influence has been “monumental” for Vermont in terms of sheer dollars into the state, his influence is greater at the local level.
“What’s little understood, or appreciated, is that his influence goes far beyond what you read in the newspapers, or watch on a screen,” Lynn said. “One of the hallmarks of the Leahy years is the quality of the staff around him, and the relationships he’s built in every single Vermont hamlet. For half a century he has insisted on hiring the best and the brightest among us, understanding that progress comes program by program, person by person, layer by layer, and that it cannot be done alone.
“Whereas Mr. Leahy is identified with causes such as banning the export of land mines, presiding over an impeachment proceeding, aiding the unsung cause of our dairy farmers, championing our civil liberties, and advocating for human rights around the world,” Lynn continued, “the real work, the nitty-gritty of a senator’s existence, takes place at the local level, through his staff. Every day…. Mr. Leahy, and his staff, for example, are responsible for taking an eight-person immigration office in St. Albans and expanding it to a service that eventually employed over a thousand people. People haven’t a clue as to his influence in each of our cities and towns. They couldn’t know. It happens in ways large and small, with programs unknown, and programs that involve countless thousands — like the SNAP program, or fighting for the health of Lake Champlain. Suffice to say that, yes, it’s always healthy in a democracy to pass the torch to a new generation of leaders, but, in the case of Mr. Leahy, it’s also important to acknowledge the massive contribution he, and his staff, have made… It’s almost mathematically impossible for Vermont to ever again experience the sort of seniority we have now; we should be thankful …for the leadership Mr. Leahy has provided.”
From my own perspective, Vermont journalists are privileged to have such close personal access to our congressional and state leaders. For the past 37 years of my writing editorials for the Addison Independent, Sen. Leahy has been that steady voice of reason and guidance; a source to trust at the national level, to sort fact from fiction. When he voted against invading Iraq, because, as he said, he had read all of the intelligence and came to the conclusion there were no weapons of mass destruction as President George W. Bush alleged, he could be believed. When he shares insights into issues, and the politics around them, it’s always to build your knowledge and create a better sense of understanding, not to undermine or discredit opponents. His early career as a state’s attorney of Chittenden County, and his legal background, instilled in him a sense of justice and fair play that prevails over the day’s politics. In a word, his integrity has been the touchstone of truth telling from which Vermonters, perhaps particularly Vermont journalists, could be grounded.
As for his ability to bring federal funds to strengthen our communities, as president of the Moosalamoo Association for the past few years, our board has seen first-hand his willingness to fund needed renovations of the mile-long Robert Frost Interpretative Trail in Ripton to make it universally accessible with a long-lasting composite boardwalk at a cost of over $650,000 (far beyond our ability to do on our own). But also to help fund mountain bike trail upgrades within the Moosalamoo National Recreation Area’s 70 miles of trails, restore bridges wiped out by Tropical Storm Irene, upgrade signage and other improvements that had languished for years for lack of funding. Leahy had helped establish the MRNA back in 2006, when he and Sen. James Jeffords, along with then-Congressman Sanders, established the MNRA as part of the Vermont Wilderness Act, and since then it has become a hidden recreational jewel within Addison County.
As further testament to his enormous influence on Vermont’s outdoor recreational economy, on Nov. 10, Sen. Leahy was chosen as the Vermont Outdoor Business Alliance first recipient of the group’s Trailblazer Award, recognizing the senator’s “life-time of work” in supporting outdoor recreation.
The praise for Leahy’s years of accomplishments and service, for the moment, overshadow the impending loss of his presence in Washington, D.C. — a dread that’s hard to deny. And yet Leahy spoke, as Moats wrote, “with hope about the new generation of leaders ready to take on the fight. The problems are numerous and grave — climate change, immigration, racial justice, economic inequality. But Leahy has shown how to fight that fight with honesty and dignity… He’ll be going home soon. He has earned it.”
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