Democrats celebrate Leahy’s legacy, and also see a new opening

  • U.S. Senate candidate Patrick Leahy in a 1974 photograph. (Valley News photograph) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy tours downtown White River Junction, Vt., on Feb. 14, 1992, with, from left, Town Manager Ralph Lehman, Planning and Development Director Jill Eyre and Conservation Commissioner Sayward Ayre. The town wants Leahy's help in getting grant money for the rejuvenation of downtown White River. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Geoff Hansen

  • U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., points out the only bumper sticker on his car to Peter Welch after the two made a visit to New Chapter Inc. in Brattleboro, Vt., on Oct. 26, 2006. Welch, a Democrat, was elected to Congress on Nov. 7, 2006, defeating Republican Martha Rainville. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Jennifer Hauck

  • Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, left, laughs onstage with Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and his wife, Marcelle, during a lighthearted moment at the 2011 Womenís Economic Opportunity Conference at Vermont Technical College in Randolph, Vt., on Dec. 9, 2011. Leahy chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee from 2007-15. Sotomayor was nominated and confirmed to the Supreme Court in 2009. (Valley News - Polina Yamshchikov) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news file photos

  • Sharon Elementary School newsletter editors Lorelai Putney, 9, middle, and Ripple Moore, 10, right, interview Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., during his visit to the school in Sharon, Vt., Thursday, May 6, 2021. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 11/15/2021 9:29:51 PM
Modified: 11/16/2021 5:11:56 PM

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — State Rep. Becca White had mixed emotions Monday morning as she listened on Vermont Public Radio as U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt, said he would not seek a ninth term in Washington next year.

On the one hand, Vermont was losing the most senior member of the Senate, and who as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee has helped pump billions of dollars to the state.

“It was very bittersweet to me to hear that Sen. Leahy was stepping down,” said White, a Hartford Democrat. “We are going to lose the institutional knowledge of having someone like Leahy in that position unless we can take the time to work with him to get that to the next generation, which I think he is poised to do.”

On the other hand, the 27-year-old White noted, his decision sets the stage for a new generation of candidates from the only state in the nation never to have elected a woman to Congress.

“I do think that we’re going to see a race with women (running to go) to DC next year,” White said.

Orange County Democratic Chair Sherry Merrick, of Thetford, also said she was pleased by the prospects ahead.

“Absolutely! There are quite a number of very qualified women in the state who could do the job,” she said.

Among the names being most discussed are Lieutenant Gov. Molly Gray, a Newbury native and protege of Leahy’s; state Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale, D-Burlington; and Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint, D-Brattleboro.

“Senator Leahy’s public service remains an inspiration to me, to generations of Vermonters, millions of Americans, and to countless people around the world whose lives are better for his service,” Gray said in a statement.

State Rep. Tanya Vyhovsky, a Progressive from Essex, also released a statement saying she was exploring a Senate run “on a people-powered, democratic socialist platform.”

Leahy’s decision has cast the spotlight most brightly on U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, a Norwich Democrat who previously served as the Senate president pro tempore in Vermont and has held the state’s lone seat in the U.S. House since being elected in 2006, when he defeated Republican Martha Rainville, the former adjutant general of the Vermont National Guard.

Like most Vermont politicians on Monday, Welch was careful not to step on Leahy’s day with political news of his own, instead praising his 81-year-old colleague and Leahy’s wife, Marcelle, for their “devotion to our democracy and our beloved Green Mountain State.”

Welch also later tweeted out a photo of himself and Leahy in front of the White House, where they attended President Joe Biden’s signing of the $1 trillion infrastructure bill.

“This bill brings critical investment to Vermont, a huge day for the Green Mountain State and the culmination of decades of work from Senator Leahy,” Welch wrote.

Welch has climbed in seniority and his committee assignments include the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which oversees such major topics as health care and climate change legislation. But he will be 75 next year, a late start for the U.S. Senate, where seniority is a major factor.

On the Republican side, Gov. Phil Scott has said he is not interested in a Congressional bid.

“Governor Scott has been clear that he will not be running for the U.S. Senate or House of Representatives next year, and that has not changed,” said his spokesman, Jason Maulucci.

Pomfret Republican Scott Milne, who ran against Leahy in 2016 and Gray in 2020, did not comment directly when asked if he was interested in running for the Senate again, responding to a query with: “I like and respect Peter Welch, but — along with Patrick Leahy — he is tainted by all that has gone wrong in Washington on their watch. I am grateful to Senator and Mrs. Leahy for their decades of service to Vermonters. I sincerely wish them well.”

Linda Fowler, a former head of the Rockefeller Center at Dartmouth College and a professor emerita of government, said Leahy brought a “low-key, problem-solving view” to Washington and worked collegially with fellow senators, but noted such skills may not be as in demand these days.

“I’m guessing as things get more and more radicalized in the Republican Party, that style would have gotten harder and harder to use because, basically, the Senate is doing very little legislating,” Fowler said. “The Senate is in such a bad place right now, even someone with his skills would be hard-pressed to move legislation.”

Diane Derby, a former Statehouse reporter who went on to work for the late U.S. Sen. Jim Jeffords, I-Vt, and until September was a field representative for Leahy, said he avoided taking on causes that didn’t seem achievable.

“The guy is a workhorse, and whenever he introduced a bill, he always wanted to make it a bipartisan bill, so he always looked for Republican cosponsors,” Derby said of Leahy, who at times joined forces with the likes of U.S. Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Rand Paul, R-Ky.

Vermont Senate Majority Leader Alison Clarkson, D-Woodstock, said Leahy was a “wise owl” who made himself accessible to state lawmakers and also made sure federal funding formulas provided generous minimums for small states like Vermont. She also predicted a “robust election” ahead, especially for the U.S. House if Welch tries to move up to the Senate.

“It will be a field of women running,” Clarkson said.

While much of the focus Monday was on politics and Leahy’s legacy, Norwich resident John Carroll, a Republican who served as Senate majority leader in Montpelier in the 1990s, applauded Leahy for opting to leave Washington to focus more on family activities.

“There are a lot of good reasons to step down,” said the 78-year-old Carroll, who himself recently retired as chairman of the State Board of Education and was spending part of Monday building a new shop on his property.

But Carroll also acknowledged that the attention and influence that come with high-profile political posts is alluring and can be hard to give up.

“Visibility gets to be a little bit like catnip. You better like it,” Carroll said. “Most of us in public life more than like it. We sort of need it.”

John Gregg can be reached at jgregg@vnews.com or 603-727-3217.




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