by Timothy McQuiston, Vermont Business Magazine
Patrick Leahy’s last day as a US Senator is today. But in the runup to this moment there has been no going quietly into the good night. Since the election in November and the choosing of his successor, Peter Welch, there has been important work to do. Most notably was the surprising passage of the Respect for Marriage Act, which recognizes “the sanctity of marriage between two individuals, regardless of gender or race.”
There was also the political but ultimately successful slog on the vital $1.7 trillion fiscal year 2023 Omnibus Appropriations bill, which passed the week before Christmas.
On the one hand, Vermont Senator Patrick J Leahy (D-Vermont) was still grinding away on behalf of the people of Vermont unto the last days of his last term, and on the other he was taking something of a victory lap.
Pat and Marcell Leahy at his swearing in with Vice President Biden in 2012. Courtesy photos unless noted.
In early December, he and many others celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Ottawa Landmine Treaty. In early September, he was feted by the State Department for his work on insisting US foreign policy include a provision for civil rights.
A famous raconteur, at the landmine event Leahy told the story of how he met with President George H Bush in the Oval Office to pitch him the idea on the landmine bill, President Bush quickly agreed and called over to State to relate this idea. State demurred, but the president insisted, and, by-the-way, Senator Leahy “is sitting right here.”
At the September civil rights event Leahy was in a wheelchair after two surgeries to repair a broken hip.
Then in October Leahy was back in Vermont at Burlington International Airport to celebrate the opening of the first phase of the three-part and long-awaited Terminal Integration Project (TIP). It featured a sparkling and, hopefully, streamlined security checkpoint on the south side of the terminal. This $19 million project was funded by an Airport Improvement Grant administered by the FAA, which Leahy was instrumental in securing.
Still recovering from the hip surgery, necessitated after a fall, Leahy was offered a chair during the festivities. He sat only briefly and then spent a long while on his feet meeting and greeting as usual.
On October 13 he again was hospitalized in Washington, DC, this time as a precaution for “not feeling well.” Four days later he was back in Vermont at GlobalFoundries in Essex Junction. GF received another $30 million in federal funds to upgrade the sprawling semiconductor manufacturing plant.
GF is the largest private employer in Vermont with about 2,000 employees. GF CEO Tom Caulfield made the trip up from Malta, NY, to announce the funding and that the lobby will be dedicated in Leahy’s honor.
Leahy has landed the chip maker much funding over the years, as well as the crucial “trusted foundry” designation, which means Department of Defense contracts can be fulfilled at the plant. (On December 20 GF confirmed it had laid off 148 in Vermont as part of a global reduction).
Leahy in his Burlington office. The model is of the e-aircraft developed by Beta Technologies in South Burlington. VermontBiz photo.
At a meeting with VermontBiz last April in his Burlington office, the conversation focused on Leahy’s ability to bring jobs to Vermont.
However, he lamented that the recent demise of bipartisanship is the most disappointing development of his long tenure.
Even today, his Republican colleagues in the House are fighting among themselves over who will be Speaker, in something that hasn’t happened in 100 years.
Leahy said in our interview last spring:
“What worries me is things are becoming more and more partisan in Washington now,” and as he often does, he used personal anecdotes as illustration.
“I mean the idea that I could go with Dick Lugar, conservative Republican, the two of us leading delegations around the country trying to get rid of landmines. Two things about Vietnam. When I first raised that idea, we didn't even really have relations with them. And even though everybody – or not everybody but a lot of the media in Vermont on their editorial pages – supported the war in Vietnam. No Vermonter had ever voted to end the war. I was opposed to the war. I’d been (in the Senate) about three months and we had a series of votes in the Armed Services Committee. I served in that for two years until I moved to Appropriations. There were five votes to continue the war, each one lost by one vote. As the junior-most member you can imagine the looks I was getting from the chairman of the committee, John Stennis (D-MS), who supported the war. But I’ve never regretted that.”
And then there was the issue of landmines.
Leahy met a Marine who had been paralyzed from the waist down after being wounded in Vietnam.
“Bobby Muller (Vietnam Veterans of America) came to see me about Vietnam landmine victims. And I was sold right away and convinced President Bush, first President Bush, it was a good idea. I led a bipartisan delegation (to Vietnam). There were a group of people that had been crawling on the ground for years and years. We were going to get wheelchairs made there.
“I’ll never forget that very hot day (August 1992 when the bill was eventually signed) we were in open neck shirts and all and one man just staring at me, probably weighed about 60 pounds, very neatly dressed, but obviously no legs. He's just staring at me and they said, ‘would you pick him up and put him in the wheelchair?’ The medical surgical nurse whom I’ve been married to all these years whispers how to pick him up without breaking the bone. The guy must hate me, just stared at me, and I picked him up and I put him in the wheelchair. As I started to get up, he grabbed my shirt and he pulled me down and he kissed me. Well, you know you think maybe sometimes you do the right thing.
“Same thing happened to John Glenn, who when he lifted somebody in there. John was not an emotional type of person, but on the bus going back to the hotel he took the microphone and he said anybody complaining about anything on this trip after what we’ve seen, I’m throwing you off the bus.”
Leahy is an old-school politician who actually enjoyed the challenges and rewards of working with members “from across the aisle.”
He issued this Tweet on April 23, 2022, on the death of former US Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). Hatch was the longest-serving Republican at 42 years before retiring in 2019. Hatch and Leahy had often crossed swords.
“When Orrin and I led the Judiciary Committee we sometimes had profound and difficult policy differences, but we found ways to break the ice, as when we traded ties—a Jerry Garcia tie, for a Rush Limbaugh one. Rest In Peace Orrin, and all best wishes to the Hatch family.”
US Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said the following after Leahy announced his retirement in November 2021.
“Earlier today, our distinguished President Pro Tem, the senior Senator for Vermont, announced that he will conclude his incredible run of Senate service. Senator Leahy plans to retire at the end of next year — at the conclusion of his eighth term.
“Senator Leahy has served Vermonters in the Senate for longer than anyone in the state’s history. Of course, he has also become an all-time Senate institution in his own right.
“I think particularly of the opportunities I had to work closely with Senator Leahy when we were sharing leadership of the Appropriations subcommittee for State and Foreign Ops.
“It is hard to imagine the Senate without Pat and his lovely wife Marcelle. For now, I just want to salute our colleague on the occasion of his announcement, and add my congratulations on his remarkable career thus far.”
A year later, as Leahy made his final remarks in the US Senate, McConnell said, “To say that Pat Leahy has made the most of his time in Washington would be truly an understatement.”
“Pat and I made a point of working as partners,” McConnell said. “He always knew the right time to break up tense negotiations with a stemwinder or an old Irish joke.”
And he added his own joke, “And like good appropriators, we also bonded over a firm mutual conviction that our true opponent was never each other … it was the House,” McConnell said.
Leahy responded: “I’ve told him privately – but I say it publicly – I appreciate the friendship and the work together.”
He acknowledged the curious collegiality of the old-school Senate after McConnell gave him a Louisville Slugger baseball bat, with Leahy’s name on it.
“This, I would tell the distinguished senator, has stayed in public view in my office ever since I came home with it,” Leahy said.
It’s hard to imagine how Congress will ever again operate like that.
Marcelle and Pat Leahy study debate notes with the late Paul Bruhn during his first Senate campaign in 1974. Photo courtesy of UVM.
As erudite as Leahy has presented over the years, he noted that he was the first in his family to get a college degree (Saint Michael’s College in Colchester). His sister Mary was the second. Leahy went on to Georgetown University Law Center, from where he would visit the Senate. He was smitten by the place, but has said many times since then that he could not imagine ever being among its members.
Leahy was first elected to the Senate in 1974. He would be up for reelection again in 2022, but now 82, he decided to retire, calling it “time.” His retirement sparked an unprecedented flurry of political activity in Vermont.
For that State Department event, Leahy was seated in a wheelchair. He tripped and fell and broke his hip in July. It required two surgeries to fix it. His mood seemed undeterred by the inconvenience. It’s been a rough year medically for Leahy and his wife Marcelle.
Leahy begins nearly every speech with “Marcelle and I.” He credits her (and her well connected family the Pomerleaus) with helping him win as a big underdog in the first place. She speaks French, which helped secure votes in the northern part of the state.
He faced well-respected Congressman Dick Mallory in that first campaign. He then squeaked out reelection against Stewart Ledbetter during the Reagan Revolution and had another tussle against Jim Douglas in 1992. Since then it’s been smooth sailing.
He was once asked if he had written a victory speech for that first Senate run. He said he had prepared two speeches. One if he lost, and another if he lost badly. But that election was on the heels of Watergate and Democrats swept to victory across the nation, even in Red State Vermont.
Leahy was the youngest senator ever elected from Vermont, the first Democrat since the Civil War (depending on how you counted Democrats back then) and, surprising in today’s political climate, until Peter Welch’s landslide last November, the only Democrat elected to the US Senate from Vermont over that more than 150 years.
Marcelle was at his side, as usual, during the State Department event and the subsequent events in Vermont. She seems to be always there with him and for him.
When VermontBiz met with him at his Burlington office last spring she had just completed her last cancer treatment. She had been having chemotherapy following a diagnosis of chronic lymphocytic leukemia in 2019. She previously had overcome melanoma.
At his retirement announcement at a packed, somber, mask-wearing State House event in November 2021, she was demure. By last fall she was back to her vivacious self, as familiar to everyone.
Leahy is not only the longest serving senator from his home state; he is also the third longest in US history. He is second all-time with 17,374 votes cast. As the senior senator of the majority party he was also third in line to the presidency, which required a Secret Service detail.
Let’s be clear, no one in any endeavor has loved his job more than Pat Leahy has loved being a US Senator.
He was only 34 when he was elected, noticeably younger than any of the up-and-comers prominent today in Vermont. For instance, outgoing Lieutenant Governor Molly Gray and incoming Treasurer Michael Pieciak are both 38.
He’s just never seemed young. Leahy, like the fictional George Bailey, “was born older.” As young as he was when first elected, he didn’t act like it, nor frankly look it.
Now, those long years he spent in the Senate have been a windfall for Vermont.
A Batman superfan, Leahy's office sports memorabilia of the Caped Crusader. He has also appeared in several Batman films and shows. VermontBiz photo.
Leahy was chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee. For decades he has worked to bring good jobs to Vermont with help of the federal budget and earmarks.
Did he bring home the bacon? You bet he did, as any senator would have been delighted to do.
While some of those DoD contracts have come and gone, with the changing winds of Defense requirements, his strategy typically has been focused on sustainability “long after I’ve left the Senate.”
During the drafting of federal COVID-19 relief legislation, Leahy added a small state minimum that has helped bring a total of $2.5 billion dollars to the state; one billion of which is still to come. This has allowed the state to not only provide unprecedented assistance to Vermonters during the pandemic, but also to make generational investments in the state’s future.
“It’s thanks to him we’re in a position to come out of this pandemic stronger than before,” said Governor Phil Scott at a State House tribute last April.
Those sustainable jobs can be seen with the ongoing US Citizenship and Immigration Services jobs in Franklin and Chittenden counties, the plumb siting of the Air Guard F-35 fighter wing at Burlington International Airport, rail upgrades that have led to Amtrak extending its Ethan Allen service up to Burlington, and many more.
Leahy has also focused on environmental causes, including for the northern forest and Lake Champlain cleanup.
Politics in Vermont will look much different with Leahy off the stage and the effect could be profound.
Leahy in Burlington with Peter Welch (third from left) and Mayor Miro Weinberger (far right) after Vermont received a TIGER grant in 2016, which led to the extension of Amtrak's Ethan Express in 2022.
Given Leahy’s impact on the Vermont economy, there is concern in the business community that without Leahy there could be a waning of federal funding in the coming years. Leahy’s combination of seniority and political acumen will not be matched by anyone currently serving in Congress or likely for decades to come.
Historically one could argue about who is the most popular politician in the state’s history, with the likes of Thomas Chittenden, George Aiken, Howard Dean and Bernie Sanders to consider. But Patrick Leahy, it’s fair to say, is the most important politician in Vermont since the state’s founders wrestled the Green Mountains out of the hands of The Empire State.
“I think of Vermont as a place where you can develop your conscience. I think of the Senate as a place that should be the conscience of the nation and sometimes is,” Leahy said during a State House tribute last April. “I followed my conscience.”
Remarking on just a handful of the areas in which Vermont’s senior US Senator has created programs that have benefited Vermont or brought needed funding to the state, including agriculture, clean water and transportation, Governor Scott said, “The list of ways he has improved the state just goes on and on.”
Leahy has used his position in the Senate -- especially his work on the Appropriations, Agriculture and Judiciary Committees -- to fund investments that will spur Vermont’s economy and lay the groundwork for economic development for decades to come.
A long but not comprehensive list of projects include:
Patrick Leahy was a driving force behind VCET. He has also championed the Small Business Administration and secured funding for seed capital, particularly VCET’s Seed Capital Fund and the Vermont Sustainable Job Fund’s Flex Fund, as well as bringing $5 million last year to VCET’s Evergreen Fund, securing another $4 million for the fund.
This is a place where Patrick Leahy has been able to use his clout on the Appropriations Committee to great advantage, securing funding for a new port of entry at Highgate Springs, which will make it easier for Canadians to visit.
He has secured $150 million over the past decade to upgrade Vermont’s rail network for passenger and freight traffic.
As you know, the Burlington Airport is a major driver of the region’s economy, and he was able to make rule changes that enabled the airport to qualify for FAA funding, which has brought substantial upgrades.
Leahy speaks at the ceremony officially opening the new security area at Burlington International Airport in October 2022. VermontBiz photo.
Historic Preservation and Downtown Revitalization
Throughout his Senate service, Senator Leahy has made clear his love of history and Vermont’s villages and downtowns. Working with his friend Paul Bruhn, he created the award-winning Village Revitalization Initiative and later the Paul Bruhn Historic Revitalization Grants Program. These programs have been used in every corner of the state to conserve historic buildings and renovate them for new uses, from business incubators to affordable housing to community centers.
He was a leading and crucial advocate on the Appropriations Committee of Community Development Block Grants and federal housing programs when the Trump Administration tried to end them.
Several Vermont communities have been able to take advantage of the New Markets Tax Credits the Senator pushed for. Combined, these tax credits brought $87 million to 11 communities so far, supporting projects such as Commonwealth Dairy, the King Street Youth Center and the Black River Produce facility in north Springfield.
Senator Leahy has brought funds to Vermont to help train Vermonters in advanced manufacturing skills, including a new center at VTC, and at multiple high schools and tech centers.
Using CDS requests, he was able to secure $1.2 million in this fiscal year to recruit, train and retain nurses.
In Vermont, physical beauty goes hand in hand with the economy. Senator Leahy has brought more than $100 million in funding for research and clean water projects on Lake Champlain, including getting access to annual research funding for UVM and Lake Champlain under NOAA’s Sea Grant Program. His success in achieving that included the storied episode of Senator Leahy including Lake Champlain as a ‘Great Lake’ for the purposes of funding under the Sea Grant Program. He got all he wanted through that skirmish with Midwestern senators.
Senator Leahy authored some of the country’s most important land conservation laws, including the Forest Legacy Act. Every year he has been able to secure funding for land conservation in Vermont, including adding more than 140,000 acres to the Green Mountain National Forest.
Senator Leahy’s signature accomplishment in this area is the National Organics Program, which made it possible for farmers who take extra steps to protect the environment to charge more for what they grow, reflecting the higher costs of organic production.
He has also been a major supporter of food hubs and innovation centers, bringing funding to centers in Hardwick and Brattleboro. In addition, he has gotten rule changes which have benefited Vermont’s cider and beer makers.
Senator Leahy has long championed dairy, most recently securing one of four Dairy Business Innovation Centers in the country for Vermont. The Senator, as a member (and former Chair) of the Senate Agriculture Committee has made risk management and conservation programs benefitting the dairy industry a priority in every 5-year Farm Bill since he joined the U.S. Senate.
No one in any endeavor has loved their job as much as Pat Leahy has loved being a US senator.