BY STEPHEN C. TERRY
RIPTON — Robert Frost’s epic poem, “The Road Not Taken” may well capture the long Senatorial career of Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., who announced a week ago that he will not seek an unprecedented ninth Senate term.
Speaking at a Vermont Statehouse press conference, a few feet from his boyhood home where he first announced his intention to run for the U. S. Senate in 1974, Leahy ended months of speculation.
“It’s time to put down the gavel. It is time to pass the torch to the next Vermonter to carry on this work for our great state. It’s time to come home,” Leahy told a roomful of current and former staff, family and friends.
As Frost wrote, without a doubt the road Leahy did take, by pursuing a long Vermont political career, “has made all the difference.”
For Vermont, Leahy’s long Senate career has resulted in billions of federal largesse being funneled to Vermont non-profit organizations, federal, state, and local governments, and many programs throughout the state. It has also enabled Leahy to shepherd through many bills, judicial appointments, and landmark legislation copied by other countries in the world, such as that which seeks to ban landmines. And he has also created special places in Vermont, such as the state’s two National Recreation Areas — the Moosalamoo and White Rocks — as well as Marsh Billings National Park in Woodstock.
LEAHY AND MOOSALAMOO
There is no better example of the Leahy Legacy than his land conservation efforts. Leahy has always made public access conservation of land and water a priority. In the Senate, Leahy has strongly supported the land acquisition projects for the Green Mountain National Forest. During his time, so far, the federal holdings of the Green Mountain Forest has grown by 140,000 acres, to now more than 400,000 acres.
Last May 4, Sen. Leahy and Marcelle were in Ripton for the dedication of the reconstructed Robert Frost National Trail and Interpretive Site, a particular project that, according to the Senator, was a “labor of love for Marcelle and me.” Leahy said he was very pleased that the Robert Frost Trail had recently been reconstructed with funds Leahy had directed to the MNRA to make it universally accessible and suitable for wheelchairs for the mile-long length.
The walk on the Frost Trail is a pleasure for visitors as they are graced with signposts that feature some of Frost’s most well known poetry set in a quiet, wild setting. At the dedication, Leahy noted that “it was really delightful” to see Frost’s poetry along the paths, and he was quick to photograph many of them that day in May, especially “The Road Not Taken.”
The Moosalamoo National Recreation Area had its origin in the early efforts of Tony Clark, the longtime proprietor of the Blueberry Hill Inn of Goshen. In 2006, legislation authored by Senators Leahy and Jim Jeffords, along with then Congressman Bernie Sanders, established the Moosalamoo National Recreation Area (NRA) as well as the White Rocks National Recreation Area in Tinmouth as part of the Vermont Wilderness Act.
The NRA designation did not initially provide any funding. However, in his seat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, (now its Chair), Leahy secured funding for trail work within the Moosalamoo in 2018, and every year since then.
The Moosalamoo National Recreation Area comprises just over 16,000 acres primarily within Ripton, Leicester, Salisbury and Goshen, an area that includes 70 miles of trails for hikers, mountain bikers, cross-country skiers, horseback riders, and bird watchers. Users experience mountain views, hardwood and softwood forests, waterfalls, lakes and streams. As Leahy said last May, the wilderness “refreshes the heart and the soul. It brings alive the spirit of Robert Frost and his genius as a poet.”
Leahy is a native of Montpelier. As his family owned and operated the Leahy Press, located just across State Street from the Vermont Statehouse, it was no coincidence that he had a deep and early interest in politics. After he graduated from St. Michael’s College, Leahy acquired his law degree from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. He then returned to Vermont, married Marcelle Pomerleau in 1962, and went to work as a young lawyer. Politics soon followed.
Leahy’s public service and political career were launched when he was appointed Chittenden County State’s Attorney by Gov. Philip H. Hoff. At the time, Leahy was a young associate lawyer in Hoff’s Burlington law office.
Leahy learned early on that the media was his friend. In fact, the late Marcellus Parsons of WCAX-TV told me that when he was a crime reporter in the late 1960s that he had a police radio installed in his home and his car. In that way, Parsons was able to get to a crime scene often before the police and before Leahy, then the county prosecutor. Unlike the police, Leahy was always willing to be interviewed by reporters on the scene. He was never shy around the media. Over his 10 years as the county prosecutor, as the televised reach of WCAX was expanding statewide, so was Leahy’s notoriety as a known state media figure.
After his appointment, Leahy then ran and was reelected four times as state’s attorney where he served until his Senate election in November 1974.
Before he ran for the Senate, Leahy and his young family had to make a choice: Would he try to continue in Vermont politics, or leave as state’s attorney and join a Burlington law firm where he would likely have had a financially successful legal career?
Leahy chose politics. He decided to run for the U. S. Senate in 1974 as a Democrat to fill the seat being vacated by Republican Sen. George Aiken, an historic pathway that had never resulted in a successful political career as Vermont was a dominant Republican state. Yet, with the surprise election of Democrat Hoff as governor in 1962, seeds of political change were beginning to sprout new thinking.
Leahy ran for the Senate against U. S. Rep. Richard W. Mallary, R-Vt. A former Vermont House Speaker, Mallory was the favorite given Vermont’s history of electing only Republicans to the U.S. Senate. Mallary was trying to distance himself from the dark shadow of President Richard M. Nixon who, in August 1974, resigned due to his cover-up of illegal activities associated with the Watergate crimes.
Leahy defeated Mallary, becoming one of the youngest persons ever elected to the Senate and the first Democrat from Vermont. It was instant national news.
The 1974 election season had put the Watergate issues front and center of all political debates. Leahy had benefitted from the desire for a fresh approach to politics by a new generation of candidates. Mallary, some years after his defeat, said that he blamed Nixon for his loss.
When he assumed office in Jan. 3, 1975 Leahy was 34 years old. The day before, Vermont’s legendary Senator George D. Aiken, had just completed 34 years in that same office.
Sen. Aiken had also used his long Senate career to funnel federal money to Vermont.
One of the ironies of Leahy’s long service has been his conversion to the value of the seniority system in the Senate. During his first campaign in 1974, Leahy campaigned for the abolishment of the seniority system, which rewards members with political power based on their length of service. Leahy said at the time that doing away with seniority would be a good government “reform” effort.
As Leahy began to accumulate Senate power due to his seniority, he would, in later years, joke that he had come to “learn its benefits of seniority” despite his earlier views.
EARLY SENATE CAREER
When Leahy was elected to the Senate, it was fortunate that Vermont’s other Senator, Robert T. Stafford, R-Vt., took his new Democratic colleague under his wing and helped Leahy get started.
When Leahy announced his retirement on Monday, he reminded his audience that one of his first votes, as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, was against funding the Vietnam War. He mentioned using his membership on, and later chairmanship of, the Senate Agriculture and Forestry Committee to push subsidies for Vermont’s dairy farmers, as well as becoming the champion for organic dairy farmers.
By adding “Nutrition” to the official Ag committee title, Leahy expanded the influence of the Agriculture Committee which then pushed for and supported federally financed feeding programs to improve the health of young mothers and children, as well as advocating that fresh food be grown on family farms for students in schools.
However, Leahy’s first six-year Senate term was not without some bumps in the road as new staff tried to navigate national and state politics. Controversies surrounding President Jimmy Carter’s attempt to get elected to a second term, proved problematic for the new Senator. Carter was continuously dogged by the tragic reality that American hostages were being held for 144 days in Iran, only to be released the day of Ronald Reagan’s Inauguration as President. Reagan’s landslide victory over Carter almost cost Leahy his Senate seat as Leahy narrowly defeated Stewart Ledbetter by about 2,700 votes.
As a result of his near loss, Leahy revamped his Senate staff and began to focus their attention on Vermont projects. The aim was to find Vermont projects that could either be replicated on a national level, or to fund and support efforts within Vermont. Over these many years, this has become Leahy’s hallmark.
As a result, Leahy scored his third Senate election victory in 1986 by a healthy margin over former Republican Gov. Richard A. Snelling. In 1992, Leahy faced his last real Republican opponent when he defeated then Secretary of State, and future governor, James H. Douglas. From that election on, Leahy has been reelected with ease every time he has faced Vermont voters.
In 1998, he ran his most unique race against Vermont’s iconic farmer, Fred Tuttle of Tunbridge. After Tuttle defeated his Republican primary opponent, Jack McMullen, Tuttle quickly endorsed Leahy saying he had no interest in leaving his Tunbridge farm. As a result, Leahy and Tuttle then campaigned together during the entire election season. This can happen only in Vermont. This election propelled Leahy’s popularity in his home state and in the nation.
If he had sought an unprecedented ninth term at age 82, Leahy said that private polls showed him as winning, once again.
Leahy’s role in the Senate has been a long career of Senate leadership.
He is now the Dean of the Senate and as President Pro Tem he is third in line for the Presidency, should a vacancy occur.
In his current role as Senate President Pro Tem, he presided over the second Impeachment Trial of President Donald Trump. While this event was very high profile, Leahy’s most important work continues to be as Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee during the COVID pandemic. Of great significance is Leahy’s advocacy for and perfection of every state getting a designated minimum of federal appropriations, and that Congress be authorized to direct specific spending for their states.
Leahy has also had an important leadership role as Chair and as Ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee in filling judicial appointments with Vermonters. Amongst those chosen were U. S. District Court Judges, Bill Sessions and Christina Reiss, and most recently, Beth Robinson, as Justice to the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals.