MONTPELIER — Sen. Patrick Leahy has announced he will not seek re-election, saying, “It’s time to come home.”
Leahy, 81, made the announcement Monday alongside his wife Marcelle at the State House. He received a standing ovation from current and former state officials and legislators before returning to Washington, D.C.
Leahy said he wanted to make his retirement announcement in Room 11, the same place he announced his candidacy for the U.S. Senate. While he now lives in Middlesex, he said it was important to him to make such an announcement across the street from where he grew up in Montpelier, and noted he used to ride his tricycle down the State House halls when he was a child.
Leahy has been elected to the Senate eight times and has served for nearly 50 years. His eighth term runs out in January 2023 and his replacement will be selected during the election next November.
He was a 33-year-old Chittenden County state’s attorney when he first ran for the office.
Leahy said he was proud to be Vermont’s longest-serving senator.
“While I will continue to serve Vermont, Marcelle and I have reached the conclusion that it is time 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. It’s time to come home,” he said.
Leahy has racked up a long list of accomplishments serving for as long as he has. He is currently third in line for presidential succession as president pro tempore of the Senate.
He went through some of those accomplishments Monday.
Leahy said just a few months after taking office, he was asked to vote on the continuation of the war in Vietnam.
“In Vermont, where support for the war was strong, I had always opposed it. The authorization was defeated by one vote. I was proud to be that one vote. My hope was Vermonters would respect my judgment and my conscience, even if they disagreed with my vote to end the war. I learned early in my career that good judgment and hard work are exactly what Vermonters expect from their representatives,” he said.
Leahy said he eventually became chairman of what was then called the Senate Agriculture Committee where he would bring “born in Vermont” ideas to the national stage. He said the programs he introduced have conserved hundreds of thousands of acres of working farmland and forestland.
Leahy said after spending time with Vermont farmers, he became convinced the country needed set standards for organic farming, so he used his position to help create them.
He said he had the committee name changed to Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry because the nutrition piece had been left out. Leahy said Vermonters helped him realize SNAP benefits should be used at farmers’ markets and to create a farm-to-school program so kids have access to nutritious meals.
“Open land. Cleaner water. New markets for our farmers. Providing nutritious food for those in need. That will be a legacy to our state for generations,” he said.
He’s served as chairman or ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee for 20 years. In that time, Leahy said he “fiercely defended our civil liberties, the First Amendment, our right to privacy and the free flow of information from the government to the people it represents.”
Leahy said he was part of the first update to the Violence Against Women Act. He also took part in adding protections to that act for Native American women, the LGBTQ community and children who were sex trafficked.
He took part in multiple judicial appointments, including the recent appointment of Beth Robinson, a former state Supreme Court justice, to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. Robinson, a lesbian, is the first openly LGBTQ woman to serve on any federal district court. He said he also helped confirm Christina Reiss, the first woman to serve on the Federal District Court in Vermont.
On the Appropriations Committee, Leahy said he helped install small state minimums for federal funding. He said these funds helped the state get the resources it needed to deal with issues such as Tropical Storm Irene and the opioid epidemic. He said his advocacy for such minimums helped Vermont secure over $2.5 billion to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.
His congressional counterparts thanked him for his service. Sen. Bernie Sanders described Leahy as a “towering figure” who leaves “a unique legacy that will be impossible to match.”
“I know I speak for all Vermonters in expressing the deep gratitude we feel for the extraordinary role that Pat Leahy has played in representing Vermont in the U.S. Senate for the last 46 years,” Sanders said in a statement.
Rep. Peter Welch is widely believed to be the front runner for Leahy’s soon-to-be open seat.
Welch said in a statement Monday was “a historic and bittersweet day.”
He said it’s hard to imagine the Senate without Leahy.
“No one has served Vermont so faithfully, so constantly, so honestly, and so fiercely as Patrick,” Welch said. “Patrick’s life as our longest-serving senator has been dedicated to serving Vermont, always putting Vermonters and their values and aspirations first. Patrick loves Vermont and Vermonters love Patrick. While Patrick has been a giant in the U.S. Senate, consulted by presidents and world leaders, he is always happiest on his farm in Middlesex and being with his fellow Vermonters. He never left his roots in Montpelier or the values of his parents, who instilled decency, honesty, and service.”
Republican Gov. Phil Scott said in a statement he wanted to thank Leahy on behalf of all Vermonters.
“The Senator has been an incredible champion for Vermonters, and his leadership and experience has ensured our state is well represented in Congress. It is thanks to him, and the funding he’s secured for our state, 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,” Scott said.