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Sen. Leahy remains a workhorse after four decades in D.C.

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Posted on February 6, 2014 |
By Zach Despart



Leahy2568.jpg
SEN. PATRICK LEAHY stands on the balcony of one of his offices in the Capitol. Nicknamed "The Hideaway," the office is traditionally reserved for the Senate President Pro Tem. Leahy ascended to the post when Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, died in 2012. Independent photo/Zach Despart

Editor’s note: Democrat Patrick Leahy, now 73, was the state’s attorney for Chittenden County when he was elected to represent Vermont in the U.S. Senate in 1974. Now the longest-serving active senator, he has the perspective, the connections and the power to accomplish a lot for his state and his country. Our reporter spent a day with Sen. Leahy last week, watching the veteran politician hard at work in the nation’s capital.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — When President Obama walked down the aisle of the House of Representatives to deliver his annual State of the Union address last week, he was flanked by the leadership of the Senate and House.

Yet one senior legislator was conspicuously absent — Vermont’s senior senator, Patrick Leahy. For the first time in 39 years, Leahy was absent from the State of the Union. Instead, he watched the speech from an undisclosed location, surrounded by Secret Service and military personnel.

Leahy, the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, is third in the line of presidential succession, after the Vice President and Speaker of the House.

“They put me in an extraordinarily secure area, with a whole presidential team of intelligence to military to Secret Service,” Leahy recounted later in an interview with the Independent. “It was of the few times you realize the real potential (of becoming president), though you never want it to happen.”

Leahy said there were some perks about watching the speech on television.

“I could actually watch it without having to even wear a tie,” Leahy said. “I was happy to go home, read my newspapers and go to bed.”

But perhaps the change of venue was befitting of Leahy, who has never sought the spotlight. Despite his stature, Leahy keeps a low profile — he doesn’t often appear on talk shows, rarely holds press conferences and hasn’t authored a memoir.

Instead he chooses to occupy himself with his work and his family, never straying from his roots as a county prosecutor in Vermont.

PRESIDENT PRO TEM

I met up with the senator in his Washington office early on a Wednesday afternoon. He’d spent much of the morning hearing testimony from Attorney General Eric Holder during a Judiciary Committee hearing.

Leahy’s office is on the fourth floor of the Russell Senate Office Building, across Constitution Avenue to the east of the Capitol. Barry Goldwater, the legendary senator from Arizona, previously occupied the suite, which includes 10 adjoining rooms.

Dozens of people work out of the office, including legislative staff and press aides. In total, Leahy oversees 69 staffers — 34 from his Washington, Burlington and Montpelier offices, plus another 34 that staff the Judiciary Committee. One additional staffer works out of the largely ceremonial President Pro Tempore’s office within the Capitol, and is tasked with making sure passed bills on the way to the president are affixed with Leahy’s signature.

Leahy has just returned from the White House, where he had lunch with Ed Pagano, his former chief of staff who now works as a legislative liaison to President Obama. Now he sits down with David Rosowsky, the new provost at the University of Vermont, who has flown down from Burlington.

The conversation focuses mainly on Rosowsky’s goals for the university, but soon drifts toward a series of photographs on the wall. Leahy, an avid photographer, has taken all of the shots, and at the first opportunity he gets up from his chair to tell the story behind them.

He explains to Rosowsky that the photographs are from a closed-door meeting of legislators during the contentious health care reform negotiations. In one, Sen. Joseph Lieberman tells President Obama why he won’t vote for the bill. The president, standing with his arms crossed next to the senator, looks unconvinced.

It’s the first of many anecdotes Leahy will tell throughout the day. He has a knack, an undeniable enthusiasm for storytelling. His perpetually hoarse voice forces listeners to hang on his every word, and though many of his tales recall his earliest days in the Senate four decades ago, there’s not a detail out of place.

After the meeting Leahy heads to the Dirksen Building next door for a farewell reception for Sen. Max Baucus, the Montana Democrat who is retiring to become the U.S. ambassador to China.

We’re met in the hallway outside the office suite by two officers who are part of the security detail permanently assigned to the President Pro Tempore. Leahy is an imposing figure, tall and broad-shouldered, and looms over both of them.

We take the brick-lined hallway in the basement that connects the Russell and Dirksen buildings. On the way, Leahy peppers me with questions about the specifications of my camera.

The reception is crowded with a number of senators and dozens of staffers, whom I suspect have attended to snag some free grub from the impressive buffet. Leahy chats with Baucus briefly before departing. We head to the office of the President Pro Tempore in the Capitol, which Leahy says he likes because it has a functioning fireplace.

LEAHY CHATS WITH Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., at a reception in Baucus' honor. Baucus is retiring from the Senate to become the next U.S. Ambassador to China. Independent photo/Zach Despart

A massive chandelier hangs from the ceiling in the office, and there is, as promised, a crackling fire. There’s a break in the senator’s otherwise hectic schedule, so I ask him why he chooses to keep such a low profile in Washington.

“I can accomplish more by not going out and saying, ‘Look at me!’” Leahy said. “I’d rather get the work done. I get asked a lot of times to go on the Sunday shows. I say I’m going to church with Marcelle, or that we’ve got grandkids.”

For Leahy, the focus has always been on his family and his work.

“I don’t need it — some of these senators can’t stand not to be on TV or in the news,” Leahy said. “Vermonters know me.”

The senator said he believes calling too much attention to himself would only serve as a distraction.

“I want to be an effective legislator,” Leahy said, recalling his work on patent reform, organic farming, the landmine export ban and the passage and renewal of the Violence Against Women Act.

From his start in the Senate in 1975, Leahy has sought to be a hardworking legislator. He recounted how he asked to be assigned to the Appropriations Committee much earlier than most senators would be.

“Both the Republican and Democratic leaders of that committee said, ‘We’ll back you, because you’re a workhorse and not a show horse. We got too many show horses,’” Leahy recalled.

Leahy proved his worth as a workhorse last year, when he shepherded a controversial immigration reform bill through the Senate. In a matter of weeks, the Judiciary Committee, which he chairs, debated some 300 amendments to the bill.

“A lot of my people didn’t want any immigration bill and figured that would stop it because no committee’s ever done 300 amendments in the two to three weeks that were set aside,” Leahy said.

But instead of giving up, Leahy and his colleagues buckled down, meeting every day the Senate was in session.

“We’d meet until 10 or 11 o’clock at night, just doing amendments,” Leahy said.

When senators were at an impasse, Leahy worked to find common ground.

“I’d have a Republican who’d say there’s a Democrat on your side who won’t compromise, so I’d get the two of them and say, ‘Let’s work it out,’” Leahy said. “Sometimes there’d be a Democrat mad at a Republican and we’d work it out.”

The bill made it out of committee intact, and the full Senate passed the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act in June 2013. The House has yet to take action on that bill, though Leahy remains optimistic that immigration reform is on the horizon.

“I was down at the White House this noon, meeting with some people on immigration,” Leahy said. “I think we can get an immigration bill.”

Luke Albee, who served as Leahy’s chief of staff for 20 years, said the senator is wise to reach out to all of his colleagues to find consensus on issues.

“He understands that issues shouldn’t break down solely along party lines,” Albee said. “He understands that the guy you might be fighting over a Constitutional amendment today might be your top ally tomorrow.”

Albee said Leahy, throughout his career, has built relationships with senators, despite their political differences — including Republican senators like Richard Lugar of Indiana and Thad Cochran of Mississippi.

“The old days weren’t peaches and cream — you fought like hell 25 percent of the time, but you worked together 75 percent of the time,” Albee said.

Leahy was again the consensus builder during recent negotiations over the farm bill. A member of the farm bill conference committee, a group of the legislators from both chambers charged with reconciling House and Senate versions of the bill, Leahy took a lead role in the talks, which often lasted late into the night.

“I don’t know how many evenings I’ve had to cancel stuff to stay here and work on that,” Leahy said. “I’m not feeling sorry for myself, but when I’m here until 10 o’clock at night, my staff people will be here until 1 or 2 in the morning. And we start early the next morning.”

In the negotiations, Leahy stuck up for Vermont dairy farmers. When the committee was poised to deliver a report to both houses that did not include a new dairy program, Leahy threatened to withdraw support from the bill. Ultimately, he struck a compromise with Republicans for a dairy program, and the committee’s work was complete.

“I talked with the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee this afternoon and he was glad I stuck to my guns, because it made it easier for him,” Leahy said, referring to Oklahoma Republican Frank Lucas. “I have the votes to stop any bill, but I’d rather pass bills than stop them, and it worked out pretty well.”

The House passed the conference bill Jan. 29. The Senate on Tuesday passed the farm bill, which President Obama has indicated he will sign.

CHAIRMAN LEAHY PRESIDES over the Senate Judiciary Committee Jan. 30. He is flanked by ranking member Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif. Independent photo/Zach Despart

YOUNG BUCK

While hard to imagine today, Leahy was once a 34-year-old junior senator — the first, and to date only Democrat Vermont has ever sent to the U.S. Senate. He listed a number of senators as mentors — Goldwater, Hubert Humphrey, then-Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, and fellow Vermonter Robert Stafford.

Despite the fact that Stafford was a Republican, Leahy said the two enjoyed a close relationship.

“I don’t think we ever once voted differently on an issue that affected Vermont,” Leahy said of Stafford. “I never said anything disparaging about him nor he about me during the time we served. He was the closest friend I had here. I’ve never forgotten that, or the others who took me aside.”

Remembering the senators who helped him land on his feet, Leahy said he has reached out to younger members of the Senate, among them Chris Coons of Delaware and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, both Democrats.

Coons won his seat in a special election in 2010. Instead of having two months to prepare for the job, like most senators-elect, Coons was seated within days. He described his initial weeks in the Senate as “dizzying,” and pointed to Leahy as a source of support.

“Chairman Leahy promptly made time for me, was personal and engaging and supportive and memorably, directed me to never forget what it feels like to be the 99th or 100th Senator in seniority,” Coons said. “He has continued to be incredibly gracious with his time, support and encouragement, and I’ve tried to earn that by supporting him on the committee on a lot of his issues.”

Whitehouse, who was elected in 2006, said Leahy also helped him settle into the Senate.

“It’s very much a mentor relationship that means a lot to me,” Whitehouse said. “Among the things that he does is that he helps you with staff, to make sure you’ve got the budget you need to get good committee staff. Not a lot of committees do that.”

Whitehouse credited his Vermont colleague for much of the progress he has made in the Senate over the last eight years.

“In all those ways, and in personal friendship in conversations he’s had with me, he’s been as important to any success I’ve had in the Senate as anybody else,” Whitehouse said.

INSTITUTIONAL MEMORY

Over time, Leahy has become the de facto dean of the chamber, the institutional memory of the body he has served in for the majority of his life. The youngest current senator, Connecticut Democrat Chris Murphy, was just a year old when Leahy was elected.

Leahy prides himself on building consensus among senators — a skill he learned from the older senators that served as mentors to him. Leahy said that both he and a Republican senator worked with the newest senator, Democrat Cory Booker of New Jersey, and said that the Senate needs more of that bipartisan camaraderie.

“We’ve got to go back to doing more of that. A lot of the old, more senior senators from both parties realize we do,” Leahy said. “I remember that when my father died, two of the first people to call my mother in Montpelier, one was Ted Kennedy and the other was Barry Goldwater. You can’t think of two people further apart.”

Leahy said that hyper-partisanship plagues Congress, particularly the House of Representatives.

“A lot of these Tea Party districts are gerrymandered,” Leahy said, referring to the process by which a district is drawn to create a distinct advantage for one party. “The last House election, there were more Democratic votes cast than Republican votes, but there’s a Republican majority in the House.”

Leahy said this results in Representatives with ideologically narrow constituencies, rather than an accurate representation of their state. Leahy said this problem does not exist in the Senate, because senators represent an entire state, rather than arbitrarily drawn districts.

Leahy sees glimmers of hope for surmounting partisanship in Congress. He noted how the Violence Against Women Act was renewed with broad bipartisan support, made possible when House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican, ignored the Hastert Rule and scheduled a vote on the bill. In the practice, named after former Speaker Dennis Hastert, the Speaker does not bring a bill to a vote unless the majority of his party supports it.

“The Speaker waived the so-called Hastert Rule, said, just, everybody vote,” Leahy said. “And so we passed it. We did the same thing on the patent bill. We’ve got to start doing more of that.”

FAMILY FOCUS

Among all the compliments thrown at Leahy throughout the day, the exaltations of fellow Senators, the reverence of staff, the praise of constituents — there was a common theme: Everyone made a point to cite Leahy’s dedication to his family.

Leahy spoke at length about the importance of his wife and children in his life, and recounted a difficult choice he made 34 years ago. It was in 1980, when he faced his first re-election bid, a tough race against Stewart Ledbetter.

“I knew my re-election would be difficult — I never realized how difficult, that was the year of the Reagan sweep,” Leahy recalled, noting that President Jimmy Carter got only 20 or 30 percent of the vote in Vermont. “I was outspent about 5 to 1.”

Amidst the campaign, Leahy was invited by former President Gerald Ford to introduce him at a speaking event at the University of Vermont.

“Politically, it would have been very helpful,” Leahy said. “But, it was the night of our son’s 15th birthday. We’d planned a family celebration, and I’d had a rule that we would never break a family thing, except if I had to be on the floor for a vote.”

Leahy called Ford to reluctantly decline the invitation.

“I started to explain to him why I couldn’t do it and he said, ‘Pat, shut up and listen to me,’” Leahy recalled. “He said, ‘For years as the Republican leader of the House, part of my duties, I had to go to things that I had to give up things with my kids. I did as vice president, even as president.’ And he says, ‘You know what? To this day I can’t remember what was so important.’”

Leahy stayed home to celebrate with his son Kevin — who received a birthday card from President Ford.

It’s obvious by how polished the story is that Leahy has told it dozens of times. But at least some of the younger senators have taken it to heart — Florida Republican Marco Rubio included it in his memoir, “An American Son.”

‘THE HIDEAWAY’

Leahy left midway through our discussion to vote on a flood insurance bill before the Senate. He told me and press secretary David Carle that he’d meet us in “The Hideaway” afterwards. Carle explained to me that The Hideaway is a highly coveted Capitol office that is traditionally reserved for the Senate President Pro Tempore. Leahy inherited it after Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii died in 2012, leaving Leahy as the longest-serving Senator.

Carle says Leahy has the only key to the office, which I realize is not a metaphor when Leahy has to knock on the door to be let in, as he’d given the key to Carle.

The office is nondescript — just a desk, a couch, a table and some chairs. Leahy’s only complaint about it seems to be that the fireplace doesn’t work.

The space is just around the corner from the Senate floor, and Leahy said he often hosts members from both chambers for informal meetings. An added convenience is that Speaker John Boehner has an office next door, and can be easily consulted if necessary.

“We’ll just walk down and say ‘Hey, John, here’s what we got,’” Leahy said. “Probably save a week of running back and forth to do something in an hour.”

I asked the senator if he ever found it hard, after all these years, to identify with average Vermonters. He shook his head without hesitation.

“I live on a dead-end dirt road, in a house we’ve had forever,” Leahy said. “We spent part of our honeymoon there 51 years ago. I’ve always had a listed phone number.”

The senator added that he still goes to the grocery store, which takes twice as long as it normally would because so many people stop to talk to him. He pumped his own gas until his security detail prevented him from doing so.

Lately, he’s had to cancel weekends home because of the negotiations on the farm bill. But he makes an effort to stay in touch with Vermonters even then.

“I probably talk to 50-70 Vermonters from around the state every week,” Leahy said. “I take letters or emails that come in at random, some saying ‘Oh, boy, did you make a mistake,’ others saying ‘I agree.’ I’ll get the phone number and dial it myself and say ‘Hi, it’s Pat Leahy.’”

Leahy, whose sixth term expires in 2016, remains coy about whether he will seek re-election.

“I’ll make a definitive decision the year before — I started doing that a number of years ago,” Leahy said. “You’ve got a lot more freedom in how you act if you wait until the last year. Otherwise you’ve got to worry about re-election.”

After 39 years, he said he still does not feel the job is done.

“With all the issues facing this country, the job’s never done,” Leahy said. “With the seniority I’m probably as effective the last few years as I’ve ever been. That’s the argument to stay here. I’ve also been working the hardest I ever have.”

After we chat for a bit he opens the door to the balcony. Outside there’s a wrought-iron table and chairs — Leahy said when the weather is nice he hosts senators well into the evening.

It’s past sunset and the last rays of sunlight ebb behind the Washington Monument across the National Mall to the west, likely one of the most beautiful views in the city. Taking advantage of the golden hour, I shoot a few photos of the senator while we’re talking, until he insists on taking a few of me, to which I reluctantly oblige.

Afterward, we walk though the Capitol Rotunda, down to the subway, which takes us back to the Russell Building. It’s 6:30 by the time Leahy is ready to call it a day.

It’s clear from the Vermont memorabilia and photographs of his children and grandchildren that adorn the walls of his D.C. office that, while the Montpelier native spends much of his time 500 miles away from his home amid the bucolic farmlands in Middlesex, Leahy has never strayed far from his Vermont roots.

A sign hung unceremoniously in the corner. It read “Patrick J. Leahy, State’s Attorney” — the same one that hung outside Leahy’s Burlington office so many years ago.

Despite the security details and catered receptions, the ornate offices and endless media requests, that sign reminds Leahy of the job he speaks so fondly of — as a county prosecutor seeking to improve the lives of Vermonters, one case at a time.

Today, he’s still doing just that, and although the stage is bigger and the responsibilities are greater, Leahy is propelled by the same sense of duty that pushed him to first seek elected office nearly five decades ago.

Of all the topics we spoke of, Leahy spoke most passionately about the Violence Against Women Act, a bill he said was dear to him because of his time in Burlington courtrooms.

“I used to go to a lot of crime scenes at 3 o’clock in the morning, and see a battered, dead woman — we could have stopped it if we had something like the Violence Against Women Act,” Leahy said. “I still have nightmares about some of these things I saw.”

When the law was due to be renewed last year, the Vermont statesman led the way, building a bipartisan coalition and, in classic Leahy fashion, avoiding press conferences.

“If I had spent a lot of time out talking about the bill, it never would have passed,” Leahy said. “I could talk about it, or I could do it.”

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