VERGENNES — While a five-person contest for the Democrat nomination for governor is garnering much of the election headlines leading up to Vermont’s Aug. 24 primary, U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., is not taking lightly his quest for another six-year term.
Leahy, the country’s second longest-serving U.S. senator (almost 36 years), faces a primary of his own this Tuesday against Daniel Freilich of Wilmington. The winner of that race will face Pomfret Republican Len Britton in the Nov. 2 election.
“I think the challenges are amazing,” Leahy said, of a U.S. Senate agenda that he said will include a ballooning federal deficit, global warming, conflicts in the Middle East and the potential for additional U.S. Supreme Court vacancies.
Leahy took some time last Thursday to discuss some of those challenges, and recent events on the national and global stage, during an interview with the Addison Independent.
Those issues included:
• A request for aid from flood-ravaged Pakistan.
In addition to his other duties, Leahy serves as chairman of the subcommittee that funds the State Department’s humanitarian and other financial assistance programs. Leahy and his colleagues are receiving requests for humanitarian aid to help thousands of Pakistanis who have lost family members, food and possessions during the natural disaster.
Leahy acknowledged the importance of the U.S. doing all it can to help, but stressed it would have to be a global effort. He also criticized Pakistani leadership for its handling of the disaster, most notably president Asif Ali Zardari, who was on a trip to Europe at the height of the devastation.
“The difficulty there is, the government itself has done such a horrible job,” Leahy said. “The president of the country goes out to Europe on a trip and was trying to get the United States to say the trip was a ‘worthwhile thing,’ and his own ambassador said, ‘You’ve got to be out of your mind.’”
Leahy believes the United States should step up and help, but with the assistance of other nations.
“It’s worrisome, because you have so many people who are in poverty anyway,” Leahy said. “We are getting somewhere, but it’s going to be difficult. It’s not something the United States can take care of (by itself), it’s going to take a whole lot of countries.”
• Job creation and tax breaks. Leahy voiced frustration that while the United States was spending $1 trillion on what he considers to have been an ill-conceived war in Iraq, China recently surpassed Japan as an economic power. He noted China has emerged as a leader in development of green technology, an industry he believes the U.S. should be dominating.
“That’s a market I believe we should be exporting to,” said Leahy, who believes more conflicts in the future will be fought over water than oil. “But I suspect (China) is probably delighted we got involved in a war in Iraq, spending a lot of money there, while they spend their money becoming a global economic power.”
Leahy said the U.S. needs to re-establish itself as a manufacturing powerhouse, in part, by awarding tax breaks to companies that create jobs domestically and not to those that export employment overseas.
• The successful nomination of Elena Kagan as associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, led the hearings on Kagan’s nomination and did a lot of behind-the-scenes networking with colleagues to make for what he said was a relatively smooth process.
“I said, ‘Let’s do something that reflects well on the United Stated Senate,’” Leahy said of his message to his colleagues.
“I made sure everyone got a chance to be heard, with both parties,” he added of the hearings.
On Kagan, former dean of the Harvard Law School and U.S. solicitor general: “I think she is going to be surprisingly good. I was glad to see someone from outside the judicial monastery.”
• The proposed construction of an Islamic religious center near the site of Ground Zero in New York City. While Leahy said his opinion as a U.S. Senate candidate from Vermont was not likely to carry a lot of weight in New York, he said he is not opposed to the notion of building the mosque close to the former site of the World Trade Center.
“They really have to treat all religions the same; you can’t say we have one rule for Christians, one rule for Jews and a different rule for Muslims,” Leahy said.
He noted there is a place of worship for Muslims in the Pentagon “around 80 feet” from where one of the airplanes struck that building back on Sept. 11, 2001.
“I’ve always felt the strongest basis for our democracy is in the First Amendment,” Leahy said. “You have a right to practice any religion you want, or none if you want. If you guarantee diversity, you guarantee democracy. So I am not going to join that crowd that is saying, ‘We want to pick and choose.’”
• Same-sex marriage. Leahy noted with interest a California judge’s recent decision to strike down a voter-backed ban on gay marriage. That decision is likely to face further court tests. Leahy believes same-sex marriage should continue to be a state, rather than federal, issue. He said that ultimately, the federal government is likely to pass legislation recognizing the rights and benefits that states have conferred upon same-sex couples.
• Dairy farming. Leahy, a senior member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said Vermont’s Congressional delegation is drawing up legislation that would encourage a supply management program for farmers as a means of helping keep milk prices higher.
“I find it very frustrating that the price of milk goes up at the grocery store, but the farmers aren’t getting any of that,” Leahy said. “You have some processors that are doing very well.”
Leahy is pleased to see an increasing number of farmers turning to organic milk, produce and meats as a way of increasing their revenues. He has spearheaded legislation in support of organic farming.
“It is now a $20 billion industry nationwide, and growing,” Leahy said.
“I still feel regional dairy compacts would be the best,” Leahy said. “But the states cannot agree on that.”
• The upcoming mid-term elections. Leahy acknowledged Democrats will face a tough challenge holding onto their majorities in the U.S. House and Senate.
“Usually the party that holds the presidency loses seats in mid-term elections,” Leahy said. “There are some difficult seats.”
Looking at his own chamber, Leahy is optimistic his party will maintain control in the Senate. He is encouraging his colleagues to emphasize what he said are some key differences between the two parties.
“There is a big difference between the two parties on tax policy,” Leahy said. “One is in favor of tax breaks for those who ship jobs overseas; we are in favor of tax breaks for those who keep jobs at home. I think that message has to get out a lot more.”
• The Iraq War. Leahy said he is pleased to see the U.S. wind down its military involvement in Iraq, but said he believes history will not be kind to the nation’s involvement in that conflict.
“I think historians will look back at Iraq and say it was one of the greatest mistakes America ever made,” Leahy said.
Reporter John Flowers is at email@example.com.