Sen. Patrick Leahy (D)
Elected: 1974, term expires 2010, 6th term.
Born: March 31, 1940, Montpelier .
Education: St. Michael's Col., B.A. 1961, Georgetown U., J.D. 1964.
Family: Married (Marcelle); 3 children.
Elected office: VT st. atty., Chittenden Cnty., 1966–74.
Professional Career: Practicing atty., 1964–74.
Patrick Leahy, Vermont’s longest-serving senator, was first elected to the Senate in 1974. He has held public office for most of his adult life. He grew up in Burlington, went to law school at Georgetown University, then returned home to practice law. He was elected Chittenden County state’s attorney in 1966, at age 26, and after eight years in that post he ran for the U.S. Senate at age 34. It was 1974, and Leahy had made a name for himself in the tiny state as the Burlington-area prosecutor who tried all major felony cases personally and who attacked the Big Oil companies during the 1970s energy crisis. He had a solid base in Democratic Burlington, together with the kind of quiet, thoughtful temperament that Yankee Vermonters like in their public officials. He outpolled Republican U.S. Rep. Richard Mallary by a narrow margin to win the Senate seat.
|Patrick Leahy (D)||216,972||(71%)||($1,531,833)|
|Jack McMullen (R)||75,398||(25%)||($736,086)|
|Patrick Leahy (D)||27,459||(95%)|
|Craig Hill (D)||1,573||(5%)|
Prior Winning Percentages: 1998 (72%), 1992 (54%), 1986 (63%), 1980 (50%), 1974 (50%)
Over the years, Leahy has made his mark as chairman of the Judiciary Committee. He was formerly chairman of the Agriculture Committee, and he may chair the powerful Appropriations panel in the next few years, given his seniority. Judiciary handles many of the cultural issues—such as abortion and gun control—that have polarized the two parties and their constituencies, and the committee has been sharply divided at least since the hearings on the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Robert Bork in 1987. In the 1990s, when Republicans were in the majority, Leahy criticized them for holding up President Clinton’s judicial appointments, and he stoutly defended Clinton during the impeachment proceedings in 1998 and 1999. When Leahy became chairman during the Democrats’ 19 months in the majority in 2001 and 2003, he, in turn, held up the Republicans’ judicial nominations. He led the rejection on party-line votes of two judicial nominees for the 5th Circuit and insisted that another nominee produce the memos he had written while working in the office of the solicitor general—an unprecedented demand. As ranking minority member of the committee in 2003-07, Leahy led filibusters against 10 Appeals Court nominees, tactics that the Republicans bitterly attacked. Leahy noted that the committee had approved the vast majority of appellate nominees and almost every trial court nominee, and argued that he had been fairer to President Bush’s appointees than Republicans had been to Clinton’s.
In 2005, Leahy led the minority’s questioning of Bush’s Supreme Court nominees John Roberts and Samuel Alito, both of whom were ultimately confirmed by the Senate. The liberal senator surprised many when he voted to approve the conservative Roberts. “I know this will not be popular with many of my constituency, and I understand that,” Leahy said. “I came here to do what I thought was right, and as a Vermonter I can do nothing different.” He also asked tough questions of Alito, and that time he voted no. He said, “This president is in the midst of a radical realignment of the powers of government and its intrusiveness into the private lives of Americans. This nomination is part of that plan.”
Another major chapter in Leahy’s tenure as chairman was handling legislation that grew out of the September 11 terrorist attacks. He and his staff worked with the Bush administration to hammer out the USA PATRIOT Act, the sweeping law that sparked a national debate over whether government investigators should be given broader powers at the expense of individual liberties. It was essentially the Senate version, not the House bill, that was enacted in October 2001. But Leahy fought the administration when it sought to expand police powers in the wake of the attacks. He opposed a proposal to allow the government to detain and deport immigrants suspected of terrorism without presenting evidence in court. In 2002, he said that the Justice Department should be required to disclose the number of U.S. citizens being spied on, the number of secret foreign-intelligence wiretaps that had become part of criminal proceedings, and the total number of persons targeted by foreign-intelligence surveillance warrants.
After the story broke on the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in 2004, Leahy sharply criticized the administration, and he strongly disagreed with Bush’s declaration that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to unlawful combatants in Afghanistan. In 2005, Leahy objected to the government’s surveillance of communications between suspected Al Qaeda terrorists abroad and people in the United States. As chairman in 2007, he made life difficult for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales by requesting an internal investigation of whether Gonzales had told the truth about the warrantless wiretapping program. Leahy subsequently placed Gonzales’s successor, Michael Mukasey, on the spot with demands that he denounce the use of waterboarding, a harsh interrogation tactic that simulates drowning and that has been used on terrorism suspects.
Leahy is a gadgeteer and an amateur photographer. He is also an avid student of popular culture, and a huge fan of the Batman movies. (He appeared briefly in one of the films, with a speaking part. Leahy tells the Joker, “We’re not intimidated by you thugs.”) He can recite verses from Shakespeare and lyrics from the Grateful Dead rock band. In 1995, he became the second senator, after Democrat Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, to set up a personal website, and in 2003, he was the first member of Congress with a blog. Titled “More From the Floor,” the site is updated several times a day and informs readers about floor debates and roll-call votes. Leahy’s fascination with gadgets helps to explain his interest in patent issues; on the committee, he has fought piracy and counterfeiting. He co-sponsored with Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl, a Republican, legislation making the theft of personal identification information a crime.
Another Leahy cause is the elimination of land mines. Since 1989, he has been crusading against the export and use of land mines, which are easy and cheap to implant yet difficult and expensive to remove. In many places, land mines continue to injure and kill civilians long after hostilities have ended. In 1994, Leahy persuaded the United Nations to unanimously call for the eventual elimination of land mines. On a similar issue, he co-sponsored in 2006 an amendment to ban the use of cluster bombs near civilian sites in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it was defeated 70-30. On other foreign-policy and defense issues, Leahy tends to the left as well. He has been an outspoken critic of the Iraq War. He was one of three senators to vote against authorization of missile defense in March 1999, and he has called for an end to the ban on travel to Cuba.
Leahy is one of the few members of the Agriculture Committee who is not from a state with heavily subsidized crops such as wheat, corn, soybeans, and cotton. As the ranking Democrat on the committee, he worked with Indiana Republican Richard Lugar in the 1990s to phase out the subsidy system. But after their success in passing the Freedom to Farm Act of 1996, crop prices fell, and lawmakers’ resolve dissipated; Congress took to voting large annual subsidies in the form of emergency relief to farmers. The 2002 farm bill largely rolled back the 1996 act.
That is not to say that Leahy is not at times as parochial as the next senator. On Agriculture, he is a staunch defender of the interests of the 1,150 dairy farms in Vermont. With the other members of the Vermont and New Hampshire delegations, he pushed successfully in 2006 for a wilderness designation for 42,000 acres in the Green Mountain National Forest. And he helped defeat a Bush administration proposal for a study of a wall between the United States and Canada that would have included the Vermont border.
Leahy has had relatively easy re-election contests. His one close call was in 1980, when he narrowly survived that year’s Republican sweep. He defeated Republican Stewart Ledbetter just 50%-49%. Six years later, he was completely rehabilitated politically. In 1986, he defeated popular Gov. Richard Snelling, 63%-35%. Leahy was an early supporter of Illinois Sen. Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries and should have a reservoir of goodwill with the new administration.