The Leahy legacy: Fidel, fundraising and influential friends


BURLINGTON >> The cigar brown office chairs sitting in U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy's campaign office in Burlington date back to the 1970s, a vintage furniture set that would have fit perfectly in a room at the Watergate Hotel right around the time of the infamous break-in.

The Watergate scandal unraveled just ahead of Leahy's first U.S. Senate run in 1974. Republican President Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace in August of that year. Democrats, electoral paws poised, were prepared to make huge electoral gains.

Leahy purchased the brown chairs for his office when he was Chittenden County state's attorney, and donated them to his inaugural campaign. He ended up winning that 1974 race against Republican Richard Mallary by more than three points.

Like the candidate, the chairs have been in active use ever since.

And while their shape and color are out of vogue and have faded with age, they still swivel seamlessly, and are as comfortable as a well-worn shoe.

Leahy, who has represented Vermont in the U.S. Senate for 42 years and is the chamber's most senior member, is hoping voters view him with the same ease and comfort and re-elect him to another six year term.

And while this year's fight for control of the U.S. Senate is marked by many hard-fought, hyper partisan battles played out in a mosh pit of mud and money, Leahy looks likely to breeze to an easy victory.

The scant polling this general election has Leahy with a large lead over Milne. Vermont Public Radio has Leahy leading Milne by 37 points — 59 percent to 22 percent. A WCAX poll released Tuesday notches a similar lead for Leahy — 64 percent to 29 percent.

Still, Leahy's coronation has been slightly complicated by Milne, an affable travel agency owner who drives a truck and fashions himself an outsider who can be "a humble agent for change."

"The biggest impediment on the ballot in 2016 to me being optimistic about the future of America and Vermont is Patrick Leahy," Milne recently told VTDigger.

Across the nation, the Senate races could tip the balance from Republican back to a Democratic Party majority, including a key race next door.

While more than $61 million has been spent in the U.S. Senate race across the Connecticut River, where Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan and incumbent Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte are neck-and-neck, the Leahy-Milne race has been a relatively low-spending affair.

Particularly by Milne, whose two late-20's children are leading an all-volunteer campaign.

(One of his larger expenses was $300 for DVD copies of "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," a souvenir he hands out on street corners and at campaign events.)

In his hopes of going to Washington, "Mr. Milne" has targeted three broad areas:

• Leahy's age

• Leahy's partisanship

• Leahy's campaign contributions and ties to special interests

Milne hasn't offered real details on any policy, and is instead hoping the historically low approval rating of Congress will get him to D.C.

"I don't want the election to be all about you Sen. Leahy, but I want to win so I have to talk about you," Milne conceded as he tried to challenge Leahy during a debate last week in Burlington, one of the few Leahy agreed to participate in.

Sitting in one of his aging brown chairs on a recent fall afternoon, Leahy — who is 76 years old — swatted away Milne's attacks like a veteran slugger at batting practice.

Questions about age and mental sharpness?

Let me tell you about Cuba, he said.

Next came a harrowing tale describing the thaw of U.S. and Cuban relations. It was one that showcased Leahy's mental stamina, deeply held beliefs and Republican friends.

(Fun Fact: If Leahy serves one more term he will retire at roughly the same age as former Cuban President Fidel Castro, who served until age 81. His brother Raul, who took over in 2008, is now 88.)

Leahy considers both Castro brothers friends and his relationship with the tropical island — located just 92 miles off the Florida coast — goes back decades.

He and his wife, Marcelle, first dined with Fidel Castro in Havana in 1999. In 2000, Leahy and U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd helped transfer custody of Elian Gonzalez — a shipwrecked six-year-old Cuban boy — from his Miami relatives to his father on the island. Leahy friend and fellow Vermonter Greg Craig represented the boy's father.

"Family values are the most important values in our country," Leahy brusquely told reporters after the transfer brought a fair amount of political blowback. "We lost sight — or many lost sight — of the fact that one of those family values was to have a child back with his father. And that family value has been carried out."

The channel of communication with the island was set up a year earlier — at a five-hour dinner with Castro and the Leahys. Discussion touched on politics, family and agriculture, and when talk became too heated, Marcelle acted as mediator.

"You are the nurse, you are the humanitarian in the family," Castro told Marcelle after becoming frustrated with her husband, Leahy recalled. "I'll talk to you."

A big point of contention in that dinner conversation came when Castro insisted that his small country made the best ice cream in the world. (In a subsequent secret shipment that broke the trade embargo, Leahy sent a case of Ben & Jerry's to Castro — who sent back a case of rum as thanks.)

More than a decade after that dinner, Leahy's ties to Cuba made him a trusted source for President Barack Obama in the early stages of negotiations with Castro's brother, Raul.

In a visit aimed at thawing relations, Marcelle again softened the moment, asking Raul about his granddaughter.

"Mr. President, do you have a picture of her?" Marcelle inquired.

"Why yes, I do," Castro responded excitedly before hurrying to retrieve photographs.

"The whole atmosphere changed after that," Leahy recalled. "And then we went into some lengthy discussions."

The talk focused on renewing diplomatic ties with Cuba, and swapping prisoners. The Cubans wanted the return of members of the Miami Five, a cadre of intelligence officers who were arrested in 1998 and charged with espionage. America wanted Alan Gross, a former USAID worker accused of spying.

Negotiations were tense, Leahy said, adding that he often served as the line of communication between Castro and Obama.

"Now, you can't take any notes from these things, there's no press, there's no recording," the senator explained, his voice though weathered by age, carrying certainty and confidence. "I was able to go back and give President Obama a verbatim account of what was said."

Leahy said that his strong memory allowed him to be a reliable source of information to the president. Not only does he believe he's mentally fit, the senator said he's physically strong too. Leahy noted that even after he broke his leg hiking, he traveled to the United Nations in New York for a meeting with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla.

"I showed up the next night on crutches," Leahy said. "(Parrilla) was amazed. He said, 'We didn't do that to you?"

Secret negotiations continued for months, and, on December 17, 2014, President Obama officially announced a diplomatic thaw between the two nations.

That same day, a prisoner exchange took place. One plane left Andrews Air Force base with the remaining three imprisoned members of the Miami Five while Leahy and other leaders took a separate aircraft to Cuba to pick up Alan Gross.

Republican U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, who had been advocating for free trade and travel with the Cubans since 2001, was on the plane with Leahy, and served as a key conservative ally in the diplomatic process.

"I work well with Sen. Leahy," Flake said.

Flake recalled the Vermont senator snapping pictures throughout the momentous visit.

"Sen. Leahy is a noted photographer, he always has his camera, and he's always taking pictures," Flake said. "After the trip he sent over a number of them — the ones that I have. He's always kind, and makes sure you have those memories. He's done that on other occasions as well."

Flake also recognized the important, if somewhat discreet, role Marcelle Leahy plays in assisting her husband's work.

"One thing that has always impressed me is the relationship Leahy has with his wife," Flake added. "He treats her with such deference and respect. There's a real partnership there. It's neat to see, it really is."

Marcelle is nearly always at Leahy's side, from Cuban dinners to campaign rallies in Montpelier.

As his closest observer, she acknowledged when asked by a reporter that her husband may not have quite the same vim and vigor as he did in 1974, but he is more than ready to serve another six years, she said.

"Neither one of us is 35 years old anymore, but it more than makes up with the fact that he's got the technical ability and the finesse to work with people, and the understanding of the procedures and how the Senate operates, and the government. He can do in a fraction of the time of what it would take someone who is just starting — or even someone who has been there for a term or two — to accomplish. And there's the friendships that he's built up with the senators on both sides of the aisle."

"I see changes," Marcelle continued and smiled, "but for the better."

On an oppressively hot and humid night in late July 2015, Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman, John Podesta, hosted a fundraising dinner party at his Washington D.C. home in service of Sen. Leahy.

"Over the years all of us have been connected by a few important things: social justice, public service, righteous causes, the love of Italian food, and Senator Patrick Leahy," Podesta's invitation to the fundraiser read.

Podesta cooked while his lobbyist brother, Tony, poured red and white wine.

"Keeping Senator Leahy in the Senate is vital to achieving our mutual goals." the invite ended.

That correspondence — and thousands more emails from Podesta — were recently made public by WikiLeaks. Podesta worked as a staffer for Leahy between 1981-1988. Podesta later served as President Bill Clinton's chief of staff right after the Monica Lewinsky affair before becoming an Obama confidante.

A web page accepting money for the fundraiser — which was set up by campaign funding network Act Blue — shows the Leahy fundraiser ranged in price from $500 to $2,500.

In an email before the event from longtime Leahy Fundraiser Tina Stoll, she indicated "we will also be inviting all the DC PACs and lobbyists."

More than $42,000 was raised that night, according to leaked emails.

Leahy doesn't just raise funds on the East Coast. He also often travels to Los Angeles for financial support.

A 2014 WikiLeaks release of Sony emails shows how Leahy raised money with the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA).

In one email chain from February 2014, details are discussed about a fundraiser for Leahy that took place at the house of Bob Iger, the current CEO of Disney. MPAA CEO Chris Dodd — an old Leahy comrade in the Senate who worked on the Elian Gonzalez case — was scheduled to attend that event.

Other entrenched interests, including supporters of EB-5 — a controversial federal visa program Leahy has long boosted — have also gathered together to write Leahy checks.

Bill Stenger, the face of EB-5 projects in the Northeast Kingdom that are alleged to be "Ponzi-like" schemes, has given, along with his wife, $5,575 to Leahy between 1998 and 2009. Leahy has called Stenger a friend and he and Marcelle held a 50th wedding anniversary party at Jay Peak.

A week after federal regulations began questioning Stenger about the alleged fraud scheme at Jay Peak resort, Leahy held a fundraiser where a handful of donors with EB-5 interests donated thousands to the senior senator.

The attendees of that fundraiser included:

— Charles Leamy, who served as counsel for Jay Peak ($5,000)

— Patrick Hogan, the CEO of California EB-5 Regional Centers ($5,200)

— Lincoln Stone, a California-based attorney who specializes in EB-5 investor law ($1,000)

— Edward Pagano, former Leahy chief of staff and White House liaison for the Senate, who now works for the lobbying firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld ($250).

— The Akin Gump PAC — which lobbies on EB-5 issues ($1,000). The PAC has contributed to Leahy's Green Mountain PAC and has given $24,600 to Leahy over the past six years, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

In Milne's view, this kind of fundraising from special interests taints the senior senator.

For a political leader like Leahy to raise money from powerful lobbyists, EB-5 gurus and Clinton campaign operatives — often over wine or Ben & Jerry's ice cream — is "pernicious," according to Milne.

Milne is most eloquent when focusing on Leahy's corporate political ties, often describing their political donations in dire terms.

"He's been taking PAC money and special interest money long before Citizens United, and now he's claiming Citizens United is a big problem," Milne said on VPR.

On that point, Milne's right.

The Citizens United Supreme Court decision — which allowed for more unaccountable money from political action committees — was decided in January 2010. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Leahy took in more than $535,000 in PAC money in the five years leading up to the Citizens United decision.

"We reached out to Pat Leahy last fall and asked him to join us and run a spirit-of-George Aiken, $100 campaign," Milne later added on VPR. "They laughed at us."

Leahy has taken millions from special interests since he last ran for office in 2010, including from groups who have issues in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, where the Vermont senator is the top Democrat.

The majority of the money directed to Leahy in recent years comes from the entertainment industry, whose various interests have poured more than $400,000 to the Vermont senator's bank accounts over the past six years.

Perhaps the biggest public pushback Leahy felt after introducing a bill favoring the movie industry came in 2012 with the Protect IP Act. While Leahy defended its merits vigorously, it failed to pass. Online activists alleged the legislation would lead to the censorship of websites who inadvertently hosted copyrighted media content.

The senator's daughter, Alicia Leahy Jackson, is a lobbyist at the MPAA, and often works on issues closely tied to her father.

The motion picture industry also benefited from the EB-5 program.

MPAA lobbying occurs on issues including patent and intellectual property law, immigration, cyber security, internet rules, EB-5 and other visa programs and domestic drone regulations.

Many large tech firms also have interests in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee. In hopes of currying favor, many of these companies have given to Leahy's campaign and associated Green Mountain PAC. The companies include Amazon, Verizon, Google, Cox, Yahoo, AT&T and Facebook.

Leahy's more than $50,000 in donations from the tech industry since his last election represents roughly $10,000 more than Milne has spent in his entire 2016 campaign thus far, with two weeks to go until the election.

A handful of other big corporations with military connections have given to Leahy. Between 2011 and 2016, he got money from weapons producers including Lockheed Martin ($34,100), Boeing ($23,750) and Raytheon ($11,000).

Luke Albee, a longtime chief of staff to Leahy, said that big donations are simply part of the political game.

Albee attended the Podesta dinner on July 21 and donated $1,000 to his old boss in 2015, according to FEC reports.

He said the dinner showed that Leahy has built longtime loyalties in Washington. Podesta held the dinner annually as a way to bring together Leahy acolytes.

"Elected officials — unless they self-finance — if they want to remain in office, generally speaking, have to raise millions of dollars in the aftermath of Citizens United," said Albee, who was with Leahy from 1993 to 2004. "You never know when the Koch brothers or Sheldon Adelson – by signing one check — can alter the nature of a race for the United States Senate," Albee said.

Albee rejected the suggestion that Leahy's legislative decisions were swayed by special interest dollars.

"When large corporations give campaign donations the argument is, as (former U.S. Senator) Bob Dole said, 'They want something besides good government,'" Albee remarked. "But the answer to that argument is your record, how you vote."

In Leahy's last term, seven of the 108 bills he introduced as lead sponsor have become law.

Of those seven, the most far-reaching was S.47 — the Violence Against Women Act Reauthorization Act of 2013.

The sweeping bill instituted protections for Native Americans, immigrants, and the LGBTQ community. It allocated more grant money to investigate and prosecute cases of sexual violence, and afforded more rights to victims of sexual assault on college campuses. It instituted new rape prevention programs and set out to improve the health care system's response to sexual violence. The bill also renewed efforts to tackle sexual trafficking, and added new language classifying online stalking as harassment.

"Sen. Leahy, as we worked together, was a man of his word," said Republican U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo, an Idahoan who was Leahy's conservative ally on the VAWA reauthorization. "His word counts, and that's a very important part of the process of building that support."

A number of Leahy's senate colleagues described the Vermont senator as an old lion who kept promises, maintained confidences and respected discretion.

When asked if he would switch his presidential endorsement from Hillary Clinton to Bernie Sanders during the heat of primary season, Leahy invoked the importance of a promise and took a lot of heat from Sanderistas in Vermont.

"I think anybody who knows me — anybody who knows my years as state's attorney or my years in the Senate — knows that I never break my word," Leahy said. "And certainly Sen. Sanders would never ask me to break my word, nor has he."

The other six Leahy-led bills that became law between 2010 and 2016:

S.125— Bulletproof Vest Partnership Grant Program Reauthorization Act of 2015 — extended appropriation funds for bulletproof vest partnerships. The program has distributed more than $1 million in grants to Vermont police departments since 1999, according to Leahy's office.

S.517 — Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act — overturned rules requiring certain cell phone models only be used on certain wireless carriers.

While Leahy has received money from large wireless service carriers like AT&T and Verizon, this law strips away some of their power. Leahy says he's also leery of the recently proposed AT&T and Time Warner merger, and he's been skeptical of other attempts at corporate monopolization.

S.3642— Theft of Trade Secrets Clarification Act of 2012— instituted prohibition against the theft of trade secrets related to a product or service used in or intended for use in interstate or foreign commerce.

S.3486 — Patent Law Treaties Implementation Act — a wonky patent law concerning the process for registering patents.

S.3245 — A 2012 law extending the EB-5 immigration program for three years. (The program was temporarily extended again through the end of this year.)

S.1103 — A 2011 term extension for then-Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation Robert Mueller.

Leahy has also been a key co-sponsor on other important bills in the last six years, and has used his power in Judiciary to help corral other pieces of legislation out of committee and onto the Senate floor where it can be incorporated into other bills.

Some of Leahy's efforts have not been successful or have taken repeated tries.

In 2013, Leahy introduced the USA Freedom Act, a sweeping bill that ended the National Security Agency's dragnet collection of phone records. In addition, Leahy's bill called for a special citizens advocate who would sit in on the secretive FISA court that authorizes surveillance warrants.

Leahy's 2013 bill did not make it to the president's desk after facing pushback from both Republican and Democratic senators.

The next year, however, Leahy helped build a broad coalition in the House and Senate around a retooled Freedom Act. It was slightly watered down, but still ended the systemic snooping by the National Security Agency. President Obama signed the bill into law in 2015.

Leahy and his staffers are pushing out bills with the same rapidity as in past terms, but the senior senator's power was curtailed in 2014 when Republicans took control of the Senate.

Leahy saw more legislative success between 2008 and 2010, when President Obama was newly elected and the U.S. Congress was true blue.

In that two year period, Leahy got 16 bills he introduced signed by the president's pen, more than double what's been ratified in his last six-year term.

As Judiciary chair, Leahy also successfully led the confirmation of two liberal justices to the Supreme Court between 2008 and 2010 — Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

More recently, Leahy has been stonewalled in his efforts to get a hearing for the more moderate Merrick Garland, who President Obama nominated to the bench in March after the death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia.

Despite fewer legislative wins in recent years, Albee insists that Leahy remains a part of the "get-shit-done caucus."

On Saturday June 30, 2001, Hillary Clinton — then U.S. Senator from New York — and Sen. Leahy boarded a ferry called the Adirondack and went fishing for treasure on Lake Champlain.

It was the 225th anniversary of the Battle of Valcour, one of the first naval skirmishes of the Revolutionary War, and the two senators were set to examine some war artifacts underwater archeologists had pulled from the water.

While New York and Vermont are neighbors, Clinton and Leahy's senate offices were also in close proximity. And in their time together in the Senate, the two developed a strong bond, according to Leahy staffers.

When Clinton moved into her office on the fourth floor of the Russell Senate Building, Leahy and his wing of staffers greeted her with open arms and a welcome party.

"We worked very closely with her office when she was just setting it up, and I think the two developed a personal affinity for each other," said former chief of staff Albee. "It's a close relationship that will put Vermonters in good stead, assuming she is the victor on election day."

Leahy and Clinton worked closely on a number of regional bills together, including the creation of two commissions to commemorate the history of Lake Champlain on its 400th anniversary.

They also coordinated on many other issues, including cooperative work on bills to increase health care benefits for 9/11 first responders, expand broadband access to rural areas and prohibit profiteering and fraud for military and civil contractors in Iraq. The two also worked together to reduce the scourge of U.S.-deployed landmines throughout the world.

During Clinton's tenure as Secretary of State, Leahy chaired the Senate Appropriations Committee panel that handles the budget for the State Department and U.S. foreign assistance, another tie to the possible president.

After the devastating 2012 earthquake in Haiti, Leahy's panel budgeted $124 million in taxpayer dollars for a private-public redevelopment on the northern coast called the Caracol Industrial Park.

The park aimed to create up to 60,000 jobs, and was a project of the Clinton Foundation, which at the time was being run by former President Bill Clinton while Hillary was Secretary of State. A Politico investigation last year found just 5,479 people were employed at the park full time.

In October 2012, Leahy and Marcelle attended the ribbon-cutting of Caracol Park in Haiti on the invitation of Clintons, and the Vermont senator praised the public-private partnership with the Clinton Foundation.

News reports have raised questions about the close relationship between Hillary Clinton's State Department and the Clinton Foundation, and the organization's work in Haiti has been controversial, and not always successful.

"Secretary Clinton has made Haiti's recovery a priority, and she and her staff have put enormous time and work into these efforts," Leahy said. "Private investment is one key to developing Haiti's economy, and this private-public partnership is intended to help jump-start this long process."

Tim Reiser, a foreign policy aide for Leahy who works on budgeting for humanitarian causes, said Caracol was one small part of a much larger effort to help Haiti rebuild after the earthquake. He said change comes slowly to Haiti, and that the park has brought economic development to a part of the island that has long been neglected.

Rieser said, however, that the State Department's projection of jobs to be created may have been too rosy.

"When he heard that it got off to a slow start — that the numbers were falling short of what we had been told — we asked questions about it," Rieser said. "But it was also consistent with what we have seen in Haiti. People often make unrealistic promises about what can be accomplished."

"It's fair to criticize them for over promising, but it's also important to recognize that the project has employed thousands of people who did not have jobs," he added. "Like most things in Haiti it's a mixed picture."

Reiser said that Leahy is an influential voice for effective humanitarian aid. He said that after House Republicans cut $350 million in appropriations for UN agencies like the UN Environment Program and slashed funding for UN peacekeeping, Leahy successfully managed to restore the funding.

Over the course of the past six years, Leahy has secured billions for humanitarian causes around the world, from refugee resettlement and the global fight against climate change to healthcare efforts to combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and polio.

Not all of Leahy's colleagues think highly of him. He's made his enemies in his 42 years in Senate, including former Republican Vice President Dick Cheney, who infamously cursed "fuck yourself" to Leahy in 2004 after the Vermont senator was critical of Cheney's ties to Halliburton and its sole-source contracts in Iraq.

(Cheney's office declined an interview request for this profile.)

U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-MN., said that Leahy mentored him in his first few months on the Judiciary Committee.

"I'm not a lawyer, but I was given Judiciary," joked Franken, who was one of the first staff writers on Saturday Night Live. "I went to every Judiciary hearing, and often it was just me, Leahy and (Republican Alabama) Sen. Jeff Sessions. Pat would take me aside and he'd show me the ropes. It was very helpful to me as I was getting my sea legs."

Another member of Senate Judiciary, Sen. Dick Durbin, D – IL., said Leahy has been one of the most accommodating chairman he's worked with.

"If there's a red-hot headliner issue, many times the chairman will bigfoot his way in and say 'This hearing won't be in your subcommittee, but in the big full committee,'" Durbin said. "That has rarely happened with Pat. When he gives you a subcommittee, he really trusts you."

One of Milne's top criticisms this election is that Leahy is too partisan, a friend only to the most ideological Democrats.

The travel agency owner — who was raised in Washington, Vermont — promises to establish himself in the mold of a moderate New England Republican like George Aiken, the senator whose seat Leahy took over.

When asked how he would lead, Milne often points Down East.

"There's Susan Collins in Maine and there's virtually no one else in the middle," Milne recently said, before adding "the gentleman I'm running against has a 42-year record of obstructing the opposite party."

According to a bipartisanship index tabulated by Georgetown University and the Lugar Center, Leahy has been a fairly effective bipartisan legislator throughout his career.

His score for the last Congressional session, however, indexes more partisanship, and he ranks 53rd on the list of 100 senators. (Susan Collins was ranked the least partisan member, Vermont's Bernie Sanders the most.)

Leahy often works with Republicans, including Sen. Collins.

According to Congressional records, Leahy and Collins have collaborated on 21 bills over his last Senate term on topics ranging from regional issues like opioid crisis and maple agriculture protections to legislation mandating easier access to generic pharmaceuticals, which are often cheaper than brand name drugs.

While Leahy was not a member of the bipartisan "Gang of Eight" that hammered out a comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2013, he hosted late night negotiations with Republicans and Democrats in his immaculate Senate office, which looks out to the Washington Monument.

"History will record that it was chairman Pat Leahy who brought the immigration bill through the committee in markup," said Durbin, who was in the gang. "There was a huge number of amendments and Leahy pushed it all the way through to the floor with the bill intact."

The immigration bill passed the Senate, but died in the House.

Republican Sen. Flake, who was another one of the eight, said that he imagined the government would remain divided after 2016, but that he was ready to get back to work and solve some problems.

"It takes both parties working on big issues, holding hands and jumping together," Flake said. "And so I'm hopeful that we can move ahead on these issues."

In the first U.S. Senate debate, Leahy faced charges under the bright lights of Channel 17/Town Meeting Television of being sexist, a bully, arrogant, a war criminal and serving in office too long

Amid the finger pointing, Leahy remained calm, even indifferent.

Asked to respond to the harsh accusations from his four opponents, Leahy chuckled and said "It's kind of hard to respond to them."

While Leahy has run a somewhat lethargic race, his overarching point to voters is that his seniority helps Vermonters.

It's an argument Milne doesn't buy. He says small states all get a minimum allocation and that Leahy is overrated "bringing home the bacon."

The claim that he can bring back federal funds to Vermont is an argument Leahy has been leaning on for decades.

In his 1986 run against Republican Dick Snelling, Leahy warned Vermonters that they would see a consequential loss of power if he left office.

"(Snelling) would come in as number 100 in seniority — out of a 100-member senate," Leahy told a C-SPAN moderator during a filmed discussion in the Statehouse. "I would come in there — if I'm re-elected –somewhere in the top 20s. And the seniority system is what really runs the United State Senate."

Leahy admitted in the 1986 interview that he was skeptical of the seniority system when he first came into office, but that the rules benefitted him now.

"I thought, 'This seniority system is a terrible thing, it must be changed.' Now that I've studied it for 12 years, it looks like a great system," Leahy said, pursing his lips in a typical smile.

(Milne has promised that, if elected, he would only serve two terms, a pledge that would not allow for any significant buildup of Vermont's seniority in the Senate.)

Leahy's closest race came after his first six-year term, in 1980. That year, Republican Stewart M. Ledbetter — the father of the WPTZ news reporter — came within a point of beating Leahy.

Claire Duke, who ran Ledbetter's 1980 campaign, said she thought Ledbetter's business background would have fit well in the Senate. She said that even then, a race against an incumbent was extremely difficult.

"Unless they do something terribly bad, once they get established they are there until they want to go," said Duke, who has voted for Leahy in past elections but is voting for Milne this year. "It really is very, very difficult to run against someone who is already in an office like Senate, because they have so many ways of promoting themselves from their jobs."

If Democrats retake the Senate — which is a 71.1 percent possibility, according to FiveThirtyEight — Leahy would regain more power in the chamber, and get his old job back as chair of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee. And while he may be running a mellow campaign, Leahy clearly wants all that six more years could bring. The Republicans currently hold a 54-46 edge.

"On January 3rd, I want Bernie Sanders and I standing there, in a newly-led Senate," Leahy recently said in a Montpelier homecoming event led by his temporarily better known Senate sidekick. (Sanders was slow to endorse some of the Democratic statewide candidates, including Leahy, who supported Clinton during the primaries.)

"I will bow to him — as chairman Sanders — and he will say something nice to me," Leahy continued, to laughs. "But then, we can set the agenda."

Entering the event, Leahy and Marcelle took the handicapped ramp, while an aide scampered ahead up the stairs.

Leahy said that he would work — if re-elected — to build bipartisan consensus on a number of issues, including an infrastructure bill and an already introduced plan to reform the criminal justice system. There's also talk of giving another try at an immigration overhaul, with a new Gang of (insert number).

"I've been talking to a number of Republicans and Democrats who are pretty key people across the political spectrum saying, 'Can we all get together after the elections and just start talking,'" he said.

If Leahy regains his chairmanship on Judiciary, he would be given sole power over scheduling hearings and markup meetings, where committee bills get voted out to the floor.

Republican Sen. Flake said he hopes that Republican Senate Judiciary chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa moves on the Garland nomination in the lame duck session of Congress. (If Garland is not confirmed in the lame duck session — and Democrats retake the Senate — Clinton could either keep pushing Garland or introduce a new nominee.)

"If Hillary Clinton wins — and I think that's expected at this point — I would encourage Sen. Grassley to schedule hearings quickly and let's move through and confirm him," Flake said. "I think it's the responsibility of conservatives and Republicans to confirm the most conservative judge possible. And my guess is that he'll be more conservative than a Hillary Clinton nominee. I'm anxious to move ahead."

Sen. Durbin said Leahy will be instrumental over the next six years in corralling support for liberal causes in Judiciary, which could include the confirmation of up to three Supreme Court justices.

"The leader in the Supreme Court fight is going to be Pat Leahy," Durbin said. "He has been the leading champion of Merrick Garland in this effort. He has institutional memory, credibility and is determined that this has a good ending."

Judiciary staffers said Chairman Grassley has denied Leahy's requests for hearings on many topics besides Merrick Garland, including voting rights, data security and community-police relations.

That could all change if the Democrats take back control and Leahy becomes Judiciary chairman again.

The senator's staffers say they are also looking at another push to scale back surveillance laws. Specifically, Leahy has his eyes on reforming Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. That section of the statute, which has been the legal justification for invasive spying programs like Prism, will expire on December 31, 2017.

Leahy staffers on Capitol Hill are assuming a Leahy landslide in November. The only contingency plans they have concocted concern which party will control the Senate after the votes are counted, not whether Leahy will return.

Fellow senators, including Republicans, also speak with the assumption that Leahy will have another six years.

"I have complete confidence that the people of Vermont will return Leahy to the Senate," said Sen. Crapo, who is also up for re-election. "I have a good personal relationship with him and we will be able to build more solutions and make more progress with six more years."

If Milne were to pull an upset, Leahy staffers and political allies said things would change quickly.

There would be no senior Vermont voice to dole out money on appropriations, they say, or to help Garland get confirmed. The army of 64 Leahy staffers would vanish, and the senator's ornate capitol office — which sits to the right of the House Speaker's office and with its dynamic Washington Monument view — would be taken over by another senator, not Milne.

Albee — who worked for U.S. Sen. Mark Warner right after he was elected — said it takes a while for freshmen to adjust.

"As a freshman, you are in a windowless room in the basement of the Dirksen Senate Office Building, trying to figure out where the bathroom is," Albee said. "It would be a huge change for Vermonters, for sure."

Jasper Craven is VTDigger's political reporter. A Vermont native, he first discovered his love for journalism at the Caledonian Record.


If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.

Powered by Creative Circle Media Solutions