News
leahy and wife on park bench

Patrick Leahy: From Saint Michael's to the U.S. Senate

10.16.14
By: Saint Michael's Staff Writers
leahy with pictures

Leahy discusses his partnerships with humanitarian singer Bono and President Obama, on efforts to combat global health threats.

As a Saint Michael's College undergraduate, Patrick Leahy '61 HD'76 began a life of learning to think deeply, read widely, ponder thoughtfully, express compassion and challenge wisely. With these as his guiding principles, along with the trust and confidence of his fellow Vermonters, he entered the United States Senate in 1975. Enthusiastically reelected six times since, today he champions Vermont, the dairy industry, the environment, civil liberties and human rights.

Keeping up with Sen. Patrick Leahy demands a brisk pace—in mastering the issues he addresses and in walking alongside him as he moves through his day, which includes work in three offices, committee hearings, meetings and time on the Senate floor.

For two days in September, staff members from Saint Michael's College accompanied the Senate's most-senior member, which makes Leahy the president pro tempore, on his daily routine. As he walked between appointments and during interview sessions, the crew asked pointed questions and noted his responses.

These selections from the interviews offer a glimpse of his days, tasks and passions.

Farm Bill, Environment

Background: The goal of The Agricultural Act of 2014, a five-year agricultural policy known as The Farm Bill, is to ensure that farmers and ranchers have the needed tools to produce affordable, stable food and fiber supplies.

SMC: How are the boom and bust cycles of dairy farming moderated by the new Farm Bill?

Leahy: "We put in a form of insurance based on production. Now, average-size farms will be able to buy very affordable insurance, and if there is a wild swing, they'll get insurance payments. It's written in such a way that you can't say, ‘OK, I'm producing ‘X' amount, I'll buy insurance for three times that so I can start producing that next year.' It's based on what you've done the last three years, so that blocks the ability of corporate farms to game the system.

"One thing I'm told that's helped our industry in Vermont is the Organic Farm Bill I wrote. It's now a $30 billion industry nationwide and growing. We have fewer farms, but we produce the same amount of milk we did 20 or 25 years ago. If it hadn't been for the Organic Farm Bill and this recent bill, it wouldn't have happened."

SMC: How do you see this [Farm Bill] transferring to other states?

Leahy: "This helps somebody who wants to have a family farm, or families join together for a manageable size. I know huge farms say, 'We don't need the government on our back, but please keep subsidizing our water.' I hope that where this type of agriculture makes sense, they can do it: apples in Washington state, the Champlain Valley and upper New York state makes sense. We have a unique type of soil, and these are good things to have.

"I want people, if they want to stay in farming, to be able to. I want us to export food, not have to import food, from a national security standpoint, among other things."

SMC: In spite of your efforts to clean up and protect Lake Champlain, the algae blooms do not abate, and in St. Albans Bay this summer, they were the most acute ever. How will the Farm Bill address this?

Leahy: "We got a huge amount of money in the bill for Lake Champlain. I made that a hallmark, to clean up the lake. But with the algae blooms, we're going to have to find something unique. What we do in other parts of the lake is not what's going to be able to happen in St. Albans. You have to have greater flow of water coming through. It's not all agriculture runoff, it's runoff from pesticides from lawns, from water that comes off the roads and so on. I don't know the answer, but we have the money in there that can find the answer.

I think scientifically we can handle it, just like the lamprey problem was insolvable a few years ago. We spent the money, used the science to stop it, and people who fish in the lake tell me the quality of the fish is much better as a result."

Privacy Protection

SMC: Through your involvement with the USA FREEDOM Act, you're working on protections in this overly digital age when every keystroke and message is recorded somewhere. Do you think the USA Patriot Act was an overreaction to 9/11?

Leahy: "We had actually worked out what we thought was a better one. Then a 'sunset provision,' so it would force a later Congress, not under quite the emotion of 9/11, to review it. The improvements we've had since, and are about to do now with another of the bills I'm involved with, the USA FREEDOM Act, have come about as result of that sunset provision."

Landmines, Drones, Humanitarianism

Background: In 1992, Leahy wrote the first law by any government to ban export of anti-personnel landmines. The Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on Their Destruction, adopted in 1997, bans use, production, stockpiling and transfer of antipersonnel mines. So far, 161 countries have signed on. While the United States has not, September policy announcements ban use outside the Korean Peninsula and call for destroying stockpiles not needed to defend the Republic of Korea. Leahy also led efforts to create the Leahy War Victims Fund, providing up to $14 million of relief annually to landmine victims.

SMC: Do you see the United States joining the mine ban treaty in the near future?

Leahy: "I don't know. We should sign the treaty. It makes no sense that the most powerful nation on earth hasn't signed it. We don't use them, and the September announcement is a crucial first step that makes official what has been U.S. practice. The United States spends a huge amount of money every year clearing landmines—not landmines we put in, but others. We also spend $12 million to $15 million a year to get prosthetics for people through the Leahy War Victims Bill. I'll keep fighting. And I will keep the War Victims Fund going.

"One of the saddest stories is of a teen girl. The fighting stops, so she runs across the field when she sees her parents. And boom. The point being: the armies leave, but the landmines stay."

SMC: Some criticize the U.S. use of drones as being indiscriminate weapons as landmines are; does your landmine work inform your view on drones?

Leahy: "I'm very worried about getting too reliant on drones. There are too many problems when they hit the wrong people. I also have a problem with militarizing our police. I'm as pro-law enforcement as anybody, but to give armored personnel carriers to a city the size of Rutland or South Burlington? Oh come on. Then it's sitting there, and you've got to use it? No you don't. There are better things to do."

SMC: Would you please talk about your commitment and approach to fighting HIV/AIDS?

Leahy: "I started this a long, long time ago, and I've worked with Republicans and Democrats. A lot of it is education, so it's not just after-the-fact. It's also what you do to prevent it. Over the years, working with a bipartisan coalition, I have provided more funding for global HIV/AIDS prevention, care and treatment programs than any other Member of Congress."

Difficult Votes: Wars, Death Penalty

SMC: Through your career you have had to make a lot of difficult votes. Can you tell us about votes that might have been unpopular and cost you politically, but you stood your ground, knowing it was the right thing to do? Conversely, what are some votes that in retrospect you might now regret?

Leahy: "When I first came here, the Vietnam War was at a point where the question was, was it going to continue or not. No Vermonter had ever voted against a war, and a majority were in favor of the war. In April 1975, I was on the Armed Services Committee, and we had a half-dozen votes in a row, each one by a one-vote margin. I was the newest member, and we cut off funds. I had a lot of people tell me back home, ‘You're a one-term senator. We'll never vote for you again.' Today, you couldn't find anybody in Vermont who's against having ended the Vietnam War when we did. It was tough at the time.

"Only 22 of us voted against the war in Iraq. I read the intelligence and knew there were no weapons of mass destruction, so I was part of that vote.

"A vote I regretted? I voted for the Defense of Marriage Act. I thought then we needed to preserve states' options.

"I've always opposed the death penalty, and the majority of Vermonters when I first ran supported the death penalty, even though we don't have it.

"Some of the votes I could go 51 percent one way, 49 the other way, but you have to vote, and it's 100 percent. I try to make laws better with amendments, but eventually you have to vote. Some are routine, some are very tough. When I've had major issues coming up, I'll go out with Marcelle [his wife] and walk for two or three hours, thinking about it, clearing my mind. Sometimes supporters of mine agree with me, sometimes they disagree. But I'm the only one who can make the vote."

Bipartisanship

Background: In 40 years in the Senate, Leahy has continuously forged coalitions across party lines to formulate and pass legislation. Recent examples include the Violence Against Women Act, reducing minimum sentencing, e-mail privacy, strengthening the Freedom of Information Act, patent reform and human trafficking.

SMC: How would you compare the atmosphere for bipartisan work in recent years with your early Senate years?

Leahy: "It was a lot easier when I first came here. In the evenings, you'd see Hubert Humphrey and Barry Goldwater sitting together, joking with each other. People like Bob Dole and George McGovern joining together on nutrition matters. It's more difficult to do that today. But I've got some legislation pending now, it's passed committee, where my co-sponsors are very conservative members.

"Every single piece of major legislation I've passed, I've sought as many Republican co-sponsors as Democrat co-sponsors. I think if more people would do that, we'd get a lot more done. But it requires spending time. It requires what I call my ‘prayer hour and holy water meetings.'"

Personal Passion, Commitment

SMC: You've been a long-term and powerful advocate for Vermont, this country and the world, for citizens' rights, protecting the environment, supporting farms. Where does that passion and commitment come from?

Leahy: "I think it's the way I was brought up. You don't do something unless you really believe in it. We had a family driven by moral values, by our faith. We didn't feel we had to go around shouting it from the rooftops. We just had to live it. My parents were not wealthy people, but they helped out so many people who might be out of a job, or they'd help with their hospital bill. They'd just do it. They'd say, ‘You can go out and make a lot of money, or you can look back and say I accomplished something.' I grew up feeling, let's try to accomplish something. Obviously I haven't accomplished everything I wanted, probably nobody does. But I want to feel it's a life worth living. Thank you for that question and the beautiful way it was put. I got emotional while thinking and talking about that."

Interviews aside, it's what Leahy does that speaks the loudest, and the Saint Michael's staff witnessed the man from the Green Mountain State in action, chairing a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. The topic: Keeping the Internet an even playing field, known as net neutrality—operating without discriminating or charging different rates depending on the user, content, site and related items.

"It matters for our economic growth and competitiveness. It matters because the Internet is an equalizer than can help break cycles of unemployment and poverty," Leahy says. "It matters because the online world is the ultimate tool for free expression and democracy."

With that and countless more pursuits he's leading in Congress, Leahy transforms passion and commitment into action.

Saint Michael's and The Senator

SMC: What influence have the Edmundites at Saint Michael's had on you?

Leahy: "We were brought up with an idea there at Saint Michael's: Okay, you're going to college, it costs a lot of money, you're a privileged group. But don't let it go to your head. We became very absorbed by exciting books and ideas. We would discuss them, and it wasn't that anybody had a right or wrong answer. It was all about how we think."

SMC: You've hired and advanced the careers of many Saint Michael's graduates. What strengths and qualities have they brought to their jobs that reflect well on the college?

Leahy: "It's very competitive getting a job in my office. I've looked for people who first have a sense of Vermont, whether they were born there or not, and a sense of what I consider are the values they should have had from Saint Michael's."

SMC: What would you say to Saint Michael's students who are just getting started?

Leahy: "Open your minds to every new idea. Learn to be true to yourself. Don't let other people tell you what you must be. Think it through, but learn as much as you can about other people.

"Obviously, read the things your teachers tell you to, but read a lot of other things on your own, and learn to make up your own mind. If you disagree with teachers, tell them why. For one thing, they'll probably love it because it will get a discussion going, but know that if you do it right, you'll get grounded right in college.

"You're not going to stop learning the day you leave college. You're going to learn the rest of your life. One of the reasons I love this job is every day I get hundreds of pages of material I'm reading on everything from farms to the Ebola plague to highly classified matters to immigration law. And it's wonderful, because you're always learning.

"Also, don't just seek out the people that are exactly like you. Look for others. One of the things I like about this job—I get along very well with virtually all the senators, both Republicans and Democrats, whether we're philosophically the same or not."

Leahy, the Family Man

"Vermont" could be Patrick Leahy's middle name. Born in 1940 in Montpelier, VT, he fully embraces the state's motto, "Freedom and Unity."

In 1961, he earned a government degree at Saint Michael's College, the first Leahy to graduate from college. With a 1964 law degree from Georgetown University, he entered private practice, then served eight years as state's attorney in Chittenden County, VT In 1974, at age 34, he was elected by Vermont voters to the U.S. Senate, and has been continuously reelected since.

Leahy met Marcelle Pomerleau on the shores of Lake Champlain. A registered nurse, she shares his humanitarian interests and serves widely. They married in 1962, launching a lifelong partnership of beliefs and aspirations.

"Marcelle believes in me and helps me. And she has a following in her own right, especially in Vermont," Leahy says. They each received honorary doctorates from Saint Michael's—the senator in 1976; Marcelle in 2009.

The couple lives in an 1850s farmhouse on a 200-acre tree farm in Middlesex, VT, purchased by Leahy's parents in the 1950s. They raised three children: Mark Leahy, Kevin Leahy and Alicia Jackson. Today, they have five grandchildren.

He counts among his friends Irish musician Bono, also known for his humanitarianism. "My grandkids Patrick and Sophia call him Uncle Bono," Leahy says. "He sits there and sings to them."

On a visit once to Leahy's office, Bono commented on a photograph Leahy had taken of a man with pleading eyes. It's one of many Leahy has taken over the years to document the needs he's seen.

"I call them my conscience pictures, these black-and-whites taken in refugee camps," he says of one grouping.

In honor of his 40th anniversary in the Senate and 50th anniversary of his law school graduation, Georgetown University Law Center is exhibiting his photos through October. The exhibit then moves to the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center, Brattleboro, Vt., for display from November 1, 2014, through March 7, 2015.

Learn What Matters