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Sen. Patrick Leahy's decision to not seek reelection sparks 'seismic shift' in Vermont's political scene

A photo of Sen. Patrick Leahy at a lectern
Peter Hirschfeld
Sen. Patrick Leahy announced Monday he would not seek a ninth term, which could have ripple effects up and down the ballot for the 2022 midterm election.

The political scene in Vermont got a whole lot livelier on Monday after Sen. Patrick Leahy announced he won’t seek a ninth term in the U.S. Senate.

Leahy’s decision could have ripple effects up and down the ballot next year, and his retirement represents the beginning of a generational transition in Vermont politics.

Conor Casey, former executive director of the Vermont Democratic Party, said there’s some sadness that Sen. Patrick Leahy is passing the torch.

But he said it’s hard not to get excited about who’s going to reach out and grab it.

“For the political junkies in Vermont, this is a seismic shift in Vermont politics, which really for the last few years has been pretty stable,” Casey said.

More from VPR: Sen. Leahy announces he won't seek reelection next fall

He said a rare opening in the federal delegation will be too tantalizing for many politicians to resist.

“You have a lot of folks waiting in the wings,” Casey said. “And once you have one spot open up, which you do now, the dominoes start to fall.”

Vermonters now get to watch where, and how, those dominoes tumble.

Will Rep. Peter Welch run to replace Leahy? If so, will he face off against a well-known Democrat in the primary? Or will prospective candidates cede Senate ground to Welch, and battle it out for his seat in the House?

“You have a lot of folks waiting in the wings. And once you have one spot open up, which you do now, the dominoes start to fall.”
Conor Casey, former executive director of the Vermont Democratic Party

Caledonia County Sen. Joe Benning foresees a gripping political drama.

“The slugfest, if you will, that is going to open up as a result of his decision will probably be one of the most interesting things to watch in my political career,” Benning said.

Benning, a Republican, said he isn’t aware at this early stage of any GOP candidates who might make a bid for Leahy’s seat.

A spokesperson for Gov. Phil Scott said Monday there's zero chance he'll run for Congress next year.

Scott Milne, who challenged Leahy in 2016, didn’t immediately respond to a media inquiry Monday.

On the Democratic side, trial balloons are already floating.

Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint, Chittenden County Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale and Lt. Gov. Molly Gray have all expressed interest in running for a spot in Vermont’s congressional delegation.

Balint declined to discuss her electoral plans with VPR on Monday.

Gray said it’s too early to discuss the next election.

Ram Hinsdale says her next move depends in part on what Welch, who declined to comment to VPR on Monday, decides to do.

“There are a lot of other variables, including the plans of our one and only and very accomplished Congressman,” Ram Hinsdale said.

More from VPR: With more than a year until the midterms, Vermont’s congressional delegation already sits on millions

Mia Schultz, president of the Rutland Area Branch of the NAACP, said she reads Leahy’s retirement as an acknowledgement that Vermont needs new kinds of leaders in Washington, D.C.

“And we’re ready, I think the world is ready, for different representation for the future,” Schultz said.

Schultz, who until recently served as chair of the Bennington Town Democratic Committee, said Vermont’s congressional delegation has, up until this point, been all white and all male. And she said Vermonters should seize the congressional opening as an opportunity to better represent underserved constituencies.

“And what that means to me is, who can represent Black and Brown communities? Queer communities? Communities with disabilities? And really invest in all of us, and represent us?” Schultz said.

"... who can represent Black and Brown communities? Queer communities? Communities with disabilities? And really invest in all of us, and represent us?”
Mia Schultz, Rutland Area NAACP president

The issue of representation will figure prominently between now and next November’s election, in part because Vermont stands out as the only state in the nation that hasn’t sent a woman to Congress.

Bradford Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas went to the Statehouse Monday morning to watch Leahy make his announcement in person.

VPR asked Copeland-Hanzas if she has an early favorite to replace the congressional spot that his departure creates.

“No,” she responded, “but I’m sure she’ll be reaching out momentarily.”

That choice of pronouns was intentional, Copeland Hanzas said: One requirement she has of her next congressperson is their gender, and not solely because Vermont hasn’t sent a woman to Congress yet.

“Because I think that one of the things that has made Montpelier work really well for Vermonters over the last decade is the number of women in leadership,” Copeland Hanzas said.

More from Brave Little State: Why Has Vermont Never Sent A Woman To Congress?

Diane Derby worked as a field representative for Leahy for a decade before retiring from that post earlier this year. She says Leahy’s announcement signals a broader transition for Vermont, given the age of his D.C. colleagues. Bernie Sanders is 80, and Peter Welch is 74.

“You know, in the not-too-distant future, we’re going to have three new members of Congress in D.C. in Vermont, and it’s really going to be important to fill their shoes, not that you really fill their shoes,” Derby said.

She added that Vermont’s ability to navigate its loss of seniority in D.C. in the coming years will hinge on their successors’ acclimation to the congressional ecosystem.

“I think the key is really going to be, hit the ground running and get to know how things work down there, and really step it up fast,” Derby said.

First, however, they’ll have to hit the campaign trail. And if conventional wisdom holds true, they can expect a lot of traffic along the way.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Peter Hirschfeld @PeteHirschfeld.

The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
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