BRATTLEBORO—U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy took some heat this year for endorsing Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid rather than the campaign of his Vermont colleague, Sen. Bernie Sanders.
But as Leahy on Aug. 1 kicked off his campaign for an eighth term in the Senate, the Democrat and Middlesex resident didn’t seem concerned that the presidential turmoil will have any effect on his own re-election effort.
“I had a couple people come to me today who were Bernie supporters and say they wish I had [endorsed him], but they are strongly supporting me because of what I’ve done,” Leahy said in an interview after an appearance in Brattleboro.
Leahy added that he believes the Democratic Party — both in Vermont and nationally — will unite to support Clinton’s candidacy against Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.
“I think Bernie will work hard on that,” Leahy said. “Hillary has somebody else helping her greatly to unite, and he’s named Donald Trump.”
Campaign on the backburner
Leahy, who has served in the Senate since 1974, faces a Democratic challenge on the Aug. 9 primary ballot from Cris Ericson of Chester, who also is running for governor. The sole Republican seeking the U.S. Senate seat is Scott Milne, a Pomfret businessman who nearly unseated Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin in the 2014 gubernatorial election.
But at the Aug. 1 event, which started a 14-county campaign tour, Leahy didn’t mention his challengers. In fact, if not for the blue “Leahy ’16” stickers on tables and the “Leahy for Vermont” banner behind the podium at Brattleboro American Legion Post 5, it wouldn’t have been immediately clear that the senator was campaigning.
Rather, the discussion over a pancake breakfast was focused mostly on the importance of this year’s presidential contest and its impact on the future makeup of the U.S. Supreme Court.
State Sen. Becca Balint, D-Brattleboro, set that tone in her introductory remarks.
Balint’s grandfather was a Holocaust victim, and she said the racial and religious overtones of this year’s presidential campaign — spurred, she said, by Trump’s “nasty rhetoric” — have brought back bad memories for her family.
Balint said she has friends who are disillusioned by an “admittedly imperfect” U.S. election system, but she argued that unhappy Sanders supporters can’t afford to sit out the presidential contest.
“I say two words — Supreme Court,” Balint said. “The next president will shape the court for generations to come. And I want the court to protect the rights of all of us regardless of race, gender, class, cultural background.”
All eyes on the Supreme Court
Leahy picked up that ball and ran with it. He plays a key role in the judicial-confirmation process as ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and he predicted that there could be three Supreme Court vacancies opening over the next four years.
“Whoever is president will shape that court for the rest of the lives of most of the people in this room,” Leahy said. “Think about that.”
Leahy also wanted the audience to be thinking of Trump in that context, arguing that judicial nominations “should be on the top” of any list of presidential campaign issues. The senator was especially critical of Trump’s frequent verbal clashes with Muslims.
“When we hear bigotry and racism and anti-religious comments, then we have to speak out on that,” Leahy said. “We are better than that in Vermont. And we are better than that as a country.”
Future judicial vacancies aside, the high court already is missing a member due to the February death of Justice Antonin Scalia. Leahy blasted his Republican colleagues for refusing to vote on President Barack Obama’s nominee to replace Scalia, D.C. Circuit Court Chief Judge Merrick Garland.
Leahy called the delay “balderdash,” drawing laughs when he said he wanted to use a different “word that begins with B.” There is plenty of historical precedent, he said, for voting on Supreme Court nominations in a presidential election year.
“I heard this everywhere in Philadelphia last week,” Leahy said. “People are saying, ‘Can you stand for the politicization of our federal courts?’”
Steadfast support for Clinton
Leahy was in Philadelphia for the Democratic National Convention, where Clinton became the first female nominee for president. Leahy’s steadfast support for Clinton — a position given more weight by his status as a party super delegate — put him at odds with many of Sanders’ passionate supporters.
Some of those supporters have continued to lobby for their candidate’s progressive cause even as Sanders himself has asked Democrats to throw their support behind Clinton.
On his way out of the Legion post, Leahy again defended his choice when asked about the presidential-nomination process.
“The most important thing for me was to keep my word. Long before Bernie was in the race, I told Secretary Clinton I would back her,” Leahy said. “Bernie never asked me to back him, because he knows that I always keep my word.”
“I also made very clear, had [Sanders] been the nominee, I would have gone all over the country for him,” Leahy said.
The state’s senior senator said he has warmly welcomed Sanders back from the presidential campaign trail. Vermont will benefit from Sanders’ continued advocacy in Congress, Leahy said.
“I’ve tried to cover everything for Vermont this past year, and [I’ve] been happy to do it. But it’s so much easier when he’s there, because when he’s there, we talk everyday,” Leahy said.
“His voice at our leadership meetings and our caucuses ... when he speaks, people really do listen,” Leahy added. “And we need that.”
The nation also needs a return to bipartisanship, Leahy told the Brattleboro crowd.
It was the only point in his speech when he touted his own accomplishments, referring to his role in preserving the Violence Against Women Act; advancing environmental-protection legislation; and securing federal funding for economic development in Vermont.
“A few of us [in the Senate] have been meeting quietly and privately in both parties and saying, ‘After the election, we’ve got to come together. We’ve got to make things work again,’” Leahy said. “I will continue to do the work I’ve done.”