Patrick Leahy Must Decide Whether to Run Next Year for a Ninth Six-Year Term in Congress | Fair Game | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Mark Johnson Political Columnist

Patrick Leahy Must Decide Whether to Run Next Year for a Ninth Six-Year Term in Congress

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Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.
TIM NEWCOMB
  • Tim Newcomb

Poor Pat Leahy.

All anyone wants to talk about is how old he is — and whether he's too old to run again next year.

In just the last two weeks, Politico and the Atlantic have written stories about whether 81-year-old Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) will retire or seek an almost unheard-of ninth term. In response, VTDigger.org polled some of his potential successors on the long list of younger Democrats eager to go to Washington, D.C.

The odds are, those successors will have to wait. Leahy signaled to Politico that he will run again, and I'd bet his Middlesex farm he does just that.

Yes, 81 is old, and 88 — the age he would be at the end of another term — sounds, well, significantly older. But we are living in an era of age defiance, with a 78-year-old president, a 50-year-old Professional Golfers' Association champion and a 43-year-old quarterback who just won the Super Bowl.

Yes, Leahy had a health scare in January that sent him to the hospital briefly, but he has been at work steadily since, and his office blamed the event on muscle spasms. Yes, his wife, Marcelle, has been diagnosed with a chronic form of adult leukemia, but any intense treatment isn't expected to last long. And yes, Leahy was sometimes hard to understand when he was presiding over Donald Trump's impeachment hearings, but he was also wearing a mask.

The main reason the eight-term senator is likely to run again? Vermont can't afford for him not to.

Leahy knows that. His claim to Politico that he is the "only Democrat" able to hold the seat was boastful, even absurd, in liberal Vermont. But it is true that Leahy wields substantial power thanks to the Senate's seniority system, which has rewarded his 46-year tenure with chairmanship of the money-distributing Appropriations Committee. Oh, and did we mention the return of earmarks, which allow senators to capture a little extra cash for their state? With Leahy holding that plum post, all of us in Vermont should be hoping he runs.

One unnamed Republican senator offered a more personal reason to doubt a Leahy retirement, telling Politico: "I always assumed he would run simply because: What else would he do that he'd like better than this?" 

A Republican challenge to Leahy next year doesn't seem likely. Gov. Phil Scott, the anemic Vermont party's only hope, told reporters last week he wants Leahy to run again. Scott made perhaps the best argument for why Vermonters would be reluctant to see him replace Leahy, despite his high ratings: The Senate is split 50-50, and the state's left-leaning majority won't chance tipping the balance back to the Republicans.

The list of Democrats waiting for an opening in Washington is long and could grow longer if Leahy doesn't go forward. U.S. Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) hasn't ruled out a run and could cap his 40-year political career with a Senate seat, though at 74 he would face questions about how he can build seniority over the long haul. State Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint (D-Windham) told VTDigger she's interested, as did Sen. Kesha Ram (D-Chittenden). While Lt. Gov. Molly Gray ducked the question, she is thought to have her eye on Congress, too. The most eye-opening comment came from Attorney General T.J. Donovan, long considered a possible candidate, who said that Vermont — which has never sent a woman to Congress — should do so the next time there is an open seat. Donovan's comments likely indicate his interest is running for governor once Scott steps away.

Leahy declined to talk to Seven Days, but spokesperson David Carle said Leahy and Marcelle will decide as a team later this year whether he will take the plunge.

"[They] have a long-held policy of making reelection decisions a year out from the election, and that hasn't changed," Carle said. "He is preparing for an election like every other senator in cycle and has retained his campaign manager and fundraiser."

While Vermont's up-and-coming Democrats await Leahy's decision, one thing seems clear: None is willing to throw the dice, as a young Pat Leahy did.

Forty-eight years ago come fall, the then 33-year-old Chittenden County prosecutor decided he would not wait for 83-year-old Republican senator George Aiken, a unbeatable Vermont political icon, to announce whether he would seek a seventh term. Leahy won his gamble: He began quietly lining up support and entered the race in early 1974, and, sure enough, Aiken announced his retirement soon afterward. Leahy won his first Senate term that November.

Dug In

Hardball.

That's what union members say management is playing in contract talks at VTDigger, Vermont's online daily news site, where journalists voted to unionize 14 months ago. Pay and working conditions, including job protection, are key issues. Reporters say colleagues have been fired or eased out in the past and want protection from a similar fate.

The union's frustration spilled into public view last week when the VTDigger Guild took to Twitter to call out management, essentially for not negotiating in good faith. It was ugly. One post said management agreed to the union's sick-time proposal while simultaneously proposing to take back five previously paid holidays. The union called that "three-card monte." On pay, it said management offered a $34,000 starting salary, less than what a reporter was hired for two years ago. The guild proposed starting pay of $38,000 and a tiered salary structure.  

Education reporter Lola Duffort, who sits at the negotiating table along with data reporter Erin Petenko, called the lack of progress "difficult and frustrating."

"By and large, people are starting to feel pretty insulted by some of the things management is putting forward at the table," she said. 

In its Twitter blast, the union also wrote that turnover of reporters is a major issue. 

"Relying on cheap, young labor that burns out and turns over every two years is not innovative — and it's not sustainable," the tweet said. Duffort said seven members of the union have left since its formation; its ranks today stand at 12, though several new hires are expected soon, she said. 

In response to questions from Fair Game, VTDigger's management offered a statement saying there has been "good progress" in contract negotiations. As evidence of good faith bargaining, VTDigger cited the 34 hours of contract talks that have occurred and the exchange of more than 100 proposals. There's been no impasse on any issue, according to the statement, which was provided by Jake Perkinson, VTDigger's legal counsel.

Perkinson said respect for the reporting profession has been "embedded in the DNA" at VTDigger since founder and editor Anne Galloway launched the nonprofit operation in 2009.

"We are prepared to settle on a fair contract as quickly as possible," the statement said.

So far, VTDigger's board of directors has been uninvolved, and it turned down a union request to meet over concerns when former managing editor Colin Meyn left abruptly at the end of last year.

Full disclosure: I was an editor at VTDigger for five years, until I resigned in December. Now, standing at a distance, I can only say — let's hope a settlement is reached soon. Here's why. 

VTDigger's importance can't be underestimated. It has become a major player in a media landscape in which nontraditional outlets have expanded their news coverage as local dailies shrank. VTDigger has a large stable of young, hardworking reporters. Those journalists provide the most consistent daily coverage of the Vermont Statehouse, plus dispatches from all corners of the state. Some who left have gone on to write for major publications, including the Boston Globe, the New York Times and the Atlantic

Pay in the newspaper business is notoriously low. (I made $19,000 a year when I started at the Burlington Free Press in the 1980s. You work hard and pay your dues.) But the union's concerns about turnover should not be dismissed. It's important for any newsroom to retain reporters who stick around long enough to acquire a deeper understanding of the state and the issues that face it. Better pay (especially in high-cost Vermont) and good working conditions can help.

With an enthusiastic donor base and a mix of funding sources, VTDigger is cited as a national model for sustainability in a media landscape where once-dominant newspapers have faded. The Burlington Free Press shrank from 52,000 print copies to today's circulation of fewer than 10,000 — and is offering its online content for $1 for six months. Wow. It's to be hoped that VTDigger's resources, which include a three-year, $900,000 grant from the American Journalism Project, will allow management and the union to find common ground on pay and benefits.

Duffort described the mood of the VTDigger newsroom as "mixed." She said working conditions had improved since the arrival of new managing editor Paul Heintz (a former Seven Days reporter and Fair Game columnist — that's the world of Vermont journalism for you). "A lot of the changes Paul has implemented have been positive and, I think, are appreciated," Duffort said. "But in terms of things like contractual protections, which are really important and don't rely on the goodwill of individual managers, that's been really difficult and frustrating" to get any movement.

Perkinson's statement was more upbeat: "While union negotiations may at times be challenging, we are fully confident that this process will in the end strengthen our organization and better equip us to fulfill our mission."

Stay tuned.

A Goodbye and a Hello

All the best to my colleague Dave Gram, who stepped down from the Fair Game column last week because of health issues. During his decades as an Associated Press reporter in Montpelier and, later, as a radio interviewer and columnist, he was known as a straight shooter. I was sorry he had to wrap up the column, and I know he was, too.

Who am I?

Like Dave, I've been covering Vermont for a long time, since 1982, starting as a cub reporter at the Eagle Times in Springfield before working at the Burlington Free Press, where I covered crime and then city hall. Then, for 25 years, I hosted a daily radio program in which I interviewed a spectrum of politically diverse guests, analysts, authors and news makers. I also talked and listened to lots of Vermonters.My goal is to put my experience to good use and continue the fine work of my Fair Game predecessors. I'll keep my ear to the ground and my eye on the pols in Montpelier and Washington, provide some analysis, and maybe even offer some insight, too. I'll also hope to turn the spotlight on people, places and nonpolitical topics throughout the state.

A word of caution: I don't do nicknames. That was the turf of my friend and colleague Peter Freyne, the original Fair Gamer. One of the most valuable pieces of advice I've gotten as a journalist came from Ken Squier, the legendary broadcaster for whom I worked at WDEV in Waterbury for almost 20 years: Keep it relevant.

I'll do my best.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Senior Senator | Patrick Leahy must decide whether to run next year for a ninth six-year term in Congress"