(CN) — Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, the president pro tempore who also cameoed in five Batman movies, announced his retirement Monday after spending nearly five decades representing Vermont in the chamber.
The 81-year-old shared the news from the Vermont Statehouse where he announced his first candidacy for U.S. Senate at age 33. Removing a blue cloth mask before speaking at a podium bristling with microphones, Leahy said his name will not appear on the next ballot presented to Vermont voters.
As he recounted some of his legislative achievements, the longest-serving current member of the Senate spoke about how he strove to spread the values of the Green Mountain State around the world and bring its voice to the halls of Congress.
“While I'll continue to serve Vermont, Marcelle and I have reached the conclusion that it's time to put down the gavel," Leahy said, referring to his wife who joined him at the podium. "It is time to pass the torch to the next Vermonter who'll carry on this work for our great state. It's time to come home.”
Leahy will leave office in January 2023.
Jim Barnett, former chair of the Vermont Republican Party who now works as a political consultant, said Leahy’s departure opens up a Senate seat for the first time since 2006 when Vermont’s Independent Senator Bernie Sanders was elected.
“There are a lot of ambitious politicians who have been waiting for this moment for a long time,” Barnett said.
Leahy was elected as Vermont’s first Democratic senator in 1974. State Republicans were a powerful party then, Barnett said, but their influence has dwindled. Now, the number of Republicans who may run for Leahy’s seat is few.
In the meantime, Sanders, a former presidential candidate with a cult following nationally, could play kingmaker in the race.
“If he decides he wants to bring his backers and his donors from all around the nation and behind some other candidate, then that makes them an immediate contender,” Barnett said.
Sanders on Monday expressed “deep gratitude” on behalf of Vermonters for Leahy’s work in the Senate.
“He has been a towering figure as chairman of the Agriculture Committee, the Judiciary Committee, and the Appropriations Committee," Sanders said of Leahy in a statement. "He leaves a unique legacy that will be impossible to match."
In his speech Monday, Leahy said he entered the Senate at a time of constitutional crisis, in the midst of Watergate and the Vietnam War. Despite many Vermonters supporting the war, Leahy said he followed his conscience when he voted five times against the war in Vietnam.
He said he wrote and passed the first piece of legislation that banned the exportation of land mines. Other nations, Leahy said, soon followed.
Speaking about his work on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Leahy said he helped push back against an administration calling to roll back civil liberties in aftermath of the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
He said he worked to confirm the “top judges in the land.”
“I always worked to keep the federal judiciary independent,” Leahy said.
Earlier this year, Leahy presided over the Senate’s trial of former President Donald Trump’s second impeachment.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.