CAPA, Institutional News, Local Impact

A Lifetime of Public Service

On October 20, 2022, Bennington College and local community members gathered for a conversation with U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy. The conversation took place as the College named its Public Policy Forums after Senator Leahy in recognition of his service to the state of Vermont.

Image of Senator Patrick Leahy

As the event began, President Laura Walker welcomed Senator Leahy and attendees:

“Vermonters have sent Senator Leahy to Washington eight times in nearly 47 years, and a year ago in November he decided it was time to come home. So this evening, we welcome you home,” said President Walker. “We are also delighted to welcome you to our public policy forums, which, for over the last several weeks, have examined the immense struggles facing our democracy."

Brian Campion, CAPA’s director of Public Policy Programs and a Vermont State Senator, facilitated the conversation and introduced the Public Policy Forum @ CAPA series, now renamed in Sen. Leahy’s honor.

“Six years ago, Susan Sgorbati, Director of CAPA, and I started these forums as a way to bring work that was being done in Montpelier and Washington DC to students and the greater Bennington community. We created an opportunity for these groups to learn from one another, discuss issues with policymakers, scientists, and scholars, and propose solutions to some of our most pressing problems. We have since dedicated conversations to addressing climate change, foreign policy, plastic pollution, voting rights, public education, and this year, examining the state of America’s democracy.” 

"Tonight we are honoring somebody who for the past 48 years has worked to address the needs of our nation head on. How does one honor an individual who has led such a life? We make sure their work doesn’t end. We educate, empower, and encourage students so they have the tools, the knowledge, and partners to continue this shared mission,” said Campion.

“We will continue the work that Senator Leahy had done his entire life and continue his dedication to equal rights, a healthy environment, and a strong democracy. Students here tonight, as well as future generations, will follow the trail that you have blazed, Senator Leahy, and from here on out our forums will be known as the Patrick J. Leahy Public Policy Forums.”

As the conversation unfolded, Senator Leahy shared his early encounter with Gov. William H. Wills, his childhood growing up as a Catholic in a largely Protestant state, and his experiences running for office. He remarked on how the Senate has changed since he first took his position, and how Supreme Court hearings have also become different over the years.

Upon reflecting about the legislation and votes he was most proud of in his career, Senator Leahy mentioned voting to end the Vietnam War and writing the Leahy Law (U.S. human rights laws that prohibit the Department of Defense from providing military assistance to foreign security force units that violate human rights). He also shared about his work behind the Violence Against Women Act, which he updated to encompass the LGBTQ+ community and increase penalty for sexual exploiters who go after runaway children.

Following the topic of human rights and war relief, Senator Leahy shared heartfelt stories about working with First President Bush to provide humanitarian aid to veterans from the Vietnam War. On a lighter note, the Senator recalled appearing on screen with Heath Ledger when he cameoed in Batman and sharing friendly banters with President Obama, who was then senator.

When asked about how he built up the Democratic party in a state where it was once in the minority, Senator Leahy recounted the process and shared his personal perspective.

“Don't worry about the party label. Be yourself. Get your voice across and be honest. Give the answers and know that nobody owns a seat in the legislature at the House. Just go and fight for it. But be honest…You'd be amazed how people respect honesty."

Finally, the Senator shared words of encouragement for prospective law students, young humanitarians, and public service enthusiasts in the room. On how young people can play a role in strengthening democracy, he stated:

“Get involved. Get involved in campaigns at the local, state, and national level. Don't feel like you have to wait until somebody fits every single idea you want. It will never happen. Instead, find people who are running for the office with real integrity or willingness to answer your questions, who aren't just trying to use talking points, and help them get elected."