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Vermont's Patrick Leahy says he will retire from the U.S. Senate

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The longest-serving member of the U.S. Senate is retiring. Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont announced today he will not seek a ninth term in office next year. He was elected in 1974, and his decision to step down creates a rare opening in Vermont's congressional delegation. Vermont Public Radio's Henry Epp has more.

HENRY EPP, BYLINE: Standing at a podium in Vermont's State House, Senator Patrick Leahy listed some of his proudest accomplishments in his nearly five decades in the Senate - voting against an extension of the Vietnam War, updating the Violence Against Women Act, leading the Senate Judiciary Committee. Then, he said he and his wife Marcelle had made a decision.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PATRICK LEAHY: It is time to pass the torch to the next Vermonter.

EPP: Leahy's political career began as a state prosecutor. In 1974 he ran a long-shot campaign for Senate as a Democrat, riding a wave of voter discontent amid the Watergate scandal, as he noted in a television documentary at the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LEAHY: They're concerned that there's a double standard of justice. They feel that this administration has one set of justice for itself; a different set of justice, a different standard of justice for the rest of the people.

EPP: Leahy went on to serve as the chairman of the Judiciary, Agriculture and Appropriations Committees, where he was able to direct millions of federal dollars to his tiny home state. In his years as the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, he was involved in many Supreme Court nominations. Outside of his work in the Senate, Leahy is a proud Batman aficionado and had cameos in several Batman movies.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE DARK KNIGHT")

LEAHY: (As Gentleman at Party) We're not intimidated by thugs.

HEATH LEDGER: (As the Joker) You know, you remind me of my father. I hated my father.

EPP: Vermont has only three members of Congress, so Leahy's decision creates a rare opening, says Conor Casey, the former director of the Vermont Democratic Party.

CONOR CASEY: For the political junkies in Vermont, this is a seismic shift in Vermont politics.

EPP: The current makeup of the state's congressional delegation has remained unchanged since 2006, and that lack of turnover has contributed to the fact that Vermont is the only state in the country that's never sent a woman to Congress. Democratic State Senator Kesha Ram Hinsdale, who's considering a run for Congress herself, says that's now likely to change.

KESHA RAM HINSDALE: Everything I'm hearing from the people is they're excited to have a race to watch the best woman win.

EPP: Vermont also has not sent a Republican to Congress in over two decades, but despite its liberal reputation, the state isn't necessarily a lock for Democrats. Last year Republican Governor Phil Scott won a third term in a landslide, but Scott says he has no interest in going to Washington. For his part, Leahy says he looks forward to setting his own schedule and spending more time with his family, particularly his wife Marcelle. For NPR News, I'm Henry Epp in Colchester, Vt. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.