- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 23, 2009

There’s little surprise that one of Sen. Patrick J. Leahy’s favorite characters is Batman. The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee has appeared in three Batman movies and added his voice to the animated series that ran in the mid-‘90s.

The caped crusader is a good match for the long-serving Vermont senator, who finds affinity with prosecutors and lawmen, Democrat and Republican.

Of the 19 men and women who sit on the Judiciary Committee, six are prosecutors, a dynamic Mr. Leahy says helps break down partisan lines.

“I love having prosecutors on the committee,” he said. “I find that prosecutors, whether they’re Republicans or Democrats, they tend to know what the basics are. Everyone’s against crime. Who’s going to say ‘I’m really for the poor criminal,’ we know how difficult that is”?

As Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor began her tour of the Capitol earlier this month to meet with senators, Mr. Leahy highlighted her work as a New York City prosecutor.

“Also, from a personal point of view, I’m always glad to see somebody who served as a prosecutor,” Mr. Leahy said earlier this month following his meeting with Judge Sotomayor. “I think, if you served as a prosecutor, you’ve been in law enforcement, you really have an understanding of both the good and the bad of life.”

Mr. Leahy is banking on his bipartisan reputation as he prepares to shepherd President Obama’s first Supreme Court nominee through Senate hearings in a few weeks.

This is not to say Mr. Leahy won’t be ready to throw a few elbows in the thick of a political battle.

He blindsided Republican senators earlier this month when he announced confirmation hearings for Judge Sotomayor would start July 13. The announcement forced Republicans to scramble to develop a message.

Mr. Leahy has been out front defending Judge Sotomayor from conservative critics. He called attacks on her as a “racist” for comments she made that a “wise Latina woman” would make a better decision than a white male, some of the most vicious he’s seen.

At Mr. Leahy’s side will be Sen. Arlen Specter, the former Republican and longtime Judiciary Committee member who handed over control of the committee to Mr. Leahy after the Democrats won control of the Senate in 2006.

When asked to describe Mr. Leahy, Mr. Specter used one word: “prodigious.”

Mr. Leahy has questioned every sitting member of the Supreme Court as a member of the Judiciary Committee.

“He’s experienced, and that means a lot in how you handle these situations,” Mr. Specter said. “Protesters will sometimes come into the room, someone will try to organize a filibuster; experience is very valuable.”

The two senators met at a state prosecutor’s conference in Philadelphia close to 40 years ago. Mr. Leahy was a state prosecutor in Chittenden County, Vt., and Mr. Specter was the district attorney for Philadelphia.

As a young state’s attorney, Mr. Leahy set up a task force with Republican Gov. Deane C. Davis to combat gang crime.

“We had a gang of armed robbers that were operating in the state,” Mr. Leahy recalled. “We put together a task force that operated secretly out of my office, and we caught all the gang members. It was because [Mr. Davis] put the resources in there I figured I could do that.”

Mr. Leahy remains the only Democrat to represent Vermont in the Senate. “We tend to look at things issue by issue,” Mr. Leahy said. “We’re fiscally conservative, very pro-environmental.”

While he’s won support from the state’s moderate Republicans, he recalls an early trip to one of the state’s more conservative strongholds. He was introduced as the first Vermont Democrat to serve in the Senate, and a man in the back of the room shouted: “We ain’t going to make that mistake twice.”

Mr. Leahy’s father, Howard, an Irish-American, ran the Leahy Press in Montpelier. His mother, Alba, an Italian-American, cared for the family.

Mr. Leahy recalls delivering papers in his hometown of Montpelier, the smallest state capital in the nation, with a population of just more than 8,000. As a boy, Mr. Leahy delivered papers to Mr. Davis decades before the latter become governor.

Marty Kowalkowski and her husband Ron bought the Leahy Press from Mr. Leahy’s parents in 1969.

“They were both very reserved,” Mrs. Kowalkowski said of Mr. Leahy’s parents. “Howard had his views and was very strong with his views. I think Sen. Leahy is quite a bit like his father.”

In his 35 years representing Vermont, he has developed close relationships with many prominent state figures, including one of the men he beat for Senate in 1974, Bernie Sanders.

“He’s a friend of mine; he has a very good sense of humor; he is a very strong family man,” said Mr. Sanders, Vermont independent. “Every other word out of his mouth is about his wife, about his kids and his grandchildren.”

Mr. Leahy still travels back to his 100-acre farm in Vermont on the weekends. When he’s not with his family — including his wife, Marcelle, his three children and their children — he’s reading congressional documents on his farm.

When he can, Mr. Leahy hobnobs with his favorite musicians, U2 (he’s good friends with Bono) and the Grateful Dead.

The Dead have been regulars at Leahy fundraisers. He has been onstage for Dead shows when he has taken phone calls from friends. He said when they ask him to turn down the radio, he says he can’t because it’s a live show.

“I took the Grateful Dead to the Senate dining room once, and all the Capitol Police [officers] were looking for Jerry’s autograph,” he said.

Mr. Leahy’s hobbies often have been politically practical, helping him develop relationships with Republican leaders.

As an amateur photographer and one of the Senate’s longest-serving members, Mr. Leahy has pointed the lens at history frequently. Being legally blind in one eye, it turns out, is good for target practice and photography.

During President Reagan’s second inauguration, in 1985, Mr. Leahy snapped away. U.S. News & World Report published one of his photos, and not long after that, he received a note from Mr. Reagan saying it was his favorite photo from the inauguration.

“He said, ‘What a coincidence that my favorite photo of the inauguration was taken by a Democrat,’” Mr. Leahy recalled last week in an interview with The Washington Times.

A few years after Mr. Reagan lauded Mr. Leahy’s photography, Mr. Leahy caught the White House’s attention for something less pleasant, vocal opposition to Judge Robert Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court.

During a grilling over Mr. Bork’s stances in 1987, Mr. Leahy coined the phrase “confirmation conversion” to describe a court candidate who appears to have a last-minute change of heart in policy areas.

Now Mr. Leahy is carrying the water for a Democratic president looking to insulate his nominee from political attacks.

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