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Kentucky Rep. John Yarmuth ’69 began his political journey at Yale, where he fought on the floor of the Yale Political Union and gradually began to shift away from his conservative roots. Now, as Yarmuth prepares for retirement, the now-Democrat told the News about the scope of his career, his time at Yale and his perspectives on the state of American politics.

Yarmuth announced his retirement in October, opening up a seat in the Kentucky congressional delegation in the Louisville Metro Area. As chair of the House Budget Committee, Yarmuth’s retirement follows a series of resignations by leading House Democrats. As a member of the Yale Political Union, Yarmuth recalled a tense debate between political commentator William Buckley Jr. ’50 and peace activist Rev. William Sloane Coffin ’49 DIV ’56. While Yarmuth had expected Buckley, a conservative, to win the debate, he was surprised by the outcome.

“I walked out thinking just the opposite had happened,” Yarmuth said.

But Yarmuth’s college days alone did not accelerate his transition to a more progressive stance. The assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, along with the 1968 Democratic National Convention protests, all contributed to his changing views.

“It was a tumultuous time in American history,” he said. “It only served to make me more and more liberal.”

Yarmuth noted that since his time at Yale in the ’60s, politics has changed in two ways. He said that the political spectrum has broadened — whereas most Americans used to agree about the responsibilities of the federal government, there is now deep division surrounding what the role of the government should be.

He also said that the political climate in the U.S. has become much more tense.

“People’s identity has become much more wrapped up in their political identity,” he said. “That was not the case back then.”

Yarmuth’s congressional goals prior to his retirement in 2023 are to pass the Build Back Better Act — which he introduced in the House — by way of the budget reconciliation process, a method activated by members of Congress to pass bills in the Senate without being filibustered. It was once used to pass the American Rescue Act, which Yarmuth previously authored.

However, he noted that there were obstacles to his agenda, specifically the filibuster. If the filibuster is to be removed, he has ambitions to go through with further legislation such as voting reforms and universal background checks.

Yarmuth is optimistic that his legacy in Congress is marked by an ear for the people.

“I hope to be remembered as someone who totally respected the job and what it entails,” Yarmuth said. “The most important thing we do is being accessible to our constituents. I think I’ve done that very effectively and diligently over my 15 years [in Congress].”

Yarmuth’s former classmate Arthur Segal ’69 shared his admiration for Yarmuth’s approach to serving through government. 

Segal described Yarmuth’s involvement in the class of 1969’s alumni community, representing the left in political debates and serving as a speaker for events.

“He has a realistic, honest and honorable approach to … life and politics,” Segal said. “He’s really focused on what he can do to extend benefits, equality and fairness to everyone.”

Following retirement, Yarmuth plans to spend time with family, particularly his grandchildren. However, he does not plan to be disengaged from politics and looks forward to getting involved in policy discussions and also at the University of Louisville, where he co-teaches a course on Congress.

Yale Alumni Association Senior Director of Communications E.J. Crawford voiced his support for the congressman’s legacy.

“Rep. Yarmuth continues a long and proud tradition of Yale alumni serving in government, who have dedicated their time and talents to public service,” Crawford said.

Looking back to his time at Yale, Yarmuth noted that he sought to pull from the wisdom and experience that was offered to him, and the vast community of friends and professors he was surrounded with.

“The value of Yale is the … wide range of people and the talented people you meet and become associated with,” he said. “That says a lot about the Yale experience and how rewarding it can be.”

Yarmuth graduated Yale College in 1969 with a degree in American Studies.

WILLIAM PORAYOUW
William Porayouw covers international affairs at Yale and serves on the YDN business team. Originally from Southern California, he is a first-year in Davenport College majoring in ethics, politics and economics.