Former U.S. senator Jim Jeffords, an iconic independent and veteran Vermont politician, died Monday at age 80.
Near the end of his 40-year career in public office, the Rutland Republican stunned the nation in May 2001 when he left his party to become an independent. The move handed control of a closely divided Senate to the Democratic Party for the next 18 months and earned Jeffords a place in political history.
But according to his longtime chief of staff, Susan Boardman Russ, Jeffords’ most important contribution was not his defection from the GOP, but his decades of work fighting for education, the environment, dairy farmers and the disabled.
“That’s his legacy. That’s what mattered to him,” Boardman Russ said. “The publicity he got for switching parties I sometimes wish hadn’t happened because all those incredible things he did over those years got lost.”
Jeffords died Monday morning at the Knollwood Military Retirement Residence in Washington, D.C., where he had lived since the death of his wife, Liz, in 2007, according to former spokeswoman Diane Derby.
As Vermont and the rest of the nation learned of his death Monday, his family, former staff members, congressional colleagues and President Barack Obama remembered a man they recalled as courageous and humble.
“During his more than 30 years in Washington, Jim never lost the fiercely independent spirit that made Vermonters, and people across America, trust and respect him,” Obama said in a written statement. “Whatever the issue – whether it was protecting the environment, supporting Americans with disabilities, or whether to authorize the war in Iraq – Jim voted his principles, even if it sometimes meant taking a lonely or unpopular stance. Vermonters sent him to Washington to follow his conscience, and he did them proud.”
Closer to home, his two children, Laura and Leonard, both of Washington, D.C., said in a statement, “While we are saddened by our father's passing, we take comfort in the knowledge that he lived a full life, from the hills of Vermont to the halls of Congress. We will miss his kindness, his good humor, and his generosity of spirit.”
The son of a chief justice of the Vermont Supreme Court, Jeffords attended Yale University and Harvard Law School. After serving three years in the United States Navy, he returned to Vermont to practice law.
Jeffords represented Rutland County in the Vermont Senate from 1966 through 1968, when he was elected attorney general. He lost a bid for governor in 1972, but two years later won his first of seven terms in the U.S. House.
Upon the retirement of Robert Stafford in 1988, Jeffords was elected to the U.S. Senate, where he would serve three terms and eventually take the gavel of the powerful Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. After his 2001 party switch, he surrendered that post to then-senator Edward Kennedy and took the helm of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.
Rep. Heidi Scheuermann (R-Stowe) went to work for Jeffords in 1997. Just as important as his legislative accomplishments, she said Monday, was Jeffords' humble nature. Like other staffers, she referred to him not as “Sen. Jeffords,” but simply as “Jim.”
“There’s going to be a lot of talk about his political legacy, but most people who knew him just remember the guy,” she said. “It was Jim the man. He wasn’t 'Sen. Jeffords' to people. He was 'Jim.' He was just a really decent, decent man. People certainly disagreed with his policies once in a while, but all in all people respected him for the man he was.”
When Boardman Russ took over as Jeffords’ chief of staff at the age of 29, she recalled, “He just said, ‘Always be honest and remember why you’re here. It’s not about you. It’s not about me. It’s about getting the job done.’”
Jeff Munger, who spent 13 years on Jeffords’ staff and now works for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), first met his future boss at a Rutland High School baseball game in which Munger’s nephew and Jeffords’ son were playing.
While standing on the third base line, Munger said, a familiar-looking man approached him.
“Jim Jeffords,” the man said. “I’m your congressman.”
They became friends, spending holidays together, before Jeffords offered Munger a job in 1992.
“Vermont has lost one of its greatest statesman of all time,” Munger said. “He was always looking out for Vermont. That was what he instilled in all his staffers.”
Munger said Jeffords lived up to the nickname bestowed on him by the late Seven Days political columnist Peter Freyne: “Gentleman Jim.”
“It was true. He was quite a gentleman. And deceptively smart,” Munger said. “No one would ever have guessed he was a Harvard- and Yale-educated man.”
Throughout his career, Jeffords hailed from the moderate to liberal wing of the GOP, which at that point still included many Northeastern Republicans.
He supported President Bill Clinton’s proposed health care reforms — which served as a foundation for President Barack Obama’s efforts — and was one of only five Republicans who voted to acquit Clinton of perjury and obstruction of justice during the president’s 1999 impeachment proceedings.
In his 2003 memoir, “An Independent Man,” Jeffords explained that he was wary of taking the dramatic step of removing a sitting president for what he termed a “noncrime crime.”
“In the end, I concluded Bill Clinton had lied under oath and may have obstructed justice but that the offenses weren’t enough to undo the two elections and that impeachment could set a devastating precedent,” Jeffords wrote.
He also opposed a hefty tax cut proposed by President George W. Bush and approved by Congress in 2001. Jeffords argued that the federal budget surpluses that were generated in the late 1990s should be used not just to cut taxes, but also to pay down the national debt and fund key government priorities.
“The fact that our children lag behind their international peers strikes me as a bigger threat to our national security and economic stability than the rate of taxation paid on multimillion-dollar estate,” he wrote.
After the 2000 election, Democrats and Republicans were evenly split in the Senate, with Vice President Dick Cheney casting the deciding vote in favor of the GOP. Senate Democrats spent months courting moderate Republicans they thought might decamp from their party, but it was President George W. Bush’s opposition to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act that pushed Jeffords over the edge.
"Increasingly, I find myself in disagreement with my party,” he told reporters during a press conference announcing his newfound independence. “In order to best represent my state of Vermont, my own conscience and principals that I have stood for my whole life, I will leave the Republican Party and become an independent.”
In a phone interview Monday, former governor Howard Dean hailed Jeffords’ independent streak and his willingness to buck the party to which he’d always belonged.
“He was the very best kind of Vermonter. He did exactly what he felt was right politically and that’s a hard commodity to come by sometimes,” Dean said. “The Republican Party was clearly beginning its move to the far right, and Jim was never a far-right guy. He was a reasonable, thoughtful Republican — and there still are some to this day.”
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who was elected to the U.S. Senate the same year Jeffords was elected to the House, remembered his former colleague as a “partner” and a “friend.”
“He was a Vermonter through and through, drawn to political life to make a difference for our state and nation,” Leahy said in a written statement.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who followed Jeffords to the House and then the Senate, said that throughout Capitol Hill, Jeffords was “very much respected, admired and liked.”
“Unlike many modern politicians, he didn’t race to the TV camera. He was a very low-key guy, a very quiet guy and a very down-to-earth guy,” Sanders said in a phone interview. “I always believed he was much more comfortable being back in Vermont with Vermonters then he was with the big-shots in Washington, D.C.”
Noting that Jeffords’ decision to leave the GOP cost his colleagues their chairmanships and staffers their jobs, Sanders called it “an act of unbelievable courage.”
Congressman Peter Welch (D-Vt.), who was elected to the House as Jeffords retired from the Senate, said Jeffords made his mark as “the first attorney general to put environmental protection and lake cleanup at the forefront of his agenda.”
“I knew him largely as a citizen who was kind of awed by the longevity of his career, from attorney general to the Senate, and his consistent, low-key approach that almost concealed his quite extraordinary record of accomplishment,” Welch said in a phone interview.
Calling him a “mentor,” Welch said, “I kind of looked up to him, frankly, because he just embodied modesty.”
“What a loss,” said Gov. Peter Shumlin, who first met Jeffords as a teenager at an Independence Day celebration hosted by former governor and senator George Aiken.
“If we had a Mount Rushmore, we’d chisel Jim Jeffords’ strong face into that mountain,” Shumlin said in a phone interview. “If Republicans were like George Aiken and Jim Douglas, we’d all consider joining them.”
After nearly 34 years in Congress, questions began percolating throughout Vermont and the Capitol that Jeffords’ health was declining and his faculties were failing. In April 2005, he announced that he would not seek a fourth term in the Senate, citing his own declining health and that of his wife Liz, who was battling cancer.
“He would have won had he run again,” Welch said. “We all knew that. But he made a personal decision not to run.”
According to Munger, Jeffords saw Vermont for the last time soon after he left the Senate. Following an Alzheimer’s diagnosis and his wife’s death, the former senator moved to the Knollwood facility, where he would spend the rest of his days.
“I always felt that Jim got gypped in a way,” Munger said. “We were all hoping Jim could be in Vermont, and we could take care of him, but we were being selfish. His family, grandchildren were in D.C. I can’t even remember the last time he was in Vermont. It could have been 2007. He always wanted to come back, but it didn’t happen. He didn’t really get to enjoy retirement.”
Said Shumlin, “A lot of us have been missing Jim for a long time. His last decade was a very sad chapter. His mind had left him and his body was strong. It was a sad ending to an extraordinary human being who didn’t deserve to suffer the way he did.”
Jeffords’ funeral will be held at 11 a.m. Friday at Grace Congregational United Church of Christ in Rutland, according to the Associated Press.