Jeezum, Jim: What Ever Happened to Jeffords Republicans? | Fair Game | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Jeezum, Jim: What Ever Happened to Jeffords Republicans?


Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.
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Even after the post-Watergate rout of 1974, when Democrats picked up 49 seats in the U.S. House, eight of New England's 25 House members still hailed from the GOP.

Among them was a 40-year-old freshman representative from Vermont who had carved out a reputation back home for his environmental activism.

As a state senator representing Rutland County, Jim Jeffords had pushed to ban billboards along the state's byways. As attorney general, he had sued International Paper for polluting Lake Champlain. He helped draft Vermont's groundbreaking Act 250 land-use law and its landmark bottle bill.

"He was the first attorney general to put environmental protection and lake cleanup at the forefront of his agenda," Congressman Peter Welch (D-Vt.) said in response to Jeffords' death Monday at age 80 in Washington, D.C.

Thirty-two years after he came to Congress as a House Republican, Jeffords retired in 2006 as a Senate independent. The last major piece of legislation he introduced would have forced polluters to cut their carbon emissions by 80 percent over the next 50 years.

By then, of course, the party of Theodore Roosevelt had become the party of James Inhofe, the climate-change-denying senator from Oklahoma, who served opposite Jeffords at the top of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.

And by then, the northeastern GOP congressman was an endangered species. The year Jeffords retired, Chris Shays of Connecticut became the sole New England Republican serving in the House. Two years later, he was defeated.

"I really worry about that," Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said Monday, referring to the decline of the GOP moderate.

Comparing Jeffords to former Vermont senator Robert Stafford and former Tennessee senator Howard Baker, Leahy said, "They were proud to be Republican, but they would work out differences and they would try to reach across the aisle. I think as we've lost that, the Senate's been hurt."

Jeffords' vast and loyal diaspora of ex-staffers urged reporters Monday to remember him more for his legislative legacy than his 2001 defection from the Republican Party, which handed control of the Senate to Democrats and made his a household name across the country.

"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," said Susan Boardman Russ, Jeffords' longtime chief of staff.

Indeed, not long after arriving on Capitol Hill, Jeffords coauthored what would become the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, opening up public schools to those with mental and physical disabilities. He would go on to increase funding for the arts, help negotiate the Northeast Dairy Compact and secure passage of the Clean Air Act of 1990.

And it's not like Jeffords' break from the party came from out of the blue. As early as 1972, when he sought the Republican nomination for governor, he was defeated by the more conservative Luther "Fred" Hackett, who later lost to Democrat Tom Salmon.

In 1980, when Jeffords supported John Anderson for president over Ronald Regan, Vermont Republicans tried to ban him from their party's convention. The next year, Jeffords was the sole Republican to vote against the Gipper's tax cuts.

He voted against Clarence Thomas' nomination to the Supreme Court, urged George H.W. Bush to drop Dan Quayle from the ticket, opposed Newt Gingrich's "Contract with America," backed Bill Clinton's health care reform proposal, opposed Clinton's impeachment and voted against the 2003 war in Iraq.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who followed Jeffords to the House and then the Senate, said Monday that he knew many moderate House Republicans who shared Jeffords' gripes back in 2001.

"But not one of them had the courage to do what he did, which was to say, 'Enough is enough,'" Sanders recalled.

"Unlike many who sort of faded away or lost elections, Jim took on his own party," former governor Howard Dean said Monday. "I think he ought to get credit for that."

Perhaps one reason the Jeffords alumni squad isn't so interested in focusing on their boss' famous defection is that, in the long run, it didn't amount to much.

Sure, Democrats regained a tenuous hold on the Senate for the next 18 months. But a year after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Republicans, campaigning on national security, took back the Senate and expanded their majority in the House. In 2004, George W. Bush won reelection by appealing to his party's base of social conservatives — and by the end of the decade, the Tea Party had taken root.

These days, the left and the right are as far apart as ever in the national debate — and Jeffords-style independence seems almost quaint.

"He stood up for his beliefs, which is incredible, but it didn't change anything," said Jeff Munger, who spent 13 years on Jeffords' staff and now works for Sanders.

Here in Vermont, where Jeffords is venerated by every politician with a pulse, his lasting impact on state politics is equally uncertain. The legislature's super-majority Democrats are quick to shut down Republican opposition, while some GOP activists love nothing more than to engage in friendly fire to enforce party orthodoxy.

Not exactly the Jeffords way.

Among those in the latter camp, ironically, is former Jeffords aide Darcie Johnston, who's currently waging a one-woman-war against Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Milne and the party's sole statewide officer-holder, Lt. Gov. Phil Scott.

Since they took control of the state party last year from Johnston's conservative allies, Scott and Vermont Republican Party Chairman David Sunderland have been trying to rebrand the state GOP as the kind of party that Jeffords never would have left.

Milne, whose family was close to Jeffords', said his party would do well to emulate the late senator by looking at "issues based on what's best for people, not predetermined litmus tests."

When Milne's own mother, Marian, lost a Republican primary after voting for civil unions in 2000, Jeffords encouraged her to run as an independent to keep her seat in the Vermont House and endorsed her candidacy. Marion Milne died last week at age 79.

"I think that was the low-water mark of the party," Scott Milne said of the "Take Back Vermont" movement. "I see the Vermont Republican Party becoming a more moderate, mainstream party. I'm hoping my run will help move it toward that."

But Johnston, who opposes government involvement in health care, says Vermont's neo-moderate GOP leaders miss the point.

"The Vermont Republican Party has been so focused on winning that they have forgotten the importance of public policy and principles," Johnston said. "Jeffords never put winning above principle and policy."

Of course, the GOP hasn't been doing much winning, either. Since former governor Jim Douglas' 2010 retirement, the party's influence has diminished to near irrelevance in Vermont.

Heidi Tringe, a Montpelier lobbyist who worked for Jeffords for five years, believes the GOP's fortunes will reverse when it finds enough candidates who share her old boss' humble, dedicated and thoughtful demeanor. She thinks Lt. Gov. Scott fits the mold.

"We're only one great candidate away from having another Republican in the U.S. Senate or having another Republican in the governor's office," she argues. "It's about the person, not the party. And that's what I really learned from Jim."

Primary Dollars

During next Tuesday's sleepy summer primary election, Milne will face off against Steve Berry and Emily Peyton for the Republican gubernatorial nomination — and the opportunity to challenge Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin. He'll also have to withstand a last-minute write-in campaign being waged by Libertarian Dan Feliciano — and orchestrated by Johnston.

Milne isn't taking any chances.

On Tuesday, he launched a 30-second television advertisement featuring footage of him and Douglas at last month's campaign kickoff. Milne says he plans to spend "north of $20,000" airing the ad in the next week.

That's nearly as much as the $22,370 he raised last month, according to a report filed Monday with the secretary of state. Of that, $6,000 came from those associated with David Boies III, Milne's college pal and business partner, who helped collect another $14,000 in contributions in July.

Having raised just $42,790 and spent $28,325 since he entered the race in June, Milne doesn't have much to work with. That's why, he said, he'll pull the ad next week — and sit out the ad war until October.

"We don't have the money to get into a TV-buying race with Shumlin," Milne said.

True story: Just last month, the gov raised $67,452 and spent a mere $11,264 — leaving him with $1.13 million in the bank. As usual, much of Shummy's cash came from corporations, unions, lobbyists and others with business before the state.

Among his biggest contributors were the International Association of Fire Fighters ($6,000), Federal Express ($4,000), Vermont Telephone Company president Michel Guité and daughter Diane Guité, ($4,000), the Vermont Troopers Association ($3,000), the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen ($3,000), AT&T ($2,000), Comcast ($2,000), and Visa ($1,000).

The real write-in race to watch next Tuesday will not be for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, but for the Democratic lieutenant gubernatorial nomination. That's because after Jeffersonville activist John Bauer dropped out in June, the Ds were left without anyone on the ballot — and a write-in candidate would need just 250 votes to secure the nomination.

Former Progressive legislator Dean Corren, who's running for lieutenant governor, has been trying to do just that. And while Scott, the Republican incumbent, has secured the endorsement of several top Senate Democrats, Corren has found support from key Democratic activists.

"My core values match more what Dean Corren is about, so I will be supporting Dean," said Dottie Deans, who chairs the Vermont Democratic Party.

Since he qualified for up to $200,000 in public financing in June, Corren has had a leg up in the money race — and he hasn't had to spend a minute dialing for dollars. Scott has, but it looks like it's paying off.

On Monday, Scott reported raising $52,380 in the last month, nearly half of which came from a fundraiser hosted two weeks ago by Sen. Dick Mazza (D-Grand Isle). That brings his campaign total to $113,427 and leaves $120,369 in the bank. Corren, who has spent $17,122, has nearly $183,00 left to spend before Election Day. Because he qualified for public financing, the Prog isn't allowed to accept a dollar more.

Like Shumlin, Scott raised plenty from corporations and those who do business with the state. He took money from MVP Health Care ($2,000), Myers Container Service ($2,000), Vermont Chamber of Commerce president Betsy Bishop ($250) and fellow lobbyists Brendan Cosgrove ($500), Andrew MacLean ($250), Chuck Storrow ($200) and Jeanne Kennedy ($200).

The other statewide race to watch next Tuesday is that for the Republican nomination for the U.S. House. Donald Nolte, Donald Russell and 2012 nominee Mark Donka are competing to face off against Welch, the four-term incumbent Democrat, but none in the Republican trio has attracted mainstream support.

The state's legislative primaries have been equally slow.

Only one Senate district — Windham County, where Democratic Sen. Peter Galbraith is retiring — will host a competitive primary.

In the House, Democratic leaders are eyeing five competitive primaries, according to Vermont Democratic House Campaign director Liz Kyriacou: two in Bennington and one each in Middlebury, the Upper Valley and Winooski (See Mark Davis' story today on page 18).

Rep. Don Turner (R-Milton), the Republican minority leader, says three districts — all in the Northeast Kingdom — feature competitive Republican primaries.

Both Kyriacou and Turner say party practice is to wait for the primaries to conclude before they rally behind a candidate.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Jeezum, Jim"