Jim Jeffords left us all too early when he had to retire for medical reasons at age 80 in 2006. His retirement from the Senate deprived the nation of his independent spirit
and courage. Many learned of this about Jeffords for the first time on May 24, 2001, when he bolted the Republican Party and became an independent — a fitting title for any Vermonter.
Jeffords’ decision altered the political control of the Senate and turned it back to a Democratic majority. He made this decision against the advice of all of those whom he cared the most about — his advisers, his family and his friends.
As stunning as this was to the nation, it did not surprise those Vermonters who knew Jeffords from the time in 1967 when he was first elected to the state Senate. As a freshman senator from Rutland County, Jeffords bucked his party and joined Democrats to support a major change in the state income tax, which tied the state tax to the federal income tax schedules.
When he was elected attorney general, he led a long and successful effort that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to get International Paper to be responsible for the sludge beds left behind due to decades of pollution from its old Ticonderoga, New York, paper-making plant that was eventually replaced by a newer, more modern version.
Jeffords was also an early fighter for renewable energy and was an early advocate of wind energy development in Vermont, as well as an advocate for Vermont dairy farmers.
As a maverick, Jim Jeffords was never predictable and could and would surprise even those who were closest to him. The Grand Old Party in Vermont never liked him, and he didn’t care. He showed that after a tough GOP primary fight for governor in 1972. Jeffords, who lost, never did much to support the GOP nominee, Luther “Fred” Hackett. The result was the surprise election of Democrat Tom Salmon, of Rockingham, as governor, the very same person Jeffords easily defeated for attorney general just two years before.
So while the nation was stunned in May 2001 when Jeffords left the Republican Party, he was doing nothing more than continuing a long trend that started with his first election to the Vermont Legislature in 1967.
Vermont and the nation lost a true Vermonter with his lonely death in a Washington nursing home Monday at age 80. His memory of service and his courage of conscience, though, will long continue.
Steve Terry, of Middlebury, is a former aide to Sen. George Aiken, former managing editor of the Rutland Herald and former vice president of Green Mountain Power.
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