Sen. Jim Jeffords died this morning at the Knollwood Military Retirement Residence in Washington, D.C.
He was 80 years old. Jeffords had lived at Knollwood since his wife died of ovarian cancer eight years ago.
The Vermont congressman and senator served 32 years in Congress until he retired in 2006 after he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
Jeffords became famous in May 2001 when he left the Republican party to become an independent and began caucusing with the Democrats in the Senate.
It was a historic turning point for the 50-50 Senate, which was in the middle of a debate over President George W. Bush’s budget. Jeffords wanted $180 billion for special education programs for a 10-year period. When Bush and Republicans in Congress rebuffed his proposal to make the funding mandatory in April that year, Jeffords endorsed a compromise plan floated by Democrat Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana.
Two weeks later, Jeffords jumped ship and became an independent. His switch instantly turned the Republican Senate over to the Democrats, and suddenly, Bush, who had openly spurned Jeffords, no longer had control of the Senate. The breakdown in political loyalties ultimately hampered Bush’s tax cut agenda.
Jeffords had been at odds with the party since he took office as a congressman in 1975, and he told the Associated Press at the time: “It’s been mounting over 20 years.”
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James Merrill Jeffords was born on May 11, 1934, the son of the late Marion Jeffords and the late Olin Jeffords, who served as chief justice of the Vermont Supreme Court. He grew up in Rutland and received his undergraduate degree from Yale University in 1956, served in the U.S. Navy from 1956 to 1959 and obtained his law degree from Harvard Law School in 1962. He clerked for Judge Ernest W. Gibson from 1962 to 1963 and then practiced law in Rutland before he became a member of the Vermont State Senate in 1966. He married Elizabeth Daley in 1961 and again in 1986. Jeffords served as Vermont Attorney General from 1969 to 1973.
Jeffords was elected to Congress in 1974 and represented Vermont in Washington, D.C., as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives and then as a senator.
As a freshman congressman, he proposed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in 1975. The new program provided federal funding and legal protections for students with physical and developmental disabilities who attend public schools. He founded the Congressional Solar Coalition and was an advocate for renewable energy.
In 1980, he founded the Congressional Arts Caucus and worked to protect funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Institute for Museum and Library Services.
When he was elected to the Senate in 1988, Jeffords became a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee where he fought to reduce acid rain by forcing power plants to reduce pollution emissions. He helped to pass the Clean Air Act in 1990.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who served in Congress with Jeffords for 30 years, counted the senator as 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 statement. “Part of his legacy will also stand as an enduring chapter of the Senate’s history.”
Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., lauded Jeffords’ integrity and his commitment to children and the environment.
“While Jim would certainly wave away the notion, he was indeed a legend in Vermont and the nation,” Welch wrote in a statement. “With characteristic decency, humility and civility, and a dogged persistence, he made his mark in Congress. Millions of children with disabilities are better off today because he led the charge for their equal access to education. Americans are breathing cleaner air and drinking cleaner water because of his fierce advocacy for the environment and clean energy. And budding artists across the nation receive the boost of his encouragement every year thanks to his legacy as the founder of the annual Congressional Arts Competition.
And, in 2001, the world saw what his fellow Vermonters already knew: Jim Jeffords, above all, had the courage of his convictions.”
Gov. Peter Shumlin remembered Jeffords as a “true gentleman and an independent-minded maverick in the best tradition of our state.”
“Jim followed in the footsteps of Sens. Bob Stafford and George Aiken, always putting the interests of Vermonters and the nation ahead of partisan politics. He followed his sense of right in all that he did, and was never afraid to seek compromise by reaching across the aisle for the good of our country,” Shumlin said in a statement.
Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican, said in a statement that “the story of Vermont politics cannot be told without Jim Jeffords.” Scott extolled the “honorable” and “selfless” way in which he served “the best interests of others.”
“He did what he felt was right, not what he felt would make him popular,” Scott said. “Whether it was during his time in the Vermont Senate, or as Attorney General, or in the United States House of Representatives, or in the United States Senate, Jim valued the voices of Vermonters and leaves a legacy we can all learn from: Respect over rhetoric, pragmatism over pandering, and love for Vermonters overall. In our large, and largely faceless, system of government, he demonstrated the power that one person speaking for their constituents can have.”
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