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That Moment, 15 Years Ago, When Jim Jeffords Declared Independence

Toby Talbot
Senator Jim Jeffords made the announcement that he was leaving the GOP at the Radisson Hotel in Burlington.

The election in November 2000 put President George W. Bush in the White House, but it also created a peculiar set of circumstances in the U.S. Senate: it was the first time since 1881 that the Senate was evenly split between two parties. And then, on May 24, 2001, Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords changed everything.

That was the day that Jeffords, a lifelong Republican, stood before reporters in a hotel ballroom in Burlington and announced that he was leaving his party to become an independent, effectively throwing control of the U.S. Senate to the Democratic Party, with which Jeffords would caucus for the remaining years in his term. The decision was rooted in Jeffords' disillusionment with Republican education policy primarily, but it also revealed a disconnect between his moderate brand of Republicanism and the direction in which the national party was heading. 

We speak with reporters, Senate staffers and others who were close to Jeffords when he made his "declaration of independence."  Our guests include VPR's Bob Kinzel, who covered Jeffords' announcement live on VPR that day; Erik Smulson, Jefford's communications director and now vice president of public Affairs for Georgetown University; Tom Berry, who served as field representative for Jeffords in Vermont and now works for Senator Patrick Leahy; and historian Howard Coffin, who served as Jeffords' press secretary.

Broadcast live on Tuesday, May 24, 2016, at noon; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.