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Former Senator Jim Jeffords Dead At 80

Toby Talbot
AP File Photo
In 2001, Jim Jeffords separated from the Republican party, taking away the GOP majority in the Senate.

Former Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords has died. A lifelong moderate Republican, Jeffords earned national fame in May 2001 when he abandoned his party and became an independent, single-handedly shifting the balance of power in the Senate.

Audio: Jim Jeffords' 40 years in politics, punctuated by historic defection from GOP.

"In order to best represent my state of Vermont, my conscience, and principles I have stood for my whole life, I will leave the Republican Party and become an Independent," Jeffords said at the time. "I have changed my party label, but I have not changed my beliefs. Indeed my decision is about affirming the principles that have shaped my career."

Jeffords' political career in Vermont and Washington spanned 40 years - starting in the Vermont Senate, as Vermont Attorney General, then representing Vermont in the U.S. House of Representatives and ultimately the Senate. He was deeply involved in education, the environment and farm issues.

Before Jeffords left the Republican party, the Senate was split evenly between Republicans and Democrats, with Vice President Dick Cheney, a Republican, serving as the tie-breaking vote. Jeffords' move left Senate Republicans with 49 votes.

He said his moderate-to-liberal views were increasingly at odds with his party's more conservative leadership, but he found himself out of step with his party long before the 2001 announcement. In 1981, he was the sole Republican House member to oppose President Ronald Reagan's tax cuts.

Despite his disagreements with the national party, Jeffords' views were in line with other Republican centrists from Vermont like Robert Stafford and George Aiken, who preceded him in the Senate.

Jeffords was not a great public speaker, which may have added to his 'real type of guy' image. Stowe Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, who worked for Jeffords in his Washington office, says it wasn't just an image.

"Jim had, he had a kindness about him that just sort of transcended most everything else," she said. "He was just a really, really decent man."

To Howard Coffin, who worked with Jeffords throughout his career, some of Jeffords' most important accompishments came well before 2001.

"He and his staff wrote Act 250," he said, referencing Vermont's development review law. "They were in the middle of the environmental movement: The billboard bill, the bottle bill."

After making the switch, Jeffords continued to serve in the Senate until his retirement in 2006, citing his wife's battle with cancer and his own health issues. Bernie Sanders, also an Indepenent, won the 2006 election for the open seat.

In his last years, Jeffords suffered from Alzheimer's disease. David Wolk, a family friend of Jeffords, said news of his death was sad in part because of the disease itself.

"I was just very sad," he said, "because Alzheimer's is the long goodbye and it's a very hard disease and he was a very good man, and I hope that in the end that he was living in a world of bliss."

A family spokesman said Jeffords died at 7 a.m. Monday morning at the Knollwood Military Retirement Residence in Washington, DC.

Jeffords' wife Elizabeth died in 2007. He is survived by his two children, Laura and Leonard.

Update: Sen. Patrick Leahy released the following statement about Jeffords' death:

He was a partner in our work for Vermont, and he was a friend. He was a Vermonter through and through, drawn to political life to make a difference for our state and nation. Part of his legacy will also stand as an enduring chapter of the Senate's history.

Update: From daughter Laura Jeffords and son Leonard Jeffords, and their families. They reside in DC.

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.

Update: Gov. Peter Shumlin issued the following statement about Jeffords:

I join Vermonters and citizens nationwide today in celebrating the life of Jim Jeffords, a true gentleman and an independent-minded maverick in the best tradition of our state. Jim followed in the footsteps of Senators 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. Jim’s contribution to Vermont spanned his service in the Vermont House, as Attorney General, and as Vermont’s Representative in the U.S. House, where he developed his passion for high quality public education that forged his policy work on behalf of our kids and continued throughout his career. The passing of Senator Jim Jeffords will be felt throughout Vermont and our country. We need more like Senator Jeffords. My heart goes out to his children and extended family.

Update: Lt. Gov. Phil Scott issued the following statement about Jeffords:

The story of Vermont politics cannot be told without Jim Jeffords. He served in the most honorable way a person can serve: Selflessly, and always with the best interests of others at heart. He did what he felt was right, not what he felt would make him popular. 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. His example of moderation and independence is what I’ve tried to model my own career off of. My sincere condolences go out to Laura, Leonard, and the entire Jeffords family.

Update: President Barack Obama issued the following statement about Jeffords:

Michelle and I send our deepest sympathies to the family of Senator James M. Jeffords on his passing. Jim devoted his life to service – as a Naval officer, a local leader in his hometown of Shrewsbury, and eventually as a U.S. Senator representing his beloved Vermont. 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. 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. Our prayers are with the Jeffords family, including his son Leonard and daughter Laura. And we’re grateful to Jim for his legacy of service to Vermont and the United States of America.

Update: Sen. Bernie Sanders issued the following statement about Jeffords:

Jane and I join all Vermonters in sending condolences to the family of Jim Jeffords. Jim was one of the most popular elected officials in the modern history of the state – serving at the local, state and federal levels. Vermonters admired him because of his low-key and down-to-earth qualities, and because of his obvious and strong love of the state and the Vermont way of life. He was an effective champion of education, disability rights, the environment and the arts – and millions of Americans have benefited from his efforts. In 2001, he displayed enormous courage by leaving a party that, he often said, had left him because of its dramatic move to the right. Jim was a friend and he will be sorely missed.

Update: The Vermont Republican party issued the following statement about Jeffords:

U.S. Senator James Jeffords was a true Vermonter who always put his constituents and the needs of Vermonters first. For 40 years he served his state with great distinction and a fiery independence that Vermonters cherished. From his early days as a state senator from Rutland County to his retirement from the U.S. Senate in 2006, he was known and respected as a strong and principled leader. Never one to be confined by political party lines, Sen. Jeffords personified the spirit of Vermont and will be sorely missed. The Vermont Republican Party sends its condolences to the family of Senator Jeffords along with our thanks for his decades of dedicated service to our state.

Update: Vice President Joe Biden and his wife Jill issued a joint statement on Jeffords' death:

Jim Jeffords was a personal friend, a great senator, and a good man. He was not only beloved by the people of Vermont, but by anyone who ever worked with him. For the nearly four decades I served in the United States Senate, nearly half were spent with Jim as a colleague. Jim knew that with a country as diverse as ours, there is a need for consensus to move the country forward. He was a man who dealt with his colleagues without pretext and with complete honesty. And he always knew what he was talking about—and his colleagues and constituents always knew where he stood on an issue. Jim was a reflection of Vermont—independent and non-ideological and always about solving problems. Jill and I are saddened by his passing and join his family, friends, and his former staff in remembering all that he stood for: basic fairness and principled independence.

Update: Rep. Peter Welch issued the following statement about Jeffords:

I know I share the view of all Vermonters today in expressing condolences to the family of Senator Jim Jeffords on his passing, and our gratitude to him for his life of service. While Jim would certainly wave away the notion, he was indeed a legend in Vermont and the nation. 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 lead 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. Jim and his wife, Liz Daley Jeffords, were mentors to me in my early days in the House of Representatives. I am deeply grateful to them both for their friendship, their support and their contributions to Vermont and our country.

Update: On Twitter and Facebook, Jeffords' colleagues and constituents reflected on the late politician's life and career:

[I used to be an embedded Storify. See Editor’s Note below.]

EDITOR’S NOTE: The original version of this post contained social media content embedded by the service Storify. Storify has ceased operation: the post has been updated to remove the Storify embed. The content that was embedded via Storify likely still exists on the original platform, e.g. Twitter, Facebook or Instagram, but it’s no longer curated and embedded in this post with Storify.

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