MONTPELIER, Vt. – Former Vermont U.S. Sen. James Jeffords, who in 2001 tipped control of the Senate when he quit the Republican Party to become an independent, died Monday. He was 80.
Jeffords died in Washington, said Diane Derby, a former aide to Jeffords. He had been in declining health, she said.
Jeffords had announced in 2005 that he would not seek a fourth term, citing his and his wife’s health problems.
“I have had an enormously satisfying career, one that I would not have traded for any other,” Jeffords said when he retired. “In no other job do you have both the freedom and obligation to solve problems and help people on a daily basis.”
Jeffords served more than 30 years in Washington. He won election to the House in 1974 as a Republican. The post-Watergate year was a strong one for Democrats nationally, but Jeffords was running as Vermont was just beginning its shift from a century of solid Republicanism to its current status as among the most liberal states.
The Rutland native, a graduate of Yale and Harvard Law School, already had won statewide office as attorney general and was from a well-known Vermont Republican family.
When he first moved to Washington he lived in his office and a travel trailer as a way to save money.
During his time in Washington, Jeffords stood out as a moderate to liberal Republican during a time when the party was moving to the right. He was a strong backer of education, the environment, job training and help for people with disabilities.
He was the only Republican in the House to vote against President Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts in 1981. After election to the Senate in 1988, Jeffords opposed the first President Bush’s appointment of Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court.
A decade later, when Republicans had gained control of both the White House and both houses of Congress, Jeffords, upset with President George W. Bush’s opposition to the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, decided that was the last straw. In May 2001, he declared he would leave the Republicans and caucus with the Democrats.
Republicans were apoplectic, particularly since Jeffords’ switch cost them control of the closely divided Senate.