This story is from the Globe archive. It originally ran May 24, 2001.
WASHINGTON - The man who holds the balance of power in the Senate in his hands is an independent-minded son of Vermont who has spent much of the past two decades straddling political lines, usually to the dismay of the national Republican Party.
Senator James Merrill Jeffords was the sole Republican in the House to vote against President Reagan’s 1981 tax-cut proposal. In 1991, he voted against conservative Clarence Thomas’s nomination to be a Supreme Court justice. In 1994, he opposed the GOP “Contract For America.” In 1998, he came out against impeaching President Clinton, favoring a censure.
This spring, Jeffords again infuriated Republican leaders and the White House when he refused to support President Bush’s initial $1.6 trillion tax-cut proposal. It triggered a series of recriminations that may culiminate today with Jeffords’s announcement that he is formally abandoning the GOP.
“I think he prides himself on being a maverick, that he prides himself on doing what he thinks is right,” said David Wolk, Vermont’s education commissioner and a friend of the senator. “I think he’s always tried to vote in the best interest of Vermont, and sometimes it means voting against his party.”
Jeffords, 67, is a lifelong Vermonter, a Congregationalist born in Rutland to Olin M. Jeffords, former chief justice of the state Supreme Court, and Marion H. Jeffords.
He graduated from Rutland High School and received an undergraduate degree from Yale University in 1956. He then joined the Navy, serving on active duty until 1959, when he headed to Harvard Law School. He received his law degree in 1962. Jeffords remained in the Naval Reserve until 1990, when he retired with the rank of captain.
After law school, he clerked for a judge, was a partner in a law firm, and held several local government positions in Shrewsbury, where he and his wife, Elizabeth, continue to live. The couple has a son and a daughter.
Jeffords served in the Vermont Senate from 1967 to 1968, before taking statewide office as attorney general in 1969. His political ascendancy stalled in 1972, when he lost in the state’s Republican gubernatorial primary. But he bounced back in 1974, when he was elected as the state’s lone congressman.
In a recent interview, Jeffords recalled coming to Washington as a freshman congressman, too poor from his campaign to afford a place to stay. He ended up sleeping in his campaign van, which he parked at a Holiday Inn along New York Avenue, a tough stretch of road.
Jeffords served in the House until 1988, when he was elected to succeed retiring US Senator Bob Stafford, a fellow Republican.
Ever the populist, Jeffords has a black belt in tae kwon do, and his own voice greets callers who reach his office answering machine. He also gained an amount of fame as a member of the “Singing Senators.” Jeffords was the tenor - and lone moderate - in a Republican quartet that included Senators Trent Lott of Mississippi, the majority leader; Larry E. Craig of Idaho; and John Ashcroft of Missouri, now the US attorney general.
Like Stafford and two predecessors as Vermont senator, George Aiken and Ralph Flanders, Jeffords has prided himself on voting with his state, not with presidents or political parties. It often has frustrated GOP colleagues and leaders.
“It’s not easy to understand why he’s making a decision like this,” sighed Senator Thad Cochran, Republican from Mississippi. “He’s inscrutable. It’s a New England trick.”
The Almanac of American Politics notes that Jeffords has voted with liberals and Democrats on gun control, family and medical leave, abortion rights, the Clinton tax and budget plan, and to acquit Clinton in the impeachment trial.
Last fall, Jeffords was reelected to a third term. He is now chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, the same panel Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts serves as the top Democrat.
Jeffords has made education the focus of his legislative efforts. After splitting with the White House over the tax-cut proposal, voting instead in favor of a $1.25 billion plan offered by Democratic Senator John Breaux, Jeffords urged the administration to increase its budget for special education. The White House refused.
A few days later, when a Vermont teacher was feted as the National Teacher of the Year, Jeffords was not invited to the award ceremony at the White House.
On the topic of education, Wolk said, Jeffords “walks the walk.” The commissioner noted that the senator is one of a small group of senators who, as part of a literacy program Jeffords initiated, regularly read to children, in his case in both Vermont and Washington.
“No matter what he’s doing, he drops it and goes,” Wolk said. “Some senators read to kids with the camera lights on. He just does it quietly, privately, because he thinks it’s the right thing to do.”
As a person, Jeffords elicits words of praise from both Democratic and Republican colleagues.
“He’s an extraordinarily decent man who has a real concern for the direction the country’s going,” said Senator Jack Reed, the Democrat from Rhode Island.
“I don’t know what’s causing this,” said Senator Orrin Hatch, the Republican of Utah. “All I know is he’s my friend and I care about him.”