James Merrill Jeffords (May 11, 1934 – August 18, 2014) was an American politician who served as a U.S. Senator from Vermont. Sworn into the Senate in 1989, he served as a Republican until 2001, when he left the party to become an independent and began caucusing with the Democrats. Jeffords retired from the Senate in 2007. Prior to serving in the Senate, he served as the U.S. Representative for Vermont's at-large congressional district from 1975 to 1989.
The son of Olin M. Jeffords, who served as Chief Justice of the Vermont Supreme Court, James Jeffords was born in Rutland, Vermont. He graduated from Yale University, served for three years in the United States Navy, and then attended Harvard Law School, from which he received his degree in 1962. Jeffords practiced law in southern Vermont and became a resident of Shrewsbury, where he was active in local politics and government as a Republican, including serving as chairman of the town's Republican committee. He served one term in the Vermont Senate (1967-1969), and two as Attorney General of Vermont (1969-1973). He lost the 1972 Republican primary for Governor of Vermont, but won the election for Vermont's lone seat in the United States House of Representatives in 1974. He served in the House from 1975 to 1989; in 1988 he was the successful Republican nominee for the United States Senate seat held by the retiring Robert Stafford.
Jeffords served in the Senate from 1989 until 2007, winning reelection in 1994 and 2000. In 2001, he made national headlines when he left the Republican Party to become an independent, and began to caucus with the Senate's Democrats. His switch changed control of the Senate from Republican to Democratic, the first time a switch had ever changed party control. During his Senate career, Jeffords served as chairman of the Public Works and Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committees.
In 2005, Jeffords announced that he would not run for reelection in 2006, and would retire at the end of his term. He was succeeded by Bernie Sanders. Jeffords retired to Shrewsbury in 2007. After the death of his wife, he moved to the Washington, DC area to live closer to his children. He died in 2014 from complications associated with Alzheimer's disease, and was buried in Shrewsbury.
|United States Senator|
January 3, 1989 – January 3, 2007
|Preceded by||Robert Stafford|
|Succeeded by||Bernie Sanders|
|Chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee|
June 6, 2001 – January 3, 2003
|Preceded by||Bob Smith|
|Succeeded by||Jim Inhofe|
|Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee|
January 20, 2001 – June 6, 2001
|Preceded by||Ted Kennedy|
|Succeeded by||Ted Kennedy|
January 3, 1997 – January 3, 2001
|Preceded by||Nancy Kassebaum|
|Succeeded by||Ted Kennedy|
|Member of the U.S. House of Representatives|
from Vermont's at-large district
January 3, 1975 – January 3, 1989
|Preceded by||Richard W. Mallary|
|Succeeded by||Peter Plympton Smith|
|Attorney General of Vermont|
|Preceded by||James L. Oakes|
|Succeeded by||Kimberly B. Cheney|
|Member of the Vermont State Senate|
James Merrill Jeffords|
May 11, 1934
Rutland, Vermont, U.S.
August 18, 2014 (aged 80)|
Washington, D.C., U.S.
|Cause of death||Alzheimer's disease|
|Resting place||Northam Cemetery, Shrewsbury, Vermont, U.S.|
Republican (before 2001)|
Independent (after 2001)
|Spouse(s)||Liz Daley (1961–1978; 1986–2007)|
Harvard Law School
|Service/branch||United States Navy|
|Years of service||1956–1959|
|Unit||Navy Reserves (1959–1990)|
Jeffords was born in Rutland, Vermont, the son of Marion (née Hausman) and Olin Merrill Jeffords, who served as Chief Justice of the Vermont Supreme Court. According to Jeffords, his mother was a relative of French architect Georges-Eugène Haussmann. Jeffords graduated from Yale University in 1956 and Harvard Law School in 1962. After three years of active duty in the United States Navy (1956–1959), Jeffords served in the Naval Reserves until retiring as a Captain in 1990. During 1962 and 1963 he was a law clerk for Ernest W. Gibson Jr., Judge of the United States District Court for the District of Vermont, afterwards practicing law in Rutland.
A longtime resident of Shrewsbury, Jeffords became active in politics and government in the 1960s as Shrewsbury's Grand Juror, Town Agent and Zoning Administrator, in addition to serving as Chairman of the town's Republican committee. He also served as Rutland County's Chairman of the Board of Property Tax Appeals.
Jeffords married Elizabeth "Liz" Daley twice, first in 1961, which ended with a June 1978 divorce. On August 26, 1986, they married again. Liz Jeffords died on the morning of April 13, 2007, after a long struggle with ovarian cancer. Jeffords and his wife had two children, Leonard and Laura, both of whom live and work in the Washington, D.C., area. After his wife's death, Jeffords resided in Washington, D.C., a move he made in order to live near his son and daughter.
Jeffords won a seat in the Vermont State Senate in 1966. He followed that success in 1968 with a victory in the race for Attorney General of Vermont. He was a Presidential Elector for Vermont in 1972, and voted for reelection of the Nixon-Agnew ticket.
Jeffords sought the Republican Party nomination for Governor in 1972, but was defeated in the primary by Luther "Fred" Hackett.
In 1974, after winning the Republican nomination with a plurality in a three-way race, he won Vermont's sole seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served for 14 years. Jeffords was a member of the Agriculture and Education and Labor Committees, and rose through seniority to become the ranking Republican on Education and Labor. Jeffords was the only Republican to vote against the Ronald Reagan tax cuts of 1981, and was a supporter of both abortion rights and expanded protections for the rights of gays and lesbians. In addition, he was recognized as a moderate-to-liberal Republican because of his pro-environment positions and his support for the National Endowment for the Arts.
Jeffords long favored expanded access to health care, and supported the plan offered by Bill Clinton in the early 1990s. In February 1998, after David Satcher was confirmed by the Senate for U.S. Surgeon General, President Clinton issued a statement thanking Jeffords and several other senators "for their strong support for this extremely qualified nominee."
He was one of only five Republican senators who voted to acquit Clinton after Clinton was impeached by the U.S. House in 1999. In October 1999, Jeffords was one of four Republicans to vote in favor of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The treaty was designed to ban underground nuclear testing and was the first major international security pact to be defeated in the Senate since the Treaty of Versailles.
Jeffords' work in Congress focused on legislation involving education, job training and individuals with disabilities. In his later years in the Senate, his emphasis shifted somewhat, as he pushed through Congress several important pieces of environmental legislations. He was, together with Paul Simon, credited by Canadian Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire, Force Commander of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) from 1993 to 1994, for actively lobbying the US administration into mounting a humanitarian mission to Rwanda during the Rwandan Genocide. According to Dallaire's book, Shake Hands with the Devil, he "owe(s) a great debt of gratitude" to both senators.
Jeffords was one of the founders of the Congressional Solar Coalition and the Congressional Arts Caucus. Jeffords was frequently recognized for his performance as a legislator, receiving Parenting magazine's "Legislator of the Year" award in 1999, and the Sierra Club's highest commendation in 2002.
During part of his tenure in the Senate, Jeffords sat at the Candy Desk.
On May 24, 2001, Jeffords left the Republican Party, with which he had always been affiliated, and announced his new status as an independent. Jeffords discussed this decision during his announcement that he was leaving the Republican Party. "I will make this change and will caucus with the Democrats for organizational purposes once the conference report on the tax bill is sent to the president. I gave my word to the president that I would not intercept or try to intervene in the signing of that bill." Jeffords' opposition to the policies of the George W. Bush administration, including concerns over the size of the Bush tax cuts, motivated his party switch. Jeffords' switch was also motivated by the refusal of Senate Republicans to fully fund the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. In his announcement speech he stated, "Increasingly, I find myself in disagreement with my party... I understand that many people are more conservative than I am and they form the Republican Party. Given the changing nature of the national party, it has become a struggle for our leaders to deal with me and for me to deal with them."
The 2000 Senate elections had left the Senate with a 50–50 split in partisan control, forcing Democrats and Republicans to negotiate an unusual power-sharing arrangement (although Republican Vice President Dick Cheney could break tie votes). Following the election, Democrats sought out a Republican to defect from the Republican caucus, which would give Democrats control of the chamber. Democratic whip Harry Reid courted Jeffords, Lincoln Chafee, and John McCain as potential party-switchers. After being promised the chairmanship of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee to offset his loss of a committee chairmanship under Republican control, Jeffords decided to change parties, and gave up the chairmanship of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, which he had held since 1997. Jeffords' switch gave Democrats control of a chamber of Congress for the first time since the 1994 elections, and Jeffords is the only Senator in history to tip the balance of power in the Senate by switching parties. However, the effects were not long-lasting: 18 months later, after Republican Jim Talent won a special election to the Senate from Missouri, the Senate switched back to GOP hands.
Jeffords agreed to vote with the Democrats on all procedural matters except with permission of the whip, in exchange for the committee seats that would have been available to Jeffords had he been a Democrat during his entire Senate tenure. He was free to vote as he pleased on policy matters, but more often than not voted with the Democrats.
Jeffords's party switch made him only the second Senator from Vermont to caucus with the Democrats. The seat that Jeffords occupied had been held by a Republican from 1857, when Solomon Foot joined the new party, until Jeffords became an Independent in 2001.
(The Aiken-Gibson wing of the Vermont Republican Party were those party activists and office holders identified with progressive policies. The party's conservatives comprised a pro-business wing, which was led by the Proctor, Fairbanks, and Smith families. In addition to Aiken and Gibson, other members of their wing of the party in the 1950s and 1960s included Jeffords and Robert Stafford. Members of the party's conservative wing included Harold J. Arthur, Lee E. Emerson, and Winston L. Prouty.)
By the time of his switch, no Republican Senator had a lower lifetime score from the American Conservative Union. In 1981, Jeffords was the only Republican member of the House to vote against a bill reducing the top tax rate from 70 per cent to 50 per cent — a hallmark of President Ronald Reagan's legacy. During his time in the Senate, he voted for the Brady Bill, the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, an end to the ban on gays serving in the military, and against permanent normal trade relations with China and barring affirmative action at the federal level. Jeffords was also vocal in his opposition to the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court of the United States by President George H. W. Bush. He was one of only two Republicans to vote against confirming Clarence Thomas. In 1993, he was the only prominent Republican to support President Clinton's unsuccessful attempt to establish a national healthcare plan. Jeffords's voting record and positions on environmental issues put further distance between himself and his Republican Party colleagues.
Jeffords consistently voted against the ban on partial-birth abortion, and also against a harsher line on Cuba. In 1995, Jeffords was one of two Republican Senators, the other being Bill Frist of Tennessee, to vote in favor of confirming Dr. Henry Foster as Surgeon General; the vote failed, and Foster's confirmation was ultimately denied. In 1995 he was one of only 16 Senators to vote against the Communications Decency Act. The Supreme Court later struck it down as unconstitutional. Jeffords highly advocated LGBT rights in the workplace. He sponsored The Employee Non Discrimination Act of 1995 (104th Congress), 1997 (105th Congress), and 1999 (106th Congress). Jeffords' non-discrimination bills did not include "gender identity." He was in the minority of Republicans to oppose the Flag Desecration Amendment. On guns his record was mixed, despite voting for the Brady Bill and the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, he voted with gun control opponents against background checks at gun shows in 1999 and he voted with the majority of Congress for the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act. He took a more moderate line on the death penalty. On many economic issues Jeffords was roughly in line with the majority of the Republican Party, before and after his switch: he mostly supported free-trade agreements, voted for making enforcement of consumer protection laws more difficult by moving many class-action lawsuits into federal courts, tighter bankruptcy rules and a balanced budget amendment. Even after becoming an independent, he did vote with Republicans on many major pieces of legislation. For example, Jeffords did vote against the Bipartisan Patient Protection Act, a bill supported strongly by Republican John McCain and many moderate Republicans like Olympia Snowe, Arlen Specter and Mike DeWine. Two years later he voted for the prescription drug bill, derided by many Democrats as a give away to drug companies and opposed by many conservative Republicans who opposed further federal spending, but ultimately strongly supported by President George W. Bush, and the vast majority of the Republican Party.
On October 11, 2002, Jeffords was one of 23 senators to vote against authorizing the use of military force in Iraq. Shortly after that, he was one of only nine senators to vote against the bill establishing the United States Department of Homeland Security. On November 11, 2003 Jeffords was one of only four senators to vote against the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act, a bill that received strong support from politicians from across the aisle.
In April 2005, Jeffords announced his decision not to run for re-election in 2006. Jeffords said his wife's cancer and his own growing health concerns caused him to decide it was time to retire. On September 27, 2006, Jeffords delivered his farewell speech on the Senate floor. Floor speeches by and in tribute to retiring senators are a Senate tradition, but only one Republican senator, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, spoke on the floor in praise of Jeffords. The 70-year-old incumbent decided to retire despite consensus within the political community that he had good opportunity to win re-election in 2006. Governor Jim Douglas opted not to run, and Richard Tarrant won the Republican nomination. Bernie Sanders, then the only independent in the U.S. House, ran as an independent. Sanders also won the Democratic nomination by write-in, but declined it. In the general election, Sanders defeated Tarrant and four minor candidates, receiving 65 percent of the vote.
Jeffords died of Alzheimer's disease on August 18, 2014, at Knollwood, a military retirement facility in Washington, D.C., where he had lived for eight years. He was 80 years old. He was buried at Northam Cemetery in North Shrewsbury.
James L. Oakes
| Attorney General of Vermont
Kimberly B. Cheney
|U.S. House of Representatives|
Richard W. Mallary
| Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Vermont's At-large congressional district
Peter Plympton Smith
|Party political offices|
| Republican nominee for U.S. Senator from Vermont
1988, 1994, 2000
| United States Senator (Class 1) from Vermont
Served alongside: Patrick Leahy
| Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee
| Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee|
| Chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee