A Salute to Jim Jeffords, a True Vermont Progressive

I was saddened to learn of the death of Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont this week. He was the rare politician who combined intelligence, humility, and a sense of humor, with a deep love for his state and his country. Like Sen. Paul Wellstone, Jeffords never held himself above the congressional staff who worked for him and around him, and he certainly didn’t hold himself above the people he represented, despite his Harvard and Yale degrees and his elevated position, which ultimately included service as chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions and the Committee on Environment and Public Works.

When I first met Jeffords in 1982, he was a senior Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee, already exercising an independent streak by opposing Ronald Reagan’s efforts to eliminate any role for the federal government in employment and training programs. He supported the Job Training Partnership Act, and got involved in the bill’s minutiae, sitting late at night with mostly Democratic staffers as the formulas for distributing funds to the states and local entities were worked out. By pushing to give greater weight to factors like poverty, unemployment, long-term unemployment, or total population in the formulas, a state like Vermont could see its funding change dramatically, and Jeffords made sure the staff assigned to negotiate and draft the bill pushed the right buttons for his state. He was the only member of Congress in the room.

Five years later, Jeffords was one of only a handful of House Republicans to support the WARN Act, a bill requiring employers to give advance notice to employees and communities of plant closings and mass layoffs. His party and President Reagan were dead set in opposition, but Jeffords was too decent to vote against giving employees a simple right to prepare for financial disaster, and with his help the bill became law.

He showed his independence again in 1995 when he was the first Republican senator, joined only by Arlen Specter and John Warner, to vote for Ted Kennedy’s bill to raise the minimum wage. The Democrats were in the minority in the Senate, and Majority Leader Bob Dole, not Ted Kennedy, set the agenda and determined which bills would get a vote. The minimum wage was dead in the House of Representatives, which was controlled by Newt Gingrich and the far right-wing of the Republican Party.  But when Jeffords voted to allow the minimum wage to be brought up it was the beginning of the end to its opposition. Soon there were 8 Republican votes for Kennedy’s bill, and then there was a deal that led to its enactment and a wage increase for millions of low-income Americans.

As he aged, Jeffords grew more fiercely independent, to the point that he left the Republican Party in 2001 and voted against the invasion of Iraq in 2002. Some say that the Republican party shifted right and left Jeffords behind, but Jeffords was always an attentive representative of Vermont, and the state’s politics have been shifting steadily to the left since the late 1980’s, moving Jeffords along with his constituents. It’s not well known that while he was still a Republican, Jeffords supported President Clinton’s health care reform and voted against President Bush’s nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. (I only wish more Democrats had had his foresight and courage!) In his fiscal prudence, his environmentalism, his strong civil rights record and support of LGBT rights, and his wariness about the use of our military and the expansion of the national security state, Jeffords was a true Vermont progressive.

We were made better by his service.