Former Vermont US Sen. Jeffords dies at 80

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Former Vermont US Sen. Jeffords dies at 80
UNITED STATES - FEBRUARY 27: BUSH ADMINISTRATION'S HEALTH CARE PRIORITIES--Sen. James M. Jeffords, I-Vt., questions Tommy Thompson, Secretary of Health and Human Services, during the Senate Finance hearing. (Photo by Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - MAY 17: James M. Jeffords, R-VT., during a press conference on pollution fron D.C. area power plants. (Photo By Douglas Graham/Roll Call/Getty Images)
FILE - In this May 24, 2001, file photo, Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont announces he will become an independent at a news conference in Burlington, Vt. From Jim Jeffords' defection from the GOP in 2001; to Howard Dean's presidential campaign in '03-'04 and later chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee; to the election of Bernie Sanders, the U.S. Senate's first self-described socialist, in 2006, Vermont maintained a national political footprint far bigger than its tiny size would indicate.(AP Photo/Toby Talbot, File)
**FILE**Sen. Jim Jeffords, I-Vt., left, walks with his family on Capitol Hill before prior to delivering a farewell speech on the Senate floor in Washington in this Sept. 27, 2006, file photo. From left are, Jeffords, his grandson Patton, Patton's mother, Jeffords' daughter-in-law Maura, Jeffords wife Liz and his son Leonard. Elizabeth "Liz" Daley Jeffords has died, it was announced Friday, April 13 2007. She was 68.(AP Photo/Dennis Cook, File)
FILE - This May 25, 2006 file photo shows Sen. Jim Jeffords, I-Vt. on Capitol Hill in Washington. Jeffords, who in 2001 tipped control of the Senate when he quit the Republican Party to become an independent has died. James Jeffords was 80. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)
U.S. Sen. Jim Jeffords, I-Vt., right, jokes with Gov. Jim Douglas before a news conference in Montpelier, Vt., Monday, Nov. 28, 2005. A $1 million grant will help market Vermont made wood products and boost Vermont's reputation for quality, officials said Monday. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot)
** CORRECTS CITY TO SOUTH BURLINGTON ** U.S. Sen. James Jeffords, I-Vt., center, is surrounded by his family in South Burlington, Vt., Wednesday, April 20, 2005 as he announces he will not sek re-election in 2006. Jeffords, an independent who triggered one of the most dramatic upheavals in U.S. Senate history when he quit the GOP four years ago, announced Wednesday he would retire at the end of his term next year, citing his and his wife's health. From left, son Leonard, daughter Laura and wife Liz. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot)
FILE - In this March 14, 2003, file photo, Sen. Jim Jeffords, I-Vt., center, laughs with Vermont Democratic Party Chairman Scudder Parker at the annual Democratic Party dinner in Montpelier, Vt. Jeffords, who in 2001 tipped control of the Senate when he quit the Republican Party to become an independent, died Monday, Aug. 18, 2014, in Washington. He was 80. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot, File)
UNITED STATES - MAY 23: Sen. Jim Jeffords, I-Vt., at the press conference to comemorate his defection from the Republican party. (Photo By Chris Maddaloni/Roll Call/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JUNE 15: Ford brought their SUV hybrid, the Escape, to the Capitol today to allow Senators, Congressmen, and their staffs to test drive the new vehicle; Sen. Jim Jeffords, I-Vt., checked out the engine and went for a ride. (Photo By Chris Maddaloni/Roll Call/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON - MAY 24: Senator Olympia Snowe (R-ME) is followed by Senator James Jeffords (I-VT) as they head to the floor of the United States Senate in Washington DC on May 24, 2006. (Photo by Andy Nelson/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JULY 17: Senator James M. Jeffords (I-VT) addresses members of the press at a news conference concerning priorities for the committee. (Photo By Mark F. Sypher/Roll Call/Getty Images)
392438 07: Chairman Jim Jeffords (I-VT) strikes a gavel to start a hearing to examine the environmental and public health impacts of power plant emissions before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee July 26, 2001 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)


MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) - 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."

Vermont's sole congressman, independent Bernie Sanders, was elected to Jeffords' Senate seat in 2006.

Jeffords children, Laura Jeffords and Leonard Jeffords, released a statement Monday:

"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."

U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said Monday that Jeffords was a partner and friend who worked for Vermont.

"He was a Vermonter through and through, drawn to political life to make a difference for our state and nation," Leahy said. "Part of his legacy will also stand as an enduring chapter of the Senate's history."

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. His father, Olin Jeffords, had been chief justice of the state Supreme Court.

When he first moved to Washington he lived in his office and a travel trailer as a way to save money.

"He was a very frugal guy, both with his own resources and the resources of the people," said Karen Meyer, a former Jeffords aide.

"He wasn't a fancy dresser, he wasn't a fancy speaker. He didn't ever have a fancy car. He just was a person who appreciated the things he had and didn't want for more," she said.

Jeffords had a black belt in taekwondo and until his departure from the Republican Party was a member of the Singing Senators, with GOP Sens. Trent Lott, John Ashcroft, and Larry Craig.

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 legislation supporting 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, replacing another moderate Republican, Robert Stafford, 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 of 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. GOP Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi dubbed Jeffords' action a "coup of one," and described it as "the impetuous decision of one man to undermine our democracy."

At the heart of Jeffords' decision was a belief that Republicans in general and President Bush in particular had become too conservative and that he could not remain in a party that favored tax breaks for the wealthy over full funding of education programs for the disabled.

He complained at the time that the Republicans in control of both the White House and Congress "were set out on an agenda that did not fit into what the average American wanted to see."

The Democrats' control of the Senate was brief. Republicans took it back 18 months later, and added to their gains the 2004 elections. But Democrats regained Senate control in 2006.

Jeffords became a hero to Democrats, attracting huge crowds as he traveled the country helping to bring in millions in 2002 and 2004 for Democratic candidates. But he resisted calls that he drop the independent label and become a Democrat himself, saying he could not go against several generations of family history.

"For more than 30 years, Jim has fought to do the right thing, standing against extremism," former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who later served as chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said when Jeffords announced his retirement. "His work ethic, patriotism and commitment to serving the people of Vermont have made him a model to all of us who know him and have had the honor to work with him."

Jeffords was said to be eager to run for re-election in 2006 to show Republicans that Vermont would elect him as an independent, and he had won the endorsements of state Democratic leaders. The state GOP chairman called him a "turncoat" in a fundraising letter.

Eventually, though, the health problems he faced and those of his wife prompted him to retire. Jeffords' family and staff had questioned whether the then-70-year-old senator was physically and mentally up to a statewide campaign. He had stumbled in a radio interview and was confused about some of his votes.

His wife, Liz, died in 2007 after battling cancer.

He later lived in a retirement home in the Washington area and stayed out of the limelight.

James Jeffords, Senator Who Quit GOP, Dies At Age 80

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