Tune into Gov. Phil Scott’s pandemic media briefings and for seemingly every question about vaccines or mask mandates comes another about his centrist position in an increasingly far-right Republican Party.
“Are you uncomfortable remaining a member?” one reporter asked Scott after U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., was dumped from GOP leadership this month for repudiating former President Donald Trump.
Scott’s response: “The big tent we talk about a lot within the party doesn’t appear to exist, and I think that’s really unfortunate. All I can do is continue to serve the people in a manner that is reputable, open and welcoming.”
But 20 years ago this week, another Vermonter did something explosively different. On May 24, 2001, then U.S. Sen. James Jeffords walked into a press-packed Burlington hotel ballroom and announced he was leaving the Republican Party, single-handedly tipping control of a 50-50 chamber to the Democrats.
“Mr. Jeffords Blows Up Washington,” shouted a subsequent cover of Newsweek.
The print magazine has given way to the internet, and the man who sparked the headline died in 2014. But as commentators debate whether today’s GOP is facing a “purge” or a “civil war,” they’re finding the inside story of Jeffords’s two-decade-old defection to be surprisingly relevant.
“My father felt he couldn’t live within the bounds of the Republican Party anymore — it wasn’t the same one he knew and first joined and wasn’t doing the things he wanted,” Jeffords’ son, Leonard, says today. “He did have a pretty good idea of how historic his switch would be.”
Born in Rutland on May 11, 1934, Jim Jeffords had a picture-perfect all-American childhood — so much so that the legendary artist Norman Rockwell asked him to pose as a teenager.
“If I were to pick the movie that feels most emblematic of my life story,” Jeffords began his 2003 autobiography, “I would choose ‘Mister Smith Goes to Washington,’ or some other wholesome film that shows what life was like before we became so obsessed with speed and consumption, a time when your word meant something and people were driven by ethics more than money.”
The son of a chief justice of the Vermont Supreme Court had an independent streak. Shy and socially awkward, he declined Rockwell’s request shortly before setting off a classroom stink bomb that got him blackballed from the Boys State student government program.
Jeffords nonetheless won election to the Legislature as a Republican in 1966 and soon broke party ranks to become the swing vote that approved then-Democratic Gov. Phil Hoff’s seemingly radical proposal to set the state income tax rate as a fixed percentage of the federal figure.
That’s when the press first branded Jeffords a “maverick Republican.”
In 1968, Jeffords helped adopt the state’s ban on billboards before moving on to become attorney general. In that post, he started a consumer protection division, appointed the first female assistant attorney general and worked with the Legislature to draft the state’s Act 250 land use law and bottle deposit rules.
In 1972, Jeffords decided to run for governor. Republican leaders, unhappy with his rebellious voting record, made sure he didn’t win the primary. By the end of the year, the once-rising political star seemed headed for retirement — only to win Vermont’s lone U.S. House seat in 1974, three months after the Watergate scandal forced President Richard Nixon to resign.
Jeffords went to Washington with $44,000 in campaign and personal debts. His annual salary was only $600 more than that, leaving him $50 a month to live on in the nation’s capital. Soon…