RUTLAND, Vt. (AP) — Sen. Jim Jeffords left his mark on the state and the nation during more than 30 years in Washington, but family and friends said he never lost his affinity for the Vermont countryside or let his position eclipse his love for his family and the simple things in life.
The three members of Vermont’s congressional delegation led mourners who filled the Rutland church where Jeffords went to Sunday school as a child and where loved ones said he learned many of the values that he took to Washington, including his commitment to do the right thing even in the face of tremendous pressure.
Jeffords was seen as one of a disappearing breed of moderate-to-liberal Northeast Republicans. He was known for championing the environment, education and the rights of disabled Americans.
But as much as Jeffords’ political accomplishments were remembered, he came across as a humble country squire who loved nothing more than working with his tractor at his home in Shrewsbury, outside Rutland, singing, playing cards with his family, and spending time with his children and later, his grandchildren.
On the national stage, Jeffords, who died Monday in Washington at age 80, is most remembered for his 2001 defection from the Republican Party, becoming an independent and passing control of the party to the Democrats during the early years of the presidency of George W. Bush.
“Jim Jeffords saw the world differently from many in politics today. He saw a good idea as a good idea. He didn’t care if it came from a Democrat or a Republican or an independent,” said former Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas, a Republican who admitted he was a bit disappointed by Jeffords’ defection but appreciated his stand on principle. “If it could help Vermonters and other Americans, it was worth his efforts.”
Jeffords was the only Republican in the U.S. House to vote against the tax cuts sought by President Ronald Reagan in 1981. Later, as a senator, he voted against the first President George Bush’s nomination of Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court and, then as an independent, against the Iraq war in 2002.
A Navy veteran, Jeffords served as a state senator and then state attorney general before he was elected to the U.S. House in 1974 and the U.S. Senate in 1988. He retired in 2007.
In his first year in Congress, he helped pass the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and he remained a champion of disabled Americans throughout his career. He called George W. Bush’s opposition to an update of that legislation the last straw that led to his leaving the party.
He was a staunch defender of Vermont dairy farmers and led efforts to update federal dairy price supports. He was an early supporter of gay rights, particularly in the workplace.
“I won’t forget I came from Vermont, and Vermont won’t forget I’m in Washington,” Jeffords said in a campaign speech early in his career.
He also was a strong environmentalist. The last major legislation he offered before leaving the Senate in 2006 was to combat climate change.
Jeffords stayed in Washington after he retired so he could live near his son and daughter and two grandchildren.
And as much as his years in Washington, it was that love of family and the simple country life that came through during Friday’s funeral.
“His dream vacation,” said his son Leonard, “was to build trails in Shrewsbury.”
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