The ‘Middle’ Can Be Lonely For Moderate GOP Senator

By Joetta L. Sack — June 14, 2000 7 min read

The junior senator from Vermont has to wait patiently as a long line of marching bands, farm machinery, and reluctant 4-H calves makes its way down Main Street. But once his large float, laden with hay and balloons, finally pulls into the spotlight, it draws cheers from the crowds gathered for this rural town’s annual Dairy Days parade.

Here, James M. Jeffords is a hometown hero who has represented this fiercely independent state in Congress for a quarter of a century, and is favored in November to be returned for his third six-year term in the Senate.

In Washington, though, he’s among the last of a vanishing breed: a moderate Republican. It’s a distinction that has greatly complicated his tenure as the chairman of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, where he sometimes seems to have more in common with the panel’s Democrats than the members of his own party.

James M. Jeffords

Age: 66
Position: U.S. Senator since 1989; chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee since 1997.
Education: B.S., Yale University, 1956; Harvard Law School, 1962.
Former positions: U.S. Navy, 1956-1959; practicing lawyer in Vermont, 1963-1975; member, Vermont Senate, 1967-1968; Vermont Attorney General, 1969- 1973; member, U.S. House of Representatives, 1975-1989.
Personal: Married to Elizabeth Daley Jeffords; two children.

“I am in the middle—I am more conservative than any Democrat, and more liberal than any Republican,” he said in an interview here, adding in his characteristically soft-spoken manner, “although there’s a couple that might vie for that label.”

Sen. Jeffords’ independence—and his strained ties with conservative Republicans—were particularly evident during the HELP Committee’s recent struggles to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the main federal K-12 education law.

Alone among the panel’s 10 Republicans, the chairman opposed GOP measures known as the “Straight A’s” Act, which would give states greater flexibility in how they use federal funds, and Title I “portability,” which would offer vouchers to poor students in low-performing schools to attend the public or private schools of their choice.

He took the unusual step of voting “present” on the two amendments, both of which the committee approved along party lines.

Consensus Seeker

Some observers point out that it’s not Mr. Jeffords’ style to ram his own proposals through the committee; rather, he listens carefully and works behind the scenes to find a compromise.

“He’s the guy who always worked to get a bipartisan consensus,” said Bruce Hunter, the chief lobbyist for the American Association of School Administrators. “But nobody was very interested in being bipartisan” during the ESEA negotiations this year.

But others are less complimentary. “He is an incredibly weak chairman,” said one Washington education lobbyist who requested anonymity. “People are taking shots at him that they wouldn’t take if he weren’t such an easy target.”

For Sen. Jeffords to continue to get re-elected in the Green Mountain State—where he is the only statewide elected Republican and most voters consider themselves independents— he knows that he cannot move to the right.

“I’m just representing Vermont, and Vermont likes me where I am,” he said. “Vermont is very difficult politically. For a Republican to get elected, you have to depend on your attractiveness to the independents.”

He added, “It does present some difficulties with [the GOP] leadership.”

Sen. Jeffords’ 2000 campaign was helped immensely late last year when Independent Rep. Bernie Sanders, the state’s sole representative in the House and one of Vermont’s most popular politicians, chose to seek re-election rather than challenge him. But as the senator’s campaign staff points out here, Vermont is an exceptionally quirky state and nothing is ever certain.

So far, Sen. Jeffords does not have a Republican challenger in the Sept. 12 state primary. His Democratic opponent will be either Jan Backus, a state senator who lost to him by 10 percentage points in 1994, or Ed Flanagan, the state’s auditor, who describes himself as the only openly homosexual candidate for the U.S. Senate this year.

Mr. Jeffords’ popularity is apparent on a recent sunny Saturday morning at the Dairy Days festivities. The Jeffords family can trace its Vermont roots to 1794, and the senator is a mainstay at this annual celebration; he cannot recall missing a single parade in his 25 years in Congress, which began with seven terms in the House of Representatives.

In this election year, several other politicians are out in force, including his competitors, whom Sen. Jeffords greets with a friendly smile and wave. He doesn’t work the crowd, but hovers near the tent his campaign staff has put up, waiting for spectators to approach him.

‘Great Credibility’

Sem. Jeffords discusses the Educational Opportunities Act, May 1, 2000.
--Courtesy Sen. Jeffords’ Web site.

To educators here, Sen. Jeffords is known for bringing in federal money and resources that this small, rural state would not have otherwise received. In the 1994 ESEA reauthorization, for instance, he secured passage of a higher guarantee of minimum Title I funding for small states.

Alice W. Angney, the superintendent of the Lamoille Supervisory Union, a coalition of school districts based in Morrisville, said Sen. Jeffords is popular among most educators because he understands the challenges they face.

“I feel his leadership style is one that is based on genuine care and concern for Vermont,” said Ms. Angney, who describes her political views as independent.

“He has great credibility and respect,” added state Commissioner of Education David S. Wolk, a Democrat. “What you’re going to get with Jeffords is a lot of pressure to change, but you’re also going to get a lot of support to do it right.”

Path to Washington

The “Singing Senators” feature Jim Jeffords, Trent Lott, John Ashcroft and Larry Craig.
—Courtesy Sen. Jeffords’ Web site.

The senator spends some of his spare time pursuing diverse interests, from singing and skiing to tae kwon do. Back in Washington, he’s a member of the Singing Senators, a group of four GOP lawmakers who sing folk and country songs. He also regularly reads to students at local schools.

Sen. Jeffords has been a member and one of the strongest supporters of the National Education Goals Panel, the group of governors, state legislators, and White House officials that was charged with carrying out the national goals that grew out in of 1989 education summit in Charlottesville, Va.

Gov. Tommy Thompson, the Wisconsin Republican who chairs the panel, said in an interview that Sen. Jeffords’ efforts to secure federal funding for the panel had been crucial to keeping it alive. “He’s our benefactor, our savior, and our leader,” Mr. Thompson said.

Mr. Jefford’s path to Congress followed a fairly predictable route. The son of a state supreme court chief justice, he became interested in politics early in life and graduated from Harvard Law School. After a short stint in the state Senate, he successfully ran for Vermont’s sole House seat in 1974.

In Washington, he was assigned to the Education and Labor Committee along with another freshman Republican, Rep. Bill Goodling, the Pennsylvanian who now chairs the renamed Education and the Workforce Committee.

One of Mr. Jeffords’ first assignments was helping write the landmark 1975 law guaranteeing an education for students with disabilities, now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Since then, he has worked on just about every piece of education-related legislation that has come through Congress.

But the pending renewal of the ESEA may prove to be his biggest challenge. Although the Senate and House education committees passed significantly different versions of the reauthorization, and most observers see little chance that the legislation will pass this year, Sen. Jeffords said he and Rep. Goodling regularly discuss strategies to push the bills though.

In fact, Sen. Jeffords is optimistic that at least part of the ESEA will pass this year, particularly language on after-school programs, either as a separate piece of legislation or as part of the appropriations bills. (“Time Grows Short on ESEA Renewal,” May 31, 2000.)

Mr. Goodling noted that he and Mr. Jeffords share several similar interests, including music, singing, and “the need to improve our schools and increase student achievement.”

“We have sometimes differed on how to reach our mutual goals,” Mr. Goodling said in a written statement. “But I have no doubt about his underlying commitment and look forward to working with him through the end of my term as chairman.”

Mr. Jeffords recalled that he and his longtime friend worked out the final details of the Higher Education Act reauthorization while playing together in a golf tournament in 1998. He added with a smile, “Maybe it’s time we played again.”

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A version of this article appeared in the June 14, 2000 edition of Education Week as The ‘Middle’ Can Be Lonely For Moderate GOP Senator