It was an improbable tableaux that unfolded in a hotel overlooking Lake Champlain in Burlington, Vermont, on the afternoon of May 24, 2001: A man so unassuming he was known as `Geesum Jim’, from a state of scant consequence in American politics, changed the course of the most powerful government on earth merely by saying he no longer believed in the Republican Party he grew up in.
That was the day then-U.S. Sen. James M. Jeffords, universally known as ``Jim’’ stood in a hotel ballroom and told the world why he was leaving the Republican Party to caucus with U.S. Senate Democrats.
``I was not elected to this office to become something I am not,’’ said Jeffords. Jeffords, who died of Alzheimer's disease today, was 80.
Jeffords defection from the GOP switched control of the Senate from Republican to Democratic and increased the clout of New England in the 100-member chamber.
Jeffords, a consummate New England Yankee moderate Republican, served more than 30 years in Washington in the House and Senate. A Rutland native, he was a graduate of Yale and Harvard Law School and hailed from an influential Vermont Republican family. His father was chief justice of the Vermont Supreme Court.
He was the last Republican to represent Vermont in federal office.
R.I. Gov. Lincoln Chafee, who served in the senate with Jeffords, said in a statement: ~``I join the nation, along with Vermont, in mourning the loss of Jim Jeffords. Jim Jeffords made history in the spring of 2001 with his bold move out of the Republican Party. He will be remembered for sending a message to the rest of the country that he was not going to put partisan politics before his work in Washington, D.C . Throughout his distinguished career, Jim cared deeply about our environment. He displayed fiscal common sense, and he developed government programs that built a strong middle class. He was also one of the 23 senators to have the courage and foresight to vote against the Iraq War resolution. He was revered by all who knew him.''
In his time in Congress, Jeffords carved a reputation for moderate, even liberal, politics at a time when the Republican Party was veering sharply to the right. The locus of Republican leadership switched during Jeffords career from the northeast and Midwest to the sunbelt and the states of the Old Confederacy.
Jeffords’ mentor was Rhode Island U.S. Sen. John H. Chafee. In 2001, Jeffords was the keynote speaker at a posthumous celebration of Chafee’s career in Woodstock, Vt., where Chafee was given the award by the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation’s annual dinner. Coolidge, a Vermont native, was the nation’s 30th president.
Jeffords was often a thorn in his party’s side. In 1981, he was the lone House Republican to vote against then-President Ronaald Reagan’s tax cuts. He was a strong supporter of education, job training and helping people with disabilities.
Jeffords did not run for reelection in 2006 because of health problems. His wife, Elizabeth, died in 2007 after a battle with cancer. The couple had two children.