It’s a bit old news now, but the party shift of Senator Arlen Specter last month got me thinking about the last U.S. Senator to change parties – an old boss of mine, Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont.
In late 1997, I left the office of my home state’s U.S. Senator, Pete V. Domenici, to take a position with the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources (now the HELP Committee), which Jeffords had just started chairing. I knew the Jeffords staff fairly well—I had worked closely with several of them on welfare reform legislation—but didn’t know much about the Senator himself. All I knew is that he was a moderate Republican, with views on social issues closely aligned with my own on things like abortion, funding for the arts, welfare reform, and Head Start. I was a good fit on his committee staff.
While I would technically be working for the Subcommittee on Children and Families, under Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, Jeffords was our chairman, our go-to guy, our chief. We worked closely with him and with his personal staff as we negotiated and steered legislation through the committee. During the two years I served under Jeffords, I got to know him a bit—and the more I got to know him, the more I liked him.
Jim (I always called him “Mr. Chairman” and never “Jim” during my time on the committee, but ten years later, it just seems natural) is an incredibly nice guy and a true gentleman. While his quiet demeanor in meetings sometimes made it seem like he might not be paying attention, once he had you out in the hallway, it was clear he’d heard, and analyzed, every word. He’d pepper you with questions and ask you to go back and make changes in wording or call another member’s office to negotiate. He was always impressive.
And still, he couldn’t quite overcome a slight shyness. One of the first events I ever attended with him was a visit to a Head Start provider. Jim sat at kid-sized tables talking quietly with the students, but then would stand awkwardly off to one side, quietly munching from a veggie tray, and clapping softly when someone began pounding enthusiastically on a piano. I later spoke with a longtime Jeffords staffer, nervously asking if I had staffed him poorly. “He looked like a lost little kid,” I said. “He always looks that way,” she told me with a laugh.
He was also genuinely interested in his staff. Every year, he could be counted on to take part in the annual softball game between his office and the office of the other Vermont Senator (which was, and still is, Senator Patrick Leahy), taking his turn at bat and playing an inning or two in the field. He would leave early to go hold a table for the entire team at one of the nearby bars on the Hill, making sure appetizers (and pitchers of beer) were waiting when his victorious staff (as we always were) arrived. I still have a photo of the Jeffords softball team, taken on the evening of one of the delegation games. We’re all decked out in our Vermont green uniforms (we were called the Jeffords Vermont Saps), with the Senator proudly propped up on one elbow in the grass in front of us. His delight is clear, and genuine.
From a speechwriter’s perspective, Jim was an absolute dream. “I am not God’s gift to oratory,” he once joked—but boy, could he make the written word come alive. He would read verbatim what you had written, but he could make it sound like he was speaking extemporaneously. The only giveaway was a series of hand gestures I took to calling the Jeffords Gyrations—he would mechanically knife the air with both hands in front of him, then open his arms up at shoulder length to accent a point, make a quick curving U back toward center, and start again. It was elegant, and he could use it to give all the high points of a speech the proper beats they needed—a tricky skill he’d likely learned as Vermont’s Attorney General in the late 1960s.
For years, Jim was the tenor member of a barbershop quartet called “The Singing Senators” that he’d formed with fellow Republican Senators Trent Lott, Larry Craig and John Ashcroft. At least one morning each week, we knew we’d find him ducking into Lott’s hideaway in the U.S. Capitol so the four of them could practice—and in 1998, they even released a ten-song CD you can probably find on ebay. Jeffords loved it—there was a part of him, I think, that always saw himself strumming a guitar at folk venues around the country, harmonizing with anyone who wanted to pull up a stool.
The Singing Senators ended on May 24, 2001, when Jim announced he was leaving the Republican party to become an Independent who would caucus with the Democrats. Because the makeup of the U.S. Senate at the time was split 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats, Jim’s switch tilted control of the Senate over to the Democrats. At the time of his switch, I had been working in Arizona for nearly two years, but the phone in my office in Phoenix rang off the hook all morning. “Your boss!” people shouted. “What’s he doing?”
Well, he wasn’t my boss at that point, but I knew exactly what he was doing. It was what he had done all along: quietly standing up for his principles, and fighting for those he thought couldn’t fight for themselves. Jim’s decision annoyed the Republican leadership and cost him friendships, but citing a basic philosophical disagreement over spending priorities, Jim knew it was a decision he could live with. “Just as my colleagues couldn’t understand how I could go ahead and switch,” Jim later wrote, “I couldn’t understand how I could stay a Republican.”
For health reasons, Jim retired from the U.S. Senate in 2006 after 32 years of public service, and returned to his farm in Vermont. He’s still back in DC from time to time, and from what I hear, his health is better and he’s getting by. I hope so. Jim was one of the last of a dying breed of pragmatic politicians. He was passionate, and smart, and more than anything, he was always a gentleman. I loved working for him, and I wish him the best.
Just for fun, here’s The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert lamenting the demise of The Singing Senators, from May 31, 2001. When you see the clips of the quartet singing, that’s Jeffords standing at far right, belting his heart out to “Elvira.” Enjoy.