A Tribute to Senator James M. Jeffords, A True Public Servant

August 20, 2014

An obituary will tell you that Senator James M. Jeffords was born on May 11, 1934 in Rutland, Vermont and passed away August 18, 2014, that his parents were Marion and Olin Jeffords, that his father was the Chief Court Justice of the Vermont Supreme Court, that he attended public schools in Rutland and went on to graduate from Yale and Harvard Law School, that he served in the Navy, and the Naval Reserve, that he served in U. S. Congress for 32 years first as a Republican member of the House from (1975-1989) and later in the Senate (from 1989-2001 as a Republican and from 2001-2007 as an Independent), that he was married to Elizabeth Daley and that he had two children, Laura and Leonard.

The facts tell a story of a man of privilege, power, and influence---but do not align with the true nature of this man. I write this tribute from the perspective of someone who had the opportunity to work with him for two years---first in 1999 as a Kennedy Fellow assigned to the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, chaired by Senator Jeffords, and then in 2000-2001 when, as director of the Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. Foundation, I coordinated the placement of a Kennedy Fellow with him on the HELP Committee. Although my time with him was brief, it was an opportunity to form an impression of this man---one that I carry with me to this day.

Jim Jeffords was a man of the people---a gentle, soft-spoken man, always seeking to do the right thing. He was a man of integrity, wit, and wisdom---with a twinkle in his eye. He was a humble man, always willing to take the first step to accomplish the goal---though often shunning the limelight and giving credit to others. His primary purpose was to serve the greater good. Often, when he met with constituents visiting his Senate office, as he was running out of the office for a floor vote or committee meeting...he would wave his hand in the air in a grand gesture and state "I am off to do good"...with a broad smile on his face.  The truth is, he really meant it.

As Chairman of HELP Committee, Senator Jeffords eliminated the Disability Subcommittee. While some in disability community perceived this as a slight by the new Republican Chairman, nothing could be farther from the truth. Senator Jeffords was a champion for people with disabilities and, as the committee chairman, wanted to personally oversee all disability legislation assigned to the HELP committee. He worked closely with other committee members who shared this commitment---including Senators Kennedy and Harkin---to fashion and move major pieces of disability legislation through this committee. His progressive stance on disability legislation was an ongoing point of contention with many of his more conservative Republican colleagues---but that never made him back down. For this, he was recognized by the disability community---and often, was asked to speak at their gatherings or attend to receive special recognition. The year I was with him, I was often asked to prepare his remarks and staff him at such events. Typically, I would check out the room, and then, if the group appeared friendly, I would tell him to put the speech in his pocket and to speak from his heart...and he did...and was always well received.

As a result of the elections of 2000, the Senate was split 50-50. Senator Jeffords knew that he would be pressured by the Republican Administration and Majority Leader to vote with the party. He could see that his core values and beliefs were at odds with the direction of his Party, particularly as they related to his long held commitment to the full funding of IDEA---a promise that he felt Congress had made with the 1975 passage P.L. 94-142, the Education of All Handicapped Children's Act. After deep reflection, Senator Jeffords made a courageous move that would alter the course of history.  He left the Republican Party and became an Independent---agreeing to caucus with the Democrats. The result was a shift of power in the Senate---with leadership going to the Democrats.

While it might be said that Jim Jeffords did what was right for the country-- his decision to become an Independent came at a great price to him both personally and professionally. When he delivered his announcement to leave the Republican Party, although it was prepared in advance---I could tell the words were his and came from his heart.

Senator Jim Jeffords was a man who had the courage of his convictions---and the world was a better place because he was part of it. August 18, 2014 was a sad day for us all---because the loss of Jim Jeffords leaves the world a bit less than it was the day before. Although he will be missed, he stands as an inspiration for us all---someone who was willing to do the right thing, to serve the greater good, and to put personal cost aside. He is a true American hero.


Lu Zeph,

August 19, 2014

Written by Dr. Lucille A. Zeph, Director of the Center for Community Inclusion and Disability Studies Maine's University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities and AUCD Public Policy Co-Chair. Photo Credit: United States Senate Historical Office