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By Rebecca Bratek, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Although he made his career in politics, Jim Jeffords was a modest man who disliked cameras and speeches.

In May 2001, however, the three-term senator from Vermont found himself in the spotlight when he quit the Republican Party and tipped the Senate into Democratic hands. The GOP, he said at the time, no longer reflected the moderate principles in which he believed.

Jeffords died Monday at a military retirement residence in Washington, D.C., according to Diane Derby, a former press secretary and family spokeswoman. The cause of death was unclear, but Jeffords had suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. He was 80.

Jeffords served more than 30 years in Congress, starting when he was elected to the House of Representatives in 1974. He moved to the Senate in 1988.

He decided not to run for a fourth term and retired from the Senate in 2007, citing his and his wife’s health problems. His wife, Elizabeth “Liz” Daley, died that year.

In a statement, President Barack Obama hailed the renegade Republican for “the fiercely independent spirit that made Vermonters, and people across America, trust and respect him.”

“Whatever the issue — whether it was protecting the environment, supporting Americans with disabilities, or whether to authorize the war in Iraq — Jim voted his principles, even if it sometimes meant taking a lonely or unpopular stance,” Obama said. “Vermonters sent him to Washington to follow his conscience, and he did them proud.”

Before Jeffords left the GOP, the Senate was split 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats, with Vice President Dick Cheney, a Republican, providing the tie-breaking vote.

Jeffords’ move left Senate Republicans with 49 votes. Although he declared himself an independent, he caucused with Senate Democrats, giving them effective control of the chamber.

It was a rare moment in U.S. history when one lawmaker upended the political status quo with just one vote.

“In 2001, he displayed enormous courage by leaving a party that, he often said, had left him because of its dramatic move to the right,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who succeeded Jeffords. “Jim was one of the most popular elected officials in the modern history of the state.”

“He was a Vermonter through and through, drawn to political life to make a difference for our state and nation,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat who is Vermont’s other senator.

Liberal on social issues and cautious on fiscal matters, Jeffords showed his maverick streak early in his career.

He was the sole Republican House member to vote against President Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts in 1981. He also voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1991, the Brady Bill on gun control, and an end to the ban on gays serving in the military.

James Merrill Jeffords was born in Rutland, Vt., on May 11, 1934. His father, Olin Jeffords, served as chief justice of the Vermont Supreme Court, and his mother, Marion Hausman, was a homemaker.

He attended public schools in Rutland, and received his undergraduate degree from Yale University in 1956. He served three years in the Navy before he attended Harvard Law School, where he was awarded his degree in 1962.

While practicing law in Shrewsbury, Vt., he got involved in local politics and was elected to the state Senate in 1966. As Vermont’s attorney general from 1969 to 1973, he helped draft landmark environmental laws, including a ban on billboards and land protection legislation.

He and his wife were married twice, first in 1961, and then after a divorce in 1978, again in 1986. He is survived by his two children, Laura and Leonard.

Photo via WikiCommons

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Jeff Danziger lives in New York City. He is represented by CWS Syndicate and the Washington Post Writers Group. He is the recipient of the Herblock Prize and the Thomas Nast (Landau) Prize. He served in the US Army in Vietnam and was awarded the Bronze Star and the Air Medal. He has published eleven books of cartoons and one novel. Visit him at DanzigerCartoons.

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