Political parallels: Sen. Jim Jeffords then, Gov. Phil Scott now

Updated: May. 24, 2021 at 6:45 PM EDT
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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - A moderate Vermont Republican serving in the U.S. Senate frustrated by the GOP’s shift to the right, Jim Jeffords announced the party left him and became an independent. Now, 20 years later, Gov. Phil Scott is also watching the party’s evolution in dismay. Our Calvin Cutler examines the political parallels.

Jeffords, a Republican from Shrewsbury, served as Vermont’s attorney general before heading to Washington. He spent more than 30 years in the House and Senate.

Tom Berry worked as a staffer in Jeffords’ Vermont office in 2001. He recalls a divided Capitol Hill.

“The Senate was split 50/50 and with the incoming Bush administration, there were a lot of policy differences that Senator Jeffords had with the Republican mainstream at that time,” Berry said.

But following a clash over education funding in President George W. Bush’s budget, Jeffords made history, addressing local and national media from Burlington’s Hilton Hotel.

“Given the changing nature of the national party, it has become a struggle for our leaders to deal with me and for me to deal with them,” Jeffords said on May 24, 2001.

Jeffords left the GOP and became an independent who caucused with Democrats.

Dropping the “R” and picking up an “I” tipped the balance of power in the Senate and gave Democrats a slim majority. The move angered some of his supporters but Berry says many Vermonters applauded the senator for following his conscience.

The announcement sent shock waves from coast to coast.

“The volume of calls from around the country and from Vermonters was incredible. There was a tremendous amount of excitement,” Berry recalled.

Flash forward two decades and political observers see a similar pattern.

Vermont Gov. Phil Scott has gone against his party’s majority, at times criticizing former President Trump.

The divide came to a head earlier this month with the ouster of Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney from a leadership position, replaced by North Country Rep. Elise Stefanik.

“I don’t think this is a step in the right direction for the House Republicans,” Scott said.

Political observers see a similarity between Senator Jeffords and Governor Scott. Many wonder why the governor has remained a Republican.

“More moderate Republicans like Jim Jeffords and Phil Scott do not feel comfortable in that party, at least that party as it’s constituted at the national level in Congress,” said Matt Dickinson, a political science professor at Middlebury College.

But for now, Scott says he’s dedicated to moving the party back to its ideals of smaller government and away from unquestioning loyalty to President Trump.

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