His Own Man

updated 06/11/2001 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/11/2001 01:00AM

At 71, Lillian Miller, who lives across the street from the white colonial house that Jim Jeffords grew up in, still remembers vividly one of the surest signs that winter was waning in Rutland, Vt. "When Jim was little, he used to come out in the springtime when everything starts to melt and build snow dams all down the street," she says. Then, when he had finished and the runoff was pooling behind his constructions, "he'd have on big boots, go to one dam, open it up, then go on to the next one."

Those minitorrents were kid stuff. But Jeffords, now 67 and a third-term U.S. senator, unleashed a flood of regrets and recriminations—and, in some quarters, sheer delight—by stepping to a bank of microphones on May 24 and announcing that he was leaving his party. Speaking in Burlington, Vt., the lifelong Republican explained that he found himself at odds with the Bush administration's more conservative views on abortion, defense, energy and other issues. "In order to best represent my state...my own conscience and the principles have stood for my whole life," he said, he would quit the GOP and vote as an Independent.

With that, Jeffords single-handedly reversed the delicate balance of power in the Senate, which for the first time in 120 years had been evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, with GOP Vice President Dick Cheney casting the deciding organizational vote. Suddenly the Bush White House, which had counted on Senate approval of future judicial nominations and other aspects of its agenda, seemed vulnerable—and in shock. None in Washington were more devastated than GOP leaders who must now hand over control of powerful Senate committees to members of the instant Democratic majority. "There's no question that some are very angry," says Sen. Ben Night-horse Campbell, 68, of Colorado, who switched from Democrat to Republican in 1995. "Some have waited 25 years to be a chairman, and now they're going to be cast out."

Despite the high drama of the moment, few who know him believe that Jeffords, a longtime moderate who frequently voted outside party lines, acted from anything other than a crisis of conscience. "He's always swimming against the tide," says his wife, Liz Daley, 62, who married Jeffords in 1961, was divorced from him in '79, then wed him again in '86. "I've been married to him twice, and if there's one word to describe him, it's honest."

That is also the assessment of many Vermonters who have known Jeffords over the years as a local lawyer, a volunteer fireman and a neighbor whose small blue house off a dirt road in the Green Mountains was marked only by a sign that read "JJ & Liz Daley"—at least until last winter, when the sign got knocked down by a snowplow. The son of a lawyer who became chief justice of the state supreme court, Jeffords as a boy was "quiet and serious, which he still is," says his only sibling, Mary Mills, 68, a retired teacher. "He was concerned about my boyfriends, and if he didn't like one, he'd stick around, which annoyed me no end." A Yale and Harvard Law graduate, Jeffords spent three years in the Navy before running for state senate and later served as Vermont's attorney general.

On Capitol Hill, where he won his first congressional seat in 1974, Jeffords, who holds a taekwondo black belt and loves to chop firewood on his land, earned a reputation as something of a maverick. In 1981 he drew national media attention after buying a sofa bed and moving into his Hill office. "I think the idea of taking out a loan for a $2 million house was repugnant to him," says his friend David Rice, a Yale classmate. Adds Lillian Miller: "We all laughed. Typical Jim—save a buck, you know."

Friends say the 1979 divorce came when Liz, a former travel agent and mother of the couple's two children, Leonard, now 36, and Laura, 35, simply tired of being a political wife. But in time the two reconciled. "I think she decided that she loved him better than anybody else and anything else," says a friend.

When the two were apart, Liz built a house for herself on the couple's 100-acre property, a home they now share when not at their D.C. townhouse. It is there, say friends, that Jeffords, a fixture at church suppers and town meetings, will always be most himself. "He's a simple man, unassuming, unostentatious and gracious," says Rice's wife, Dorothy. "He's a good neighbor. He's a Vermonter."

Susan Schindehette
Eric Francis in Vermont and Brian Karem and Linda Killian in Washington, D.C.

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