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From the August 2001 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 48, No. 8)

The Plain-Speaking Voice from Vermont


Jeffrey Simpson, The Globe and Mail (centrist), Toronto, Canada,
May 29, 2001


Sen. James Jeffords
Sen. James Jeffords, of Vermont, announcing his decision to leave the Republican Party (Photo: AFP)
Vermont was the first U.S. state to abolish roadside advertising signs. The advertising industry screamed, fought the measure in the legislature and courts, but lost. Vermonters treasure their bucolic geography, and they decided that obtrusive billboard advertising threatened it. So they said no to private roadside advertising, replacing it with state-sponsored brown-and-white signs to tell travelers the location of private
establishments.

The state also set up a trust fund to buy farms to keep them from development and passed strict ordinances restricting residential development on agricultural lands. The contrast with land use in, say, Texas, could not be greater.

Tiny Vermont hasn’t been a player in national politics since Silent Cal Coolidge became president in 1923. After serving one term, he retired to his hometown in Vermont, and the state hasn’t been heard from since. Last week, however, Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont walked out of the Republican Party to become an independent, handing the Democrats a one-vote majority in the U.S. Senate. Americans will now have divided government, with Republicans controlling the administration and the House, and Democrats the Senate—a fair reflection of the country.

After all, Americans gave more popular votes to Democratic candidate Al Gore than to George W. Bush, who won courtesy of the Electoral College. The country was split almost evenly in the presidential campaign; now the government is divided along partisan lines. The hard conservative agenda Bush has been pushing will have to be modified.

Jeffords’ move means trouble for Bush’s plans for environmental deregulation, attempts to change the ideological composition of the Supreme Court, drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and maybe even budgets for national antimissile defense.
In Vermont, Jeffords has been hailed by most as a politician of courage. But for the first time since before the Civil War, no Republican will represent Vermont in the U.S. Congress (the other senator is a Democrat, and the lone congressman is an independent socialist).

Vermont used to be as Republican as the state’s granite. It was poor, rural, stuck in its ways, and proud of it. The state began changing demographically in the 1960s and kept right on changing—Vermont is arguably now the most liberal state in the Union.
Thousands of people fled the Northeast’s troubled inner cities in the ’60s, bringing their liberal values to Vermont. Improved transportation—Vermont’s section of the U.S. interstate system was the last to be completed—made access easier. IBM established a plant in Burlington, the state’s largest city, and little feeder companies sprang up.
Vermont turned its countryside into a money-spinner for tourism. Ski resorts are packed; rooms are unavailable in the fall for “leaf-peeping” tours. The old Yankee suspicion of change married the environmental concerns of the new arrivals to produce an aesthetic awareness unparalleled in the United States.

Gradually, politics tracked demography and economics, and Democrats became the state’s leading party. The governor in the ’80s was a woman, an immigrant (from Switzerland), a Democrat, and a Jew. Bernard Sanders, an import from Brooklyn, became mayor of Burlington as a self-proclaimed socialist; he’s now the state’s congressman.

James Jeffords was always a liberal Republican. He got elected with plenty of Democratic votes and, as the national Republican Party became more militantly conservative and Vermont more politically liberal, found himself increasingly uncomfortable as a Republican.

Then came George W. Bush, who talked a more moderate game during the election than he has practiced thus far as president. Political estrangement coupled with personal slights led to the split.

Vermont’s heroes are all iconoclasts, starting with Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys who attacked the British during the Revolutionary War. Jeffords is no Ethan Allen, but his stubborn streak reminds Vermonters of the kind of plain-speaking politician they admire, including former Republican Sen. George Aiken, who gave President Lyndon Johnson sage advice about Vietnam: Just declare victory and get out. Too bad Johnson didn’t listen.


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