Log Cabin Chronicles

[EDITOR'S NOTE: Chris Braithwaite publishes the Barton Chronicle, arguably the finest community newspaper in Vermont. This farewell is to US Sen. James Jeffords, I-VT, who will leave office this year. I covered Jim in the 1966 reappotioned Vermont Legislature, when he a newly elected state senator and I was a state house reporter with the Vermont Press Bureau, fresh from a stint as the UPI bureau correspondent in Montpelier. I'd like to add my "Well done, Jim" to Chris' piece.]

Goodbye Jim, and thanks

Barton, Vermont

I made the acquaintance of Jim Jeffords in 1974, when he was between jobs.

That is to say that Jim Jeffords the politician had lost an election and been forced to resort to the career he had trained for at Harvard Law School.

He came to a hearing the state Public Service Board had organized to discuss a rate increase that the Orleans Village Trustees needed for their electric department.

Mr. Jeffords was there as a lawyer to represent the public. That was probably a good thing, as none of the public showed up to represent themselves.

It was an interesting occasion. The village trustees, Allen Clark, Ted Alexander and Raymond Boulanger, figured they needed a temporary 10 percent rate hike to get Orleans Electric Department over a rough patch caused by higher-than-expected wholesale rates from Vermont Yankee.

What they got that day at the Orleans Municipal Building was two bureaucrats, two lawyers, two accountants and an economist. They got a full-scale analysis of the little utility's perfectly straightforward rates, and a new rate structure based on a lot of novel theoretical concepts like marginal cost. They got a scolding for earning a modest surplus and passing it on to the village treasury, and for buying the equipment they needed out of current revenues, instead of borrowing the money and paying a lot of interest.

All in all, it made them a little grumpy.

Mr. Jeffords was happy to pause, on his way out the door, to chat with a reporter and explain that Orleans Electric, being so small, might serve as a test case for this new marginal pricing approach. We remember him as cheerful, competent and self-confident, a man who seemed much younger than his 40 years.

At that point he already served a term in the Vermont Senate and a four-year stint as attorney general.

Then he'd run for governor in 1972 and lost the Republican Primary.

That rare defeat enforced a brief departure from a long political career. Jim won his bid for Congress in 1974, and worked in Washington until last Wednesday, September 27, when he made his farewell speech on the Senate floor.

It wasn't the stem-winder of a speech one might expect from the Republican Party's most notorious living maverick. Indeed the Senator was careful to include all the elements one might expect from the retiring president of a local bank - the thanks to the staffers who toil anonymously under the Capitol dome, the acknowledgement of his children and his "feisty, funny and incredibly strong wife, Liz," and the quick summary of his legislative successes in the areas he cared most about, education and the environment.

But then came the heavier stuff, observations that reflected his famous decision, in 2001, to resign from the Republican Party and serve as the Senate's only independent member.

America was still fighting in Vietnam when he arrived in Washington, Mr. Jeffords recalled.

"Vietnam has colored much of our thinking since. Whether Vietnam had too much or too little influence over the ensuing three decades is a much larger debate. But we would be better served in world affairs today by being less haughty and more humble.

"I regret that my departure from Congress like my arrival, finds our country at war. Young and even not-so-young Americans are sacrificing life and limb, while the rest of us are making little or no sacrifice.

"It seems to me the very least we should do is pay today for the fiscal costs of our policies. Instead, we are floating IOUs written on our children's future. This year we have no budget, and we are unwilling even to debate most of our basic spending bills before the November election.

"Thirty years from now we could well face the biggest crisis in governance since the Civil War if Congress and the White House do not adopt a more honest approach to governance. The basic compact between generations is being broken."

Nationally, Jim Jeffords will no doubt be remembered for crossing the aisle, for abandoning a party that had moved too far to the right for his comfort, and thus giving control of an evenly divided Senate to the other party.

In Vermont, we suspect he will be remembered for his long career as a stubbornly independent representative of the people who sent him to Washington in 1974 and sent him back nine times.

Vermonters' reverence for Senator George Aiken, their surprising affection for Vermont's other independent Congressman, Bernie Sanders, make it clear that Jim Jeffords served us with distinction in the best tradition of this independent state.


Copyright © 2006 Chris Braithwaite/Barton Chronicle/09.06