The senator's defection from the Republican Party is in line with a tradition of Vermont independence.
Independence is as native to Vermont as the ridges of its rumpled Green Mountains.
So it's in keeping with Vermont traditions that its sole Republican statewide officeholder, Sen. James Jeffords, decided to jump ship and become an independent. The historic move, announced yesterday at a press-packed hotel conference room on the shores of Lake Champlain, shifts the balance of power in the Senate, giving Democrats control for the first time since 1994.
While lawmakers in Washington are still reeling from the news, here in Vermont the announcement was greeted with glee. In fact, in the state capital of Montpelier, it had been rumored as a wise move for more than a year, although Mr. Jeffords said it only recently occurred to him.
The local Republican leadership, of course, felt betrayed and called on Jeffords to step down so a new election could be held. But the outpouring of support on "Switchboard," a statewide call-in show on public radio that was extended an extra half-hour Wednesday, seems to indicate that Jeffords's move is in keeping with most of his constituents' desires.
"Vermont voters include a lot of independents, moderates, and liberals," says David Moats, the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer for The Rutland Herald. "I don't think this will be viewed as political expedience, but will be understood as a decision of conscience."
Yesterday morning, Jeffords explained his decision to the cheers of enthusiastic supporters. "I have changed my party label, but I have not changed my beliefs. Indeed, my decision is about affirming the principles that have shaped my career."
Such declarations of conscience have been voiced many times in the Green Mountains. First settled by farmers and loggers, Vermont declared itself a republic in 1777. It didn't join the other rebellious colonies in the Union until 1791. By then the state had already outlawed slavery, and it was an early advocate of abolition in the 19th century.