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GOP Vacillation, Vermont-Style

TIMES STAFF WRITER

At the nonprofit Peace and Justice Center here, wedged between the Laura Ashley and Eddie Bauer stores on a main street that bans cars and blasts taped classical music, Rocky Steeves and Kathy Bouton were discussing their state’s junior senator.

“He’s a different kind of Republican,” said Steeves, 30, of the legislator who is suddenly in the national glare as a potential swing vote in President Clinton’s Senate impeachment trial.

“He’s a good Republican,” agreed Bouton, 47. “A liberal Republican.”

The phrase, an oxymoron in many parts of the country, makes the staff of James Merrill Jeffords cringe.

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“We like to think of him as a moderate Republican,” insisted Jolinda LaClair, director of Jeffords’ district office in nearby Montpelier.

As the impeachment trial steams on, a handful of Republican senators is acting like it may have trouble going along with the rest of the pack. But no one better embodies the tension between Republicans who want to oust the president and voters who support him than Jeffords.

“He’s in quite a political predicament right now,” said Stephen Kiernan, editorial page editor of the Burlington Free Press, the major paper in a state that twice voted overwhelmingly for Clinton. “And that explains why he’s flipping and flopping so much.”

Back and Forth on Subject of Witnesses

Jeffords, 64, has gone back and forth on the subject of calling witnesses, disclosing Thursday that he was leaning toward a no vote. Overall, he has made no secret of his discomfort with the proceedings. The two-term senator and former seven-term congressman has said he finds it “troubling” that the president turned his staff into unwitting accomplices in his affair with Monica S. Lewinsky. But he also has voiced concern about the standards the impeachment is setting for future chief executives.

“If you say lying about a non-crime can be converted into a high crime by the way he handled it, [that] sets a pretty low standard to me,” Jeffords said last week.

As the Senate prepares to decide whether to dismiss the case, Jeffords’ vote is anybody’s guess. “We just don’t know,” said LaClair from her office in an old brick garage in the picture-postcard-perfect state capital. “He has to weigh his own conscience along with the views of the public.”

Virtually since it joined the Union as the 14th state, Vermont has proudly waved its banner as a bastion of sensible Republican values. Clinton is the first Democratic president the state has voted for since Lyndon B. Johnson, and only the third in its history. When he succeeded an immensely popular Republican, George Aiken, as senator in 1974, a county district attorney named Patrick J. Leahy became Vermont’s first popularly elected Democratic senator. The same year, the state’s Republican attorney general, Jim Jeffords, won Vermont’s only congressional seat.

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“So Leahy and Jeffords are sort of joined at the hip,” said Brandeis University political science professor Garrison Nelson, who taught for many years at the University of Vermont. “Leahy was elected because of Watergate, and Jeffords, in spite of it.”

By 1988, Leahy and Jeffords were both representing their state in the Senate. In 1990, former Burlington mayor Bernie Sanders, an Independent/Progressive/Socialist, became Vermont’s representative in Congress.

Sanders’ unusual political affiliation--or lack thereof--reflected the changes in a state that for years dined off the distinction of having been one of two states to vote in 1936 against Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Even while a Vermont senator, Ralph Flanders, helped lead the charge against Joseph McCarthy, the state was known to be at once conservative and wildly iconoclastic.

“We led the nation in nudists at one time,” said Frank Bryan, a University of Vermont political science professor and author of “Real Vermonters Don’t Milk Goats.” “Figure that out.”

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Just to show Republican Party officials what they thought of the shenanigans in Washington, state voters chose an octogenarian pig farmer to run against Leahy last November. Fred Tuttle said he was thrilled to be defeated.

Wealthy urbanites, mostly from Boston and New York, began settling in Vermont in the 1960s, so that now, with a population of around 600,000, the state ranks third in the nation in the number of people who live off coupons and dividends. They were joined by disaffected liberals who found the sparsely populated state as an easy mark for political takeover. They were right. For two decades, the state’s largest city, Burlington (with all of 40,000 residents), has had a parade of Progressive Party officials. As a university community, Burlington is sort of a mini-Berkeley of the frozen north.

In the increasingly liberal climate of a state that recently passed one of the country’s strongest gay rights bills, Jeffords has flourished as a maverick. In their odd political menage a trois Jeffords often partners with Leahy and Sanders. In recent years he has set up a HELP committee for constituents, focusing on health, education, labor and pensions. On health care, Jeffords often is more closely allied with the philosophy of the Clinton White House than the agendas advocated by his party.

Jeffords is the opposite of flashy. “I call him the Jimmy Stewart of Vermont politics, kind of ‘aw shucks,’ ” said Nelson.

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In the Senate, one of Jeffords’ best friends is Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi, one of President Clinton’s most ardent opponents. Lott and Jeffords are part of a congressional vocal quartet, the Singing Senators.

Calls to Jeffords’ office since the first of the year have steadily run about 2 to 1 in support of the president. Since opinion polls firmly show a public that opposes the impeachment proceedings, Jeffords in this regard is not unlike other non-ideological Republican senators, among them Olympia J. Snowe of Maine and John H. Chafee of Rhode Island.

Likely to Face Conservative Challenge

Whatever it is, Jeffords’ vote in the impeachment trial may follow him into the next election cycle in 2000. Even before he faces a Democratic opponent in the general election, Jeffords is likely to face a serious primary challenge from a more conservative Republican.

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As chairman of the Labor and Human Resources Committee, Jeffords is eager to be part of a productive Senate that will push through legislation such as the bill he introduced protecting the rights of people to work with disabilities. In his State of the Union message this week, the president singled out that measure, mentioning Jeffords as sponsor.

Jeffords is said to have found this week’s White House legal arguments persuasive, particularly those of David E. Kendall, the president’s personal counsel.

“From the prediction standpoint, I think you could look for moderates like Jeffords to want to end this as rapidly as possible,” said Kiernan. The only way Jeffords can prevail in 2000 “is by delivering on issues.”

In any case, said Alison Emerson, manager of a pet boutique called Bone Appetit, Vermont’s peculiar political temperament will work in Jeffords’ favor. Emerson, 25 and “sort of a Democrat,” noted that Jeffords is a political fixture, having been in Congress about as long as she has been alive.

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“I think if he votes his conscience--whatever that vote is--and then explains it, Vermonters will probably forgive him,” Emerson said. “I think Vermont could be the only state where you could say that.”


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