Vt. opinion varies widely on Jeffords

by Carl Burnett | 7/9/01 5:00am

Along Vermont state route 110 in South Royalton sits a large, hand-lettered sign: "Impeach Jeffords," it reads.

In late May, longtime Republican Senator Jim Jeffords decided to leave his party and become an independent. By effectively aligning himself with Democrats, Jeffords shifted the balance of power in the Senate to a slim, one-seat Democratic majority. Jeffords' defection has quickly become another in a series of divisive issues for Vermonters.

The sign stands prominently in front of a rustic, if somewhat dilapidated, homestead plastered with countless bumper stickers and signs: "Take Back Vermont," "George W. Bush For President," "Marriage = 1 Man + 1 Woman."

This is the home of G. Lester Corwin II, an attorney who attempted to win a seat last year in the Vermont state legislature. He is wearing a button-down shirt and the sort of glasses that many elderly men seem to favor. On his shirt is pinned a white ribbon, which he says is to show his support for a constitutional amendment "defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman."

Corwin represents one side of a sharp division. On the one hand there are Vermonters like Corwin: rural, conservative Republicans whose families have been in Vermont for generations and who hold very traditional right-wing views on such topics as abortion, homosexuality and gun ownership.

On the other, there are the Vermonters who now make up the majority of the state's electorate: younger, liberal Democrats, often transplanted from cities, who are drawn to Vermont's laid-back beauty and rural charm. These are the voters who elected the legislature who last year passed a law allowing for gay and lesbian couples to file for official, marriage-like "civil unions."

The civil-union debate closely mirrors another controversy --the one that has surrounded Jeffords' defection. Nowhere is the issue more prominent than in rural Vermont, where the opinions on both sides are vehemently expressed.

The Old Vermont

Old-time Vermonters like Corwin are beyond disappointed with Jeffords' decision.

"I don't like the way he stands and the expressions that he makes," Corwin said. "He was the first Republican to vote to retain the lying, adulterous traitor who occupied 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue."

Corwin said he may have voted for Jeffords in the past when he ran as a Republican, but no longer supports him.

"I usually write [in] my name on the ballot because I can't in good conscience vote for him," Corwin said. "I can't remember, to be honest, whether I voted for him last time or not because I didn't want the homosexual guy to win -- Flanagan. Actually, as it turns out, there wasn't much chance, but I don't think that Mr. Jeffords would have won had he pulled the little stunt that he did and had they put it in a special election.

"I don't think he would have won. I think that would have been the ethical thing for him to do, but he chose not to. It was suggested to him, which he rejected immediately, of course."

Corwin is proud of the fact that he did not accept any campaign funds from Jeffords while running for office.

"He hasn't been a Republican for a long time and yet he has accepted their support and their work. I'm grateful that I didn't accept any money from him for my campaign -- not that he offered me a great deal, or any as far as that goes. But I'm so glad I didn't take it. He's on the wrong track. He's out of step with my kind of Vermonters and my kind of people of the United States, too."

But like many Vermont Republicans, Corwin says that in a way the change might be for the better.

"I'm glad he's not a Republican. It's going to help the Republicans in Vermont. I'm sorry for what its going to do to the country, and what it's already done. Like, Patrick Leahy became the chairman of the [Senate] Judiciary Committee, and my friend Orrin Hatch no longer is chairman, thanks to Mr. Jeffords' antics."

"At the time, last month, I was a lot more worried than I am now. It will have an effect. It's already caused a change in the committee chairmanships. ... I'm not sure that it will make that much difference in actuality, except for the committee things, which does have an effect on the judges, you know?"

Corwin has an easy time summing up his view of Jeffords.

"Disappointment is a little bit mild about my feelings. You know, I constantly call him and call his office, and he so rarely votes the way he wants, but I keep calling. And I'm kind of heartened, in a way, that he felt this need to do what he did, as it shows that there are lots more people like myself out there. He does feel threatened by us, he's at least acknowledging somehow our feelings, and he wants to distance himself from us. That's OK."

The New Vermont

Taking a very different view are Vermonters like Claudine Louis of Norwich.

"I think [Jeffords has] been consistent," Louis said. "It's the Republican Party that's changed since he originally became a Republican."

Instead, Louis said, she viewed Jeffords' departure from the party as a way for him to stay true to his beliefs, which are more liberal than those of most Senate Republicans. She was skeptical, though, about the potential for Jeffords' decision to have a positive impact.

"I think in Vermont it's actually going to divide [people] even more than how it was before the previous election. You know, for instance the 'Take Back Vermont' versus 'Take Vermont Forward' thing," she continued, alluding to the bumper-sticker war that has sprung up around the issue of civil unions.

"I think you'll see even more of a split. I think it's going to have a big impact on what goes on in the federal government right now, I mean on the decisions made, what gets passed through the Senate and what doesn't, so in that sense it's going to have an impact on the country. But whether someone out in California cares that Jeffords switched ... I don't think they really care about that."

Louis said she voted for Jeffords in the last election. When asked if she would vote for him again if he ran as an independent, Louis responded affirmatively.

"I would vote for him. ... It wouldn't matter what party he represented."

A Middle Ground?

There is a middle ground between the views of Corwin and Louis, though. Gary Ulman of Thetford, who owns an excavation company, says he votes independently of party lines.

"I vote for the person -- what I think that they'll do," he said.

Ulman said he voted for Jeffords in the last election but no longer supports him.

"I didn't care for [Jeffords' decision]. If he can make his mind up in five or six weeks that he was going to go through with it, then before he was elected he must have had some inkling that he was going to get out of the party, and he should have switched parties [then].

"I think it was a spiteful move. Of course the Democrats are going to take him right in and he's probably not going to lose any clout in Washington. But he's certainly lost a lot of friends around here."

Ulman said despite some Vermonters' negative perception of Jeffords' switch, he doesn't think it will have a big impact locally.

"Vermont is so liberal anyway. It's probably 60 percent Democrat. I don't think in Vermont it's going to make a big difference, but it is for the old timers who felt that the reason why they voted for him was that he was really going to stick with it and do a good job for the Republican Party. Apparently they were wrong."

But referring to a Republican proposal to effectively punish Jeffords by voting to cut off a program that allows northeastern dairy farmers to charge more for their milk, Ulman was skeptical that much harm could be done. "I know the farmers are worried about his support for fixed prices for milk in the area, but I don't think [Republican Senators] will do it. It would be sort of like shooting yourself in the foot."

For Ulman, Jeffords' move has sullied his reputation. "I don't think that it showed a good faith move on his part. I mean, he had to know. ... He had to have had a good idea that he was going to leave.

"He's a representative of the people that put him there, and that doesn't necessarily mean that he carries all of his own views. He carries the views of the people that put him in office, and I think he let a lot of people down, I really do.

"I think that particular move right there really disrupted something that might've been a real change in Washington, and now it's going to be twice as hard for the Republicans to create any change -- good, bad or indifferent."