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(Reuters) - James Jeffords, a soft-spoken Vermonter whose defection from the Republican Party in 2001 created an unprecedented power shift in the U.S. Senate and gave Democrats control of the chamber for 18 months, has died at age 80, U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy said on Monday.

CREDIT: REUTERS/JIM BOURG

Jim Jeffords was one of the last of the old-school Republicans. He cared for people more than his rapidly devolving party. When Senator Jeffords turned Independent in 2001, he shifted the balance of power in the Senate.

More on this remarkable man follows.

My family moved to Vermont in 1984, when Jim was serving in the House. On meeting him, his remarkable calm and modest personality were immediately apparent, as was his personal warmth.

Over the years, he moved to the Senate, and Senator Jeffords didn't disappoint. As his party grew more conservative, he found himself increasingly alienated from it. He reached a breaking point in 2001.

Jeffords was a New England moderate who found himself out of step with his increasingly conservative colleagues when he rocked American politics on May 24, 2001, by announcing he was leaving President George W. Bush's Republican Party, tipping the divided Senate.
On issue after issue, Senator Jeffords differed with Republicans. He was a supporter of women's choice, opposed massive tax cuts for the rich, and opposed Alito's nomination to the Supreme Court. Before the party switch, he aligned with Republicans on trade and finance issues, but his positions realigned more with the Democrats afterwards.

His former party members mostly shunned him after 2001. But he appeared to have few, if any regrets.

"None whatsoever," Jeffords told Reuters a year later when asked if he had any regrets about his decision. "I'm now working with people I agree with rather than trying to compromise with people I disagree with," he said. "It is a lot easier."
Early in 2007, Jeffords resigned his Senate seat. The reason given was that his wife was fighting cancer. But a complicating issue was his own Alzheimer's, which ultimately claimed his life.

James Jeffords contributed much to Vermont and our country during his lifetime. He came from a time when the Republican Party was still a values party. Senator Jeffords was a man with the courage of his convictions to the extent that he would abandon his political party when it departed from his people-first, populist values.

To me, that makes him a man among men, and I am paying my respects to his memory with this remembrance.

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