Published on Thursday, April 21, 2005 by the New York Times
Jeffords to Leave the Senate, Setting Off Vermont Scramble
by Sheryl Gay Stolberg
WASHINGTON -- Senator James M. Jeffords of Vermont, the Republican-turned-independent whose party switch in 2001 delivered control of the Senate to Democrats for 19 months, announced on Wednesday that he would not seek re-election next year, citing concerns about his health and that of his wife.
"It is time to begin a new chapter, both for me personally and for the people of Vermont," Mr. Jeffords, 70, told reporters at a news conference at hotel outside Burlington, Vt. He did not answer questions.
The announcement set off an immediate scramble to succeed him, with Representative Bernard Sanders, the independent who characterizes himself as a "Democratic socialist" emerging as the likely Democratic contender. Mr. Jeffords's decision came as a surprise; he had raised more than $2 million for his 2006 campaign and had said repeatedly that he would run again.
But after 30 years in Congress, including three Senate terms, Mr. Jeffords said he had decided he wanted to go home to Vermont. He noted that his wife, Liz, "is battling cancer and will soon have to undergo another round of chemotherapy." And he suffers back pain, and has been moving more slowly in recent years.
"There have been questions about my health and that is a factor, as well," he said. "I am feeling the aches and pains when you reach 70. My memory fails me on occasion, but Liz would probably argue this has been going on for the last 50 years."
The retirement of Mr. Jeffords, who caucused with the Democrats, created a third open Senate seat for Democrats to defend next year. Also retiring are Senators Paul S. Sarbanes of Maryland and Mark Dayton of Minnesota. But unlike last year, when Democrats were saddled with a string of retirements in Southern states that trended Republican, the 2006 retirements come in states that either favor Democrats or, in Minnesota, could go either way.
Within moments of Mr. Jeffords's news conference, Democrats and Republicans were trying to game out the 2006 Vermont race. Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor who is now chairman of the Democratic National Committee, had been mentioned as a possible candidate, but a spokeswoman said he was not interested. "Unequivocally, Governor Dean will not run for the Senate," the spokeswoman, Karen Finney, said. "He's committed to his job here at the D.N.C. rebuilding the Democratic Party."
That leaves Mr. Sanders, who has served in the House since 1991, and has said repeatedly that he intended to run if Mr. Jeffords retired.
"Those intentions have not changed," he said in an interview Wednesday. But he said he was not prepared to make a formal announcement: "Today is not the time to talk about politics or elections."
Mr. Sanders is hugely popular in Vermont, where as the state's only House member he runs statewide, and Democrats said they would probably embrace his candidacy, even though he is technically an independent. Vermont has been trending Democratic - Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts beat President Bush there by 20 percentage points - and Democrats sounded confident that they could retain the seat.
"There is not a view among Democrats that we have to have our own candidate," said Senator Charles E. Schumer, the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which is responsible for electing Democrats. He said Mr. Sanders had already called him.
Among Republicans, several possible candidates emerged, including the governor, Jim Douglas; the lieutenant governor, Brian Dubie; and a business executive, Richard Tarrant.
"We have a lot of great prospects and we're certain to field an excellent candidate who we think can win," said Jim Barnett, the state Republican chairman. "We just don't know that person's name yet."
Mr. Jeffords, a moderate Republican known as a champion for the environment and for education, grew disenchanted over the years with his party's conservative tilt and became a pariah among his fellow Republicans when he decided to defect in 2001 and become an independent.
At the time, the Senate was split 50-50, with Vice President Dick Cheney's tie-breaking vote giving Republicans control. Mr. Jeffords's switch tipped the balance, and on Wednesday, Democrats, who ultimately lost the majority in 2002, still sounded grateful.
"He symbolized the independence of Vermont and America," Mr. Schumer said, adding, "Nobody pushed Jim Jeffords around."
Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company