University of Vermont

James M. Jeffords Center for Policy Research

Senator James M. Jeffords

A Short Biography



Born in Rutland, Vermont, on May 11, 1934, James Merrill Jeffords is the son of the late Marion H. Jeffords and the late Olin M. Jeffords, former Chief Justice of the Vermont Supreme Court. His father's family settled in northwestern Vermont in 1794. After attending public schools in Rutland, Senator Jeffords received his undergraduate degree from Yale University in 1956 and his law degree from Harvard Law School in 1962. He served active duty with the U.S. Navy from 1956 to 1959, and retired from the U.S. Naval Reserve as a Captain in 1990. Senator Jeffords lost his wife, Elizabeth Daley Jeffords in 2007. They have a grandson, Patton Jeffords, son of Leonard and his wife Maura, and a granddaughter, Hazel Molvak, daughter of Laura Jeffords and Jan Molvak.

Jeffords served as a Vermont State Senator for Rutland County in 1967 and 1968, and held his first statewide office as Vermont Attorney General from 1969 to 1973.

Senator Jeffords spent 32 years in Congress. First elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1974, he retired in 2006 after serving his third term as a U.S. Senator.

Throughout his tenure in Congress, Senator Jeffords championed legislation to strengthen our nation's education system and increase the opportunities for individuals with disabilities. He left his fingerprints on every piece of education, job training, and disability legislation over the past quarter-century. In 1975, Senator Jeffords, as the ranking member on the subcommittee on select education, co-authored what would later be known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which has provided equal access to education for millions of students with disabilities. Since IDEA's enactment, Senator Jeffords continued to fight for full federal funding for the law.

Senator Jeffords was also a leading advocate in Congress for environmental protection. He fought to reduce industrial pollution and acid rain, and as a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, he ensured the passage of the 1990 Clean Air Act. Senator Jeffords also fought for legislation that would clean up dirty power plants and create incentives for investments in clean, renewable power.

Senator Jeffords, who was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1988, chaired the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee from 2001 to 2002, and the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee from 1997 to 2001. He also served as a member of the Senate Finance Committee, Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, and the Special Committee on Aging.

He was one of six founders of the Congressional Solar Coalition, and he served as Chairman of the House Environmental Study Conference from 1978 to 1979.

In 1980, then-Congressman Jeffords co-founded the Congressional Arts Caucus and throughout his career he consistently fought for financial support of the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Institute for Museum and Library Services. In addition to his legislative work in the arts, Senator Jeffords sponsored the Congressional High School Art Competition in Vermont for 23 years.

In recognition of his achievements, Senator Jeffords has received many prestigious awards, including the Spirit of Enterprise Award from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National School Boards Association Legislator of the Year, Parenting Magazine’s Legislator of the Year, the Claiborne Pell Award from the New England Educational Opportunity Association, the Martha Ziegler’s Founders Award from the Federation for Children with Special Needs, and in 2002 he received the Sierra Club’s top honor.
In 2001, Senator Jeffords left the Republican Party and became an independent. He has been profiled on "60 Minutes" and “Dateline NBC”, and in The New York Times and The Washington Post. He is the author of My Declaration of Independence (Simon and Schuster, 2001) and An Independent Man: Adventures of a Public Servant (Simon and Schuster, 2003).

Jeffords is a black belt in Tae Kwon Do.

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