Jim Jeffords and Asian America
Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont addresses a news conference in Burlington, Vt., Thursday morning, May 24, where he announced he had left the Republican Party and become an Independent. Photo by Associated Press.
When Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont switched from being a Republican to an Independent last week, it sent shock waves through the Washington political establishment. Other high-profile people have changed parties before, including former President Ronald Reagan. But none has caused such an instantaneous realignment of committee assignments and policy focus than this one low-key lawyer from the Green Mountain state.
The broad outlines of the changes wrought by Jeffords are already old news. Democrats assume majority status in the Senate. Their issues and timetables now predominate. President Bushs choices for judiciary and sub-cabinet positions will have to be less ideologically conservative in order to withstand this new Democratic scrutiny.
For Asian Americans, the Jeffords switch has some immediate ramifications, such as more policy associate jobs opening on the Democratic side of the Senate. It also serves as a useful reminder of the importance of local organizing, because while his break with the national Republican Party has made him many enemies, polls indicate that he continues to be popular among Republicans, Democrats, and a broad cross-section of people in his home state.
Jeffords decision reminds Asian Americans, and indeed all Americans, that we are on the threshold of a major political transformation in this country. The current two-party system, in which half of eligible voters dont bother to vote and where minority votes are actively discouraged, will soon be giving way to a multi-party proportional representation system, where everyones voice and everyones vote will count. Indeed, when Senator Tom Daschle, D-N.D., the next Senate majority leader, spoke on television soon after Jeffords decision, he courageously faced this future when he acknowledged that the Senate was now a tri-partisan, rather than a bi-partisan, body.
Vermont is a state with a long tradition of independent thinking. It already has an Independent representative in the House, the former mayor of Burlington, Rep. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. As Senator Jeffords reminded us in his speech last week, Vermont was the first state to abolish slavery in its constitution. Its Republican tradition goes back to the days when the so-called Radical Republicans favored not only Lincolns call for the end of slavery, but the complete equality of freed slaves with people of European ancestry, as well.
Todays Vermont has a reputation for enlightened government and strong citizen participation. According to the Childrens Defense Fund (www.cdfactioncouncil.org), Vermont ranks first among states in terms of health insurance for children, child immunization, and other indicators of social concern. Although perceived from the outside as the land of fiercely independent people made famous in Robert Frosts poem about how good fences make good neighbors, it has built on its tradition of fiscal conservatism and political progressivism to become a social laboratory for a truly kinder, gentler America.
In Vermont, school property taxes are tied to homeowners income levels, and same-sex couples are allowed to enter into state-sanctioned civil unions that many consider to be gay marriages. The states corporate titans include ice cream makers Ben & Jerrys, who support Vermont dairy farmers and eco-friendly packaging practices.
For those who dont believe that third parties can win, and whose memory of the Republican Party only goes back to Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater and former President Ronald Reagan, the life of Vermont-born Radical Republican Senator Thaddeus Stevens is a good reminder of where we have been, and possibly where we are going.
Stevens was born in Danville, Vermont on April 4, 1792, and went on to practice law in Pennsylvania. A strong opponent of slavery, he defended fugitive slaves without fee, and played a leading role in the fight against the Fugitive Slave Act, which called for returning escaped former slaves to their masters. He served in the state legislature and then in Congress from 1849 to 1853 as a member of the Whig Party. When that party refused to take strong anti-slavery positions, he, Abraham Lincoln, and others joined the fledgling Republican Party. According to the histories of that time, their decisions to leave the Whig party of their youth were as painful as Jeffords current decision must have been. The Whigs, themselves, had only come together in 1834 to challenge the executive tyranny of President Andrew Jackson.
Stevens served as a Republican Senator from 1859 to 1868, and continued his fight for equality. Even in death, he refused to succumb to the segregation so prevalent in his lifetime. He chose burial in a cemetery for African Americans, so that he might, as inscribed on his tombstone, illustrate in my death the principles which I advocated through a long life, equality of man before the Creator.
Many social progressives stayed with the Republican Party through the era of Teddy Roosevelt, and it was not until the election of his Democratic cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932 that many made the painful leap over to the Democratic Party and its New Deal programs. Like Senator Jeffords today, many who switched party affiliation back then said that they had remained true to an ideal, and their party had drifted away from that ideal.