Independence is as native to Vermont as the ridges of its rumpled Green Mountains.
So it's in keeping with Vermont traditions that its sole Republican statewide officeholder, Sen. James Jeffords, decided to jump ship and become an independent. The historic move, announced yesterday at a press-packed hotel conference room on the shores of Lake Champlain, shifts the balance of power in the Senate, giving Democrats control for the first time since 1994.
While lawmakers in Washington are still reeling from the news, here in Vermont the announcement was greeted with glee. In fact, in the state capital of Montpelier, it had been rumored as a wise move for more than a year, although Mr. Jeffords said it only recently occurred to him.
The local Republican leadership, of course, felt betrayed and called on Jeffords to step down so a new election could be held. But the outpouring of support on "Switchboard," a statewide call-in show on public radio that was extended an extra half-hour Wednesday, seems to indicate that Jeffords's move is in keeping with most of his constituents' desires.
"Vermont voters include a lot of independents, moderates, and liberals," says David Moats, the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer for The Rutland Herald. "I don't think this will be viewed as political expedience, but will be understood as a decision of conscience."
Yesterday morning, Jeffords explained his decision to the cheers of enthusiastic supporters. "I have changed my party label, but I have not changed my beliefs. Indeed, my decision is about affirming the principles that have shaped my career."
Such declarations of conscience have been voiced many times in the Green Mountains. First settled by farmers and loggers, Vermont declared itself a republic in 1777. It didn't join the other rebellious colonies in the Union until 1791. By then the state had already outlawed slavery, and it was an early advocate of abolition in the 19th century.
Throughout most of the 20th century, Vermont remained a rock-ribbed Republican stronghold in the Lincoln tradition. The people were so wary of federal power that, at the height of the Depression, they turned down the Roosevelt administration's offer to build a highway through the Green Mountains that would have brought millions of dollars and thousands of new jobs.
But a shift began when Vermonters elected a Democrat governor in 1962. As the national Republican Party looked South and to the right, Vermont began tilting to the left, in part because of the influx of what are known as "flatlanders" - liberals from New York and Boston fleeing the urban rush.
"There's a double helix," says Bill Mares, co-author of "The Vermont Owner's Manual." "So you've got the native strain of cantankerous, independent Lincoln Republicans. Then grafted onto that, the hippies and Democrats who moved up in the '60s and the '70s."
In 1981, a gadfly socialist who'd moved up from Brooklyn was elected mayor of Burlington by a 10-vote fluke. He hasn't lost an election since and is now US Rep. Bernard Sanders (I).
But Vermonters aren't always so accepting of outsiders. In 1998, the Republican leadership imported Jim McMullen, a Massachusetts man who had owned a summer house in Vermont, to run against Sen. Patrick Leahy (D).
He spent $450,000 in the primary, much of it his own money, but still lost to a septuagenarian local farmer named Fred Tuttle. In the general election, Fred, as he was known, asked people to vote for Mr. Leahy since his own wife wouldn't let him go to Washington.
Last year, Vermont became the first state to sanction legal unions between gay couples. That galvanized conservative Republicans in the state, the people that Jeffords had always had the hardest time attracting.
Vermont analysts believe that, in making his move to become independent, Jeffords is ceding to the new Republican Party those core conservatives - trusting that most of the state's voters will take him at his word, not his party.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor