Jim Jeffords.

Photo: U.S. Senate.

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If an environmental action-hero figure is ever made of Jim Jeffords — and if the Independent Vermont senator is willing to be immortalized not only in plastic but also in drag — it will have to be called “Cassandra.”

Like Cassandra, Jeffords has a gift for prophecy. Only four months into President Bush’s term, he saw the signs of unfolding environmental disaster and jumped ship from the GOP, briefly tipping the scales in a narrowly divided Senate away from a Republican majority. And, like Cassandra, it has been his fate to have his environmental predictions largely ignored, at least by his former colleagues on the not-so-green side of the aisle.

Jeffords was never a typical Republican. He parted ways with many in the party on welfare, health care, the federal budget, the effort to impeach President Clinton, and plenty else. But strange as it may seem, Jeffords credits his Republican heritage for his lifelong commitment to the environment. As the attorney general of Vermont from 1969 to 1973, he helped draft the state’s bottle bill and billboard ban, as well as major land-protection laws. During his nearly three decades in the House and Senate, Jeffords has been a major advocate of renewable energy, energy efficiency, and tough regulations on industrial pollution and acid rain. As a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, he was a critical force in passing the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments under the first President Bush.

Not a bad track record — but in the three years since his defection from the Republican Party, Jeffords has launched more environmental-policy initiatives than in all his previous years in Congress combined. Moreover, by instigating numerous investigations into the Bush administration’s environmental rollbacks and writing many strongly worded personal letters to the president, he has positioned himself as the Bush administration’s most nettlesome environmental gadfly.

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Grist tracked Jeffords down at his office to get the inside scoop on the important stuff: what’s motivating his torrent of post-defection activism, the growing discontent among other pro-environment Republicans, his endorsement of Howard Dean’s campaign, and his favorite Ben and Jerry’s flavor.

How central is the environment to your agenda as a senator? How would you rate it among, say, your top five issues?

Jeffords wants to clear the air.

Photo: U.S. Senate.

Number one. As the former chair of the Committee on Environment and Public Works and now the ranking member, I have the responsibility to protect public health and the environment — [which] the Bush administration is continuing to refuse to do. I feel incredibly frustrated by their tunnel vision and secret decision-making. But I’m going to continue to do all I can to make this country aware of what could and should be done by Congress and the administration to protect people from pollution and unjustified deregulation. Americans need to be made aware that their lives and their quality of life are in danger under this administration. They need to understand that — and then hopefully we will get a change of leadership this fall.

Has any progress been made in any environmental area as a result of the Bush administration?

[pause] I’m thinking … [pause] All I can come up with is that the last four years have been squandered. Nothing positive has gotten done. Any tiny steps forward or proposed steps forward seem to have been done so this administration would not be thoroughly embarrassed during the election.

In the past three years, you have repeatedly requested documents for further investigation — especially information from the EPA concerning the agency’s major rollbacks on mercury and new-source review. Few of your requests have been answered in any satisfying way. What do you feel like you have and have not been able to accomplish with these efforts?

It’s outrageous. They have refused over and over again to give us information that would demonstrate how poorly they are taking care of public health, that would show how many lives could be saved [by stronger regulation]. It’s outrageous when you know from all the scientific studies that thousands of people die prematurely each year because the Bush administration has refused to push pollution controls which are feasible and to follow normal decision-making procedures.

Tell us about your decision to leave the Republican Party. To what extent was that a reaction to Bush’s then-nascent environmental record?

Jeffords (left), being sworn in to the Senate by George H.W. Bush.

Photo: U.S. Senate.

Well, when I made my switch I had several reasons, but chief among them was the [Bush administration’s] incredible lack of desire to do anything about improving our environment and protecting public health. Now, looking back over the past three and a half years, my worst fears were confirmed, and then some. What has been particularly hard to accept is that President Bush is dismantling even his father’s work. I have often commended his dad. I served on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee during his father’s administration and together we passed major beneficial amendments to the Clean Air Act. To see him undermining his father’s own efforts and making the act nonfunctional deeply concerns me.

It seems there are a number of moderate Republicans who are also very concerned about this. Can you tell us about the growing divide between pro-environment Republicans and anti-environment Republicans in Congress right now?

There are some good Republicans. [Rhode Island Sen.] Linc Chafee is probably the one who has been the most helpful. There are others, too, who understand what’s being done. Unfortunately, we just can’t get the numbers. There is a growing realization among some Republicans that the issue of the environment is looming bigger and bigger in voters’ minds, but so far it hasn’t been enough to turn the White House around on these matters. The power of the president’s control over EPA and all the environmental agencies make it difficult if not impossible to get constructive progress.

Have you felt a lot of animosity from other Republicans since you left the GOP?

Oh, of course. Some of it even came from friends of mine, but now we’re friends again. They were sorry I left because they wanted me to be there with them to suffer along together, I guess. But I couldn’t do it.

What do you think about the departures of former EPA Administrator Christie Whitman and, just [two weeks ago], Marianne Horinko, who was interim administrator after her? I know you’ve publicly been supportive of Whitman and said you think she has good intentions on the environment.

I understood the tremendous pressure that [Whitman] was under and she finally got out because she couldn’t take it. That made me really empathize with her — the struggle she went through in trying to help soften the administration’s approach to the environment. But she finally gave up and left. I’ve talked to her since on that. So I admire her as I always did and appreciate how she suffered.

I wasn’t aware of the suffering. She certainly didn’t show it. She publicly left on good terms with the administration and said she just wanted to spend more time with her family — the same line that Horinko delivered.

That’s the best line to limit the number of people who get mad.

Speaking of getting mad, there has been some extremely hostile, anti-environment commentary from some Republicans in Congress — Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico, and Rep. Richard Pombo of California, among others. Has this hostility toward the environment intensified in the past few years?

I would say that their refusal to face reality and do what all evidence indicates should be done to protect public health has gotten stronger and more vocal. In fact, it’s gotten outrageous. There are those Republicans in Congress who are following the administration’s lead. The Bush administration has encouraged the anti-environment rhetoric by the more right-wing Republicans in Congress. The administration isn’t dumb, they like the cover. But they’re all just ignoring the facts and trying to convince people that they shouldn’t listen to science and that it’s just those stupid environmentalists trying to foul things up.

Conservation has traditionally been a conservative issue. Some of the greatest environmental leaders were members of the GOP. Is the party developing amnesia about its heritage?

Jeffords (left), with Ed Clark of the National Wildlife Federation and a feathered friend.

Photo: U.S. Senate

That’s precisely why I used to be proud to be a Republican. Teddy Roosevelt was my hero. And others who have risen through the Republican ranks — even Nixon was much more of an environmentalist than anyone they’ve got now. And he was pretty conservative. I grew up admiring and being proud of my Republican heritage as far as taking care of the environment. [Former Vermont Sen.] Bob Stafford, my predecessor, was one of the biggest environmentalists. He’s still my best friend and [mentor]. Even Bush I was a decent environmental steward. So I was proud of it, but all of a sudden Bush II has turned everything upside down.

Is that transformation hurting the unity of the Republican Party?

I think it could and I think it should. People should really analyze what the White House is doing. They are the leaders and they are just totally ignoring the plain facts on pollution, like the number of premature deaths that are occurring annually from power-plant emissions, and the poisoning of women and children with mercury. The Republicans ought to be screaming and yelling at the administration. Their behavior is not consistent with what we think of as conservative values.

Do you think that other pro-environment conservatives like Lincoln Chafee, [Maine Sen.] Olympia Snowe, and [Arizona Sen.] John McCain have considered or would consider leaving the party? What about [former Rhode Island Sen.] John Chafee — if he were alive, would he be able to remain aligned with a party that was so displaced from its history of environmental protection?

Well, I can’t speak for other politicians about a decision like that. But in the case of John Chafee I can say we had a strong bond. John was one of the strongest environmental leaders in Congress. He was my best friend here when he was alive. I never disagreed with him. I know he would have been deeply opposed to what’s happening and done everything possible to stop it.

Can you tell us about your own personal connection to the environment?

Well, my connection was inspired by Bob Stafford primarily and motivated by Vermont’s history. I was born and raised in Rutland. My father’s a Vermont native. It’s a state that has always been strong on the environment and worried about clean air. And of course we start off with pretty good, clean air — it’s why we love Vermont — so we have a lot to lose. And the people of Vermont have always been good individualists, willing to stand up for what they want, what’s correct and healthy for people. That’s always been part of our heritage.

What about your personal experience? As a kid, did you spend a lot of time in the outdoors?

Oh yes. I’ve hitchhiked — I mean [laughs] hiked the Long Trail and the Appalachian Trail and I’ve done lots of hiking in the South and all over New York state. So that’s a big part of my life.

What about your other habits? What kind of a car do you drive?

I have a Saturn wagon, but I’m going to get one of those hybrids. I was just out with my son looking for hybrids. So we’re going to try to encourage that trend.

But in general I try to live a pretty pure life. That’s not very hard in Vermont; it’s all pretty pure anyway. I put myself through college, and when I was elected to the House of Representatives I was so broke that I lived in my office. In other words, I’ve had quite a bit of experience living a relatively modest lifestyle. I walk to work most everyday when I’m in Vermont and D.C. When I’m in Vermont I snowshoe. I own a lot of land in Vermont so I have to keep track of it by snowshoe.

As a Vermont native, did you take advantage of Free Cone Day [on April 27] at Ben and Jerry’s?

I usually do. I missed it this year.

What’s your favorite Ben and Jerry’s flavor?

Jeffords (second from right) at the One Sweet Whirled launch.

Photo: U.S. Senate.

I like One Sweet Whirled. I went to their big announcement of that one, because of their related campaign to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

Speaking of Ben and Jerry’s, you have a lot of sustainable, progressive companies in Vermont.

Oh, yes, we’re very focused on preserving the integrity of our local companies, and very proud of that. We’re the Green Mountain State and try to be green in every regard: our lifestyles, architecture, as well as our local businesses.

Were you sad and/or surprised to see your fellow Vermonter Howard Dean lose the primaries?

Howard Dean captured the hearts of millions of Americans, including mine, with his run for the Democratic presidential nomination. I endorsed him. His passion and his message brought new energy to the campaign and new voters to the polls. His lasting legacy to the Democratic Party will be a positive one. Trust me — we haven’t heard the last from Howard Dean.

Do you think that John Kerry would do a good job on the environment?

Oh, I’m certain of it. He’s my seatmate in the Senate so I know him and his thinking well and I’m sure he’d do a much better job [than Bush]. Which of course wouldn’t be hard.

What kind of feedback have you gotten from your constituents on your environmental initiatives?

All I know is what the polls tell me. They say 70 to 80 percent think I’m doing a pretty good job.