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Ask Bob: Who Was Robert Stafford Of The Stafford Act?

A black and white image of two people sitting in front of microphones in a committee room.
Charls W. Harrity
Associated Press File
Vermont Senators Robert Stafford, left, and Patrick Leahy, right, on March 5, 1979. Stafford is the namesake for the legislation that gave President Trump emergency powers during the coronavirus crisis.

Several weeks ago, as the coronavirus crisis began to unfold, President Trump issued an emergency executive order which gave him the power to implement new rules and regulations to help contain the spread of the virus. The legislation the president usedis known as the Stafford Act, named after Vermont Sen. Robert Stafford.

And as VPR senior political reporter Bob Kinzel points out, Stafford also had a strong reputation as an environmental leader and a champion of higher education.

Why did a senator from Vermont sponsor emergency power legislation in the 1980's?

Sen. Robert Stafford was known as a strong environmentalist. He chaired the Senate Environment Committee for a while, and in that capacity, identified global warming as a key issue. More than 30 years ago, he was also the chief sponsor of a law that provides student loans for higher education — these are actually known today as Stafford loans.

But why? Why did he become the chief sponsor of a law giving the president of the United States such extraordinary emergency powers?

Well, Sen. Patrick Leahy served in the Senate with Stafford for 14 years, and recently, I put this question to him.

"He was concerned we would have things happen like this in the country, that we were not prepared to be able to act quickly," Leahy said. "He formed a bipartisan coalition. Republicans and Democrats voted for it. I remember the meetings when his office and he passed it."

Bob Stafford's political career

Bob Stafford was really what I think of as an old school political leader in Vermont. And by that I mean, as a political leader, he would rise one step at a time.

For instance: He served a term as attorney general in the mid-1950s. Then he was elected to a term as lieutenant governor. After that, he served a term as governor — he was elected in November of 1958. And then in the fall of 1960, he was elected as Vermont's only member of the U.S. House, and in September of 1971, he was appointed to the U.S. Senate, when Winston Prouty passed away.

Stafford served in the Senate until his retirement in 1988. So his was a very deliberate climb up Vermont's political ladder, and that's something we don't see much of anymore.

A March 1988 address to Vermont's Legislature

A man holding glasses in front of a microphone.
Credit Tony Talbot / Associated Press File
Associated Press File
Vermont Sen. Robert Stafford, seen here in Montpelier on Feb. 10, 1987.

He came to the Statehouse and addressed a joint assembly of the Legislature, it was really an extraordinary speech to hear from Bob Stafford. It was amazing about how far ahead of his time he was: He specifically talked about the dangers of global warming and the need for the federal government to take major steps to deal with this issue.

He also referred to the "great danger" that was posed by the rising influence of money on our political system, coupled with the rise of single issue groups. He saw the corrosive influence that money could have on our entire democratic process.

Keeping it old-school

Stafford was in the U.S. Senate for years before he was convinced that he needed a press secretary. He didn't see the need to sort of toot his own horn.

Bob Kinzel has been covering the Vermont Statehouse since 1981 — longer than any continuously serving member of the Legislature. With his wealth of institutional knowledge, he answers your questions on our series, "Ask Bob."
A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
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