Graff: With Phil Hoff, Vermont changed forever

by Chris Graff Vermont Business Magazine “One hundred years of bondage – broken,” shouted Philip Henderson Hoff on election night 1962 as a deliriously happy crowd in Winooski lifted him on their shoulders. Hoff had broken a century of Republican rule, ousting incumbent Gov. F. Ray Keyser Jr. So many factors combined to make that win possible: Hoff was young, handsome and energetic: He was viewed in the mold of then-President John F. Kennedy.

“I’m a natural outgrowth of Kennedy’s election,” Hoff told me in a television interview in 1989. “He referred to a new generation of Americans and I was truly representative of that new generation.”

Hoff served as governor for six hyperactive years. It seemed as if no aspect of Vermont life was untouched. Yet with the hindsight of historical perspective, what stands out most from those dramatic years is no single accomplishment, no one concrete change. What burns brightest was the spirit.

To watch Chris Graff’s 1989 interview with Phil Hoff on Vermont PBS, click image:

“We were proceeding on the basis that there really was nothing we couldn’t do,” recalled Hoff. “That we could get rid of poverty, that we could move the state along, that we could provide a prosperous and enjoyable life for every citizen.

“It was a very positive time.”

Hoff, a lawyer, was born in Turner Falls, Mass. His father was chairman of the local Republicans, served in the state Legislature and campaigned for Republican Alf Landon’s presidential campaign in 1936.

“My parents were Republican for sure but they believed that you had a responsibility to your community and I carried that with me,” said Hoff.

He served in the Navy, graduated from Williams College, received his law degree from Cornell and then moved to Burlington in 1951. In 1960, he won a seat in the Vermont state House and two years later he was elected governor.

In today’s Vermont it is hard to imagine the political landscape of the 1950s. Democrats hardly ran and never won.

The election of Stephen Royce as governor in 1854 as a Whig-Republican and his re-election in 1855 as a Republican marked the beginning of a century of unbroken rule by the GOP.

Some years in that century found Vermont nearly alone in its support of Republicans. In 1912, only Vermont and Utah supported the presidential bid of William Howard Taft; in 1936 Vermont and Maine were the only two states to vote against Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Beginning with the gubernatorial campaign of Robert Larrow in 1952, however, the Democrats made serious efforts to elect their own candidates. In 1958, William Meyer became the first Democratic congressman from Vermont; that year’s gubernatorial contest was so close it required a recount.

Then in 1962 came Phil Hoff with the simple and powerful message that it was time for a change, that a century was too long for one party to rule.

It helped that the incumbent was unpopular. It helped that unlike many previous Democratic standard-bearers Hoff was not Catholic, long considered a handicap in such a Protestant state.

Hoff’s greatest asset, however, was himself. He was charismatic and optimistic about the state’s ability to forge a brighter future.

Hoff said that pretty much he became the 1962 Democratic gubernatorial nominee by default. “I’d like to claim it was a tough fight for the nomination but in truth in the Democratic ranks quite often it wasn’t a case of which of the many candidates will we run – but whose turn is it to lose?”

Hoff attributed his win in that November to the changing demographics of the state – “the suntanners, people like me who had moved into the state in increasing numbers, who tended to be better educated but who tended to be more progressively oriented” – and to Kennedy’s presidency.

“He had created an atmosphere of optimism, of change, of can-do,” said Hoff. “He created a whole aura which made my candidacy and election possible.”

Expectations were high on the day of Hoff’s 1963 inauguration yet the governor surprised many and disappointed some when he said that he needed a year to develop his programs.

“I still remember the headline of the Barre Times-Argus which comes out that same day and the headline was ‘Hurry UP and Wait’ or something like that. Rather devastating headline from my point of view,” recalled Hoff.

He said that the time between his election and inauguration had shown him “we were operating the state of Vermont as it was 50 and 100 years ago and it was very clear that just would not cut the mustard in the day and time in which we lived.”

Few of Hoff’s proposals passed in his first term. “The Republicans were just angry,” he said. “Here I was this interloper who had come along and interfered with their little domain and they were going to punish me for it and they did.”

Then in 1964 Hoff was overwhelmingly re-elected and Hoff’s programs began winning passage.

He was helped by a group of young Republican legislators who moved into key chairmanships and into the speaker’s office – like Franklin Billings and Richard Mallary. Mallary, who was speaker in the later Hoff years, would later describe those years as a “sea change for Vermont, compared to the incremental changing that Vermont had done in the past.”

The biggest change was in the House itself. In 1965 the House voted to reapportion itself – moving from 246 members and one town/one vote to 150 members apportioned on population. That change caused the power to move from farmers and small towns to urban areas that were increasingly Democratic.

So much happened during Hoff’s six years as governor. Yet looking back on those years, he said to me that he would like to be remembered simply as one who cared.

“More than anything else, what I would like to be remembered for, is that I cared what happened to that person at the lower end of the economic ladder, that I really cared about what happened to the people of this state.”

Hoff ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 1970. He later became chair of the state Democratic Party. In the 1980s he returned to politics, serving in the state Senate, an experience he found incredibly frustrating. He made it clear that he had been much happier when he was the chief executive.

In 1982 Hoff said: “At the risk of being an egotist I think it is safe to say that almost everything in this state that has taken place in the last 20 years flowed out of our administration.”

Asked in 1989 if he still believed that, he said he did.

“You would be hard put to name anything that happened from that time to this time that did not have as its basis activities that we undertook in the 1960s.”