Birth of the blue

Fifty years ago, Phil Hoff made history as Vermont’s first Democratic governor

BRATTLEBORO — The Vermont of 1962 was a very different place from the Vermont of today. It was a state slowly starting to awaken from a long economic slumber.

The state's population level had pretty much stagnated from the end of the Civil War to the 1950s, and more people were leaving the state than coming in. According to the U.S. Census, 15,000 Vermonters between the ages of 20 and 44 left the state between 1950 and 1960.

The number of Vermonters living on farms had declined from 30 percent in the 1930s to 10 percent in the 1960s. Lots of land became available for development, and the start of construction on the Interstate Highway System was about to put Vermont within a three-hour drive of Boston and a five-hour drive from New York City.

Only 17 towns in Vermont had zoning laws. Cities and towns - not the state - handled public assistance programs with standards that varied from town to town.

The General Assembly had 246 members, one representative from each town, so Brattleboro and Burlington had the same amount of representation in Montpelier as Halifax or Londonderry.

And the only way for an ambitious young politician to get ahead was to become a member of the Republican Party.

No Democrat had been elected governor since 1854. No Democrat had ever been elected to Congress until William Meyer in 1958. No Democratic presidential candidate had ever carried Vermont.

Then came 1962, and the election that changed Vermont politics, and Vermont itself, irrevocably.

A first-term state representative from Burlington, Philip Hoff, became the first Democrat to be elected governor in more than a century.

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The story of that election is told in a new book, Philip Hoff: How Red Turned Blue in the Green Mountain State, co-authored by Samuel B. Hand, Anthony Marro, and Stephen C. Terry.

In a recent interview with The Commons, Terry - who covered the Hoff administration as a young reporter for the Rutland Herald and later became that paper's managing editor - said that the hold of the Republican Party on Vermont started to slip after the 1960 election.

Even though Richard Nixon defeated John F. Kennedy for president in Vermont, and none of the Democrats' statewide candidates came close to winning, Chittenden County Democrats came out big for Kennedy and for the Democratic candidates on the state ballot that year.

Hoff was one of 50 Democrats in the House in the 1961–'62 biennium. The 1961 session was a longer (209 days) and more contentious session than usual, as Hoff became part of a group that became known as The Young Turks - three Democrats and eight Republicans, all but one of them freshman - who were younger and better-educated than the rest of the House.

These 11 members, which included Brattleboro's Ernest W. Gibson III, filled a leadership vacuum as incoming Governor F. Ray Keyser and House Speaker Leroy Lawrence of Stamford could not control the House. Hoff introduced 40 bills in the first session and quickly made a name for himself.

Keyser did himself no favors by backing several unpopular measures, including selling off Lyndon State College, supporting the abandonment of the bankrupt Rutland Railroad, and trying to repeal the electric energy tax.

As a member of the ”Proctor Wing” of the Republican Party, Keyser would be the last of the old guard conservative governors led by that family of marble magnates.

The liberal wing of the GOP - the “Gibson-Aiken Wing,” comprised of Brattleboro's Ernest W. Gibson Jr. and Putney's George D. Aiken, who came to power in the 1930s and 1940s - was now ascendant after a decade-long lull.

At same time, Terry said the Gibson-Aiken philosophies were not that far away from what Democrats believed.

“When it became clear the liberal Republican strain was going to be again successful, it made it easier for people to vote Democratic,” said Terry. “And all the unrest in the Republican Party gave Hoff the opening he needed.”

The Democratic Party leadership sensed that Hoff would be their strongest candidate in 1962, and settled on him as their gubernatorial nominee. With Hoff joining Rutland attorney Frederic Delaney Jr. as a candidate for lieutenant governor, the Democrats had what they thought was a dream ticket: two young and handsome war veterans who epitomized the energy and optimism of President Kennedy's New Frontier.

Hoff started campaigning early that year, but tragedy struck when Delaney was killed in a car accident in October. It was too late to find another candidate for lieutenant governor, so Hoff had to go it alone for the last month of the campaign.

* * *

While he was as charismatic as Keyser was colorless, Hoff still had to overcome one huge hurdle: the reluctance of many Vermonters to vote for any Democratic candidate for any office, from state representative to the presidency.

The solution, Terry said, was the Vermont Independent Party (VIP), a splinter party started by two prominent Republicans, Brattleboro attorney A. Luke Crispe and Bennington's T. Garry Buckley.

Crispe and Buckley were seeking a license to operate a thoroughbred racetrack in southern Vermont, and both told Keyser if they, or any other group of Vermont investors, didn't get the license, they would work to make sure he didn't get re-elected.

Keyser granted the license for the Green Mountain Race Track in Pownal to a Rhode Island group, and Buckley and Crispe made good on their threat. They formed the VIP, and made Hoff the party's nominee for governor.

“This was important, for it gave people a way to vote for a Democrat without checking the box for a Democrat,” said Terry.

The Buckley and Crispe gambit worked. Keyser received 60,035 votes on the Republican line, the only line on the ballot he was listed under. Hoff received 56,196 votes on the Democratic line, more than 3,200 votes from the VIP, and slightly fewer than 1,900 votes under the Independent Democrat line. Hoff had won with 50.6 percent of the vote, pulling in just 1,348 more votes than Keyser.

Hoff became the first Democrat since before the Civil War to be elected governor. Keyser, who at 33 was the youngest person to be elected governor in Vermont, never ran for public office again.

* * *

Terry said that, when Hoff took office, there were three things on his to-do list: reapportion the legislature, reorganize the executive branch, and regionalize local government.

When he took office, Hoff famously said that Vermont, “with a population of less than 400,000 persons […] has 800 school directors, 246 road commissioners, and 246 overseers of the poor. It's ludicrous, utterly ridiculous, and wasteful. It may be political suicide, but I am determined to end this sort of provincialism.”

“The urgency to change was clear,” said Terry. “And Hoff succeeded in getting two of the three things he wanted.”

The first goal, which consumed most of his first term in office, was streamlining government.

Terry said that before Hoff, governors had very little control over state government. This power was invested in the 126 boards, councils, and commissions that ran state agencies.

Worse than the unwieldily executive structure was that there was no coordination or cooperation among state agencies. Each agency operated as its own fiefdom, and each did as it pleased.

Hoff started the process, but Terry said that Hoff's successor, Republican Deane Davis, completed the task of streamlining and consolidating state government.

It took the U.S. Supreme Court to change the makeup of the Vermont Legislature, and again, it was Crispe and Buckley who pushed things along. They sued the state, charging that the 246-member house was so malapportioned that it violated the equal protectional cause of the U.S. Constitution.

Another case, Reynolds v. Sims, was heard ahead of Buckley v. Hoff, and settled the matter in 1964 once and for all. The one-town-one-seat system had to be eliminated, and the following year it was.

“That was when the Hoff Era really began,” said Terry. “After reapportionment, it was hard to stop the momentum for change that Hoff created.”

* * *

That era ended in 1970 with Philip Hoff's unsuccessful effort to unseat Winston Prouty as U.S. Senator. Aside from a short stint in the Vermont Senate from 1983 to 1989, he never did achieve the same political heights as he did in the 1960s, when, as the first governor in the state's history to serve three terms, he set Vermont on the path to modernity.

Then again, he really didn't need to realize those political achievements the second time around. Terry said Hoff's legacy is a secure one.

“He left office saying he finally 'got Vermont off the dime,'” Terry said. “He showed how government could solve problems and be a positive force in society.”

“We've since had governors with different points of view and different philosophies, but we don't have caretaker governors anymore,” he said.

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