BY STEPHEN C. TERRY
It is long past the time when Vermont should pause and honor the many significant contributions to this state by former Gov. Philip H. Hoff.
Quite simply, the Vermont we know today — a state where human dignity and a strong culture of community support — had its seeds planted in the six years (1963-1969) that Philip Henderson Hoff served as Vermont’s first popularly elected Democratic governor in 109 years.
Vermont’s first Democratic Governor, John Robinson of Bennington, was elected by the Legislature. He served a single year from October 1853 to October 1854.
So, after more than a century of solid Republican rule, Hoff, then the sole House member from Burlington, surprised the nation when he ran in 1962 for governor and defeated incumbent GOP Gov. F. Ray Keyser of Chelsea. It was the last time an incumbent governor has been turned out of office by Vermont voters.
Now, almost 60 years later, Vermont has evolved from a Republican dominated state to a competitive one that is dominated by Democrats in the Legislature and in which a majority of Vermont’s voters consistently cast Democratic or Progressive votes for all state offices, except the governorship.
Vermonter’s strong, unpredictable, independent streak still prevails in our elections. It is a remarkable fact that Vermont, known nationally as a Deep Blue State, has since 1969 elected nine Governors; and during this last half century, each time there has been a vacancy it has switched between Republicans and Democrats.
That said, it is the leadership from the Governor’s office that can and does influence the way Vermonters think and act regarding their civic responsibilities.
In my view, no one Vermont governor in modern Vermont has done more to change the way Vermonters think and act than Governor Hoff.
I say that by freely confessing to a conflict of interest. In 2011, I was joined by the late UVM Professor Samuel B. Hand, and long-time newspaper colleague, Anthony Marro, in writing a book about Hoff, “Philip Hoff – How Red Turned Blue in the Green Mountain State.”
Our book made the argument that Hoff led Vermont in the 1960s to advocate and to create — with the backing of the then Republican Legislature — the activist state government that we experience today for the benefit of our populace.
Hoff presided over reapportionment of the Legislature, judicial reform, large increases in state funding for local and higher education, elimination of the death penalty, banning of billboards on our state highways, creation of the State College System, a strong push for civil rights, a state-run welfare system that ended the local overseer of the poor, and insightful early thinking on behalf of the environmental movement.
These and many other state government changes, started in the Hoff Years, have often resulted in Vermont being viewed as a leader in our nation among the 50 states.
The most recent, and meaningful, example is that Vermont leads the nation in the percentage of its population that has been vaccinated from COVID. This accomplishment is rooted in our adherence to facts and acceptance of personal responsibility — what is best for the community, not politics.
Hoff was no shrinking violet on national issues either, as he became the first Democratic governor in 1968 to break with President Lyndon Johnson over the Vietnam War by throwing his support to Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, D-N.Y.
Yet, Hoff’s imprint upon the Vermont we know today is largely forgotten. Other than the decision by former Castleton University President David Wolk, who named a new student residential building “Hoff Hall,” there is no other public recognition of our transformative former Vermont governor.
That can and should change in 2022. The Vermont Legislature has an opportunity to enact H. 209, which seeks to name the state office building located at 133 State Street after former Gov. Philip H. Hoff.
The building was purchased by the state in 1960 for state government functions after National Life Insurance Co. built a new corporate headquarters in another Montpelier location. The purchase in 1960 was a prudent move as the state government soon rapidly expanded to deal with a changing Vermont.
On occasion, state political leaders, like an enlightened governor, can seize the moment by encouraging legislation and policies that truly help people to live a better life. It is not always or immediately appreciated, but needs to be valued over time. That is how Philip H. Hoff governed. Today, we should remember his impact upon our quality of life, and we should honor his time as our governor as a pivotal chapter in Vermont history.
Indeed, it is time that the sterile name of “133 State St.” carries a new name chiseled in Barre granite: “Gov. Philip H. Hoff State Office Building.”
Editor’s note: Stephen C. Terry covered most of the Hoff Years as a Statehouse reporter from 1965 to 1969 for the Rutland Herald and Barre-Montpelier Times Argus. He lives in Middlebury.