“The Hoff Years,” that was what everyone called them, and with good reason. If you weren’t around during those years, you’d never understand the excitement generated by Phil Hoff, the bright young Burlington lawyer who in 1962 became the first Democrat elected governor of Vermont in more than a hundred years.
During his six years in office, Hoff dominated the politics of Vermont. Others had dominated the political spotlight before, but they had been Republicans. Hoff was a Democrat, and from the beginning it was clear he was going to do things in a different way.
He knew that the historic moment was his, and he intended to make good use of it. The election itself had shown that something was happening in Vermont, and Phil Hoff was the perfect person to lead the rush of change that was to follow.
After an early period of study, Hoff’s administration called for sweeping governmental reorganization, based on a view of Vermont as a state made up of regions, not just towns. The dominant power in Vermont at the time was the 246 town governments where most services such as education and public assistance were delivered.
But Hoff endorsed regionalism. Most significantly he called for a state welfare system to put an end to the local overseers of the poor, and boldly declared that Vermont schools should be consolidated into 12 regional districts. Noting that Vermont had 246 road commissioners, 246 overseers of the poor, and some 800 school directors statewide, Hoff declared the existing system “ridiculous and wasteful,” and said: “It may be political suicide, but I am determined to end this sort of provincialism.”
Actually, it wasn’t political suicide. Vermont was ready for modernization, and many of the reforms proposed by Hoff passed. Others stimulated change where there had been none for years.
Regionalism wasn’t political suicide for Hoff . But his gut decision to fight American racism probably shortened his political career. Hoff proposed a fair housing law and brought black ghetto youths to summer in Vermont in a cooperative program with New York City. Both decisions tapped into the rural racism that existed in Vermont and crystalized resentment that had been building against the Democratic governor since his election in 1962.
When he ran for the U.S. Senate in 1970, he was defeated by the conservative Republican stalwart Winston L. Prouty. The Hoff years were at an end — though Hoff’s deep desire to serve Vermont led him to the state Senate a few years later — a supporting role in which he served with distinction and integrity.
Hoff’s governorship launched an era of change and gave Vermont a reformed government capable of dealing with the challenges of the 20th and 21st centuries. Interestingly enough, his successor, the conservative Republican Deane Davis, though billed by the GOP as a return to the status quo, actually continued the broad reformist changes that were started by our first governor of the modern era — Phillip Hoff.
— Tom Slayton lives in Montpelier and is the editor of Vermont Life Magazine.