Former governor Hoff celebrates 80th birthday

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(Host) Friends and supporters of will gather in Burlington Friday night for a testimonial dinner in celebration of former Vermont governor Phil Hoff on his eightieth birthday. Hoff’s three terms during the 1960s mark a pivotal time in Vermont history when an energetic young governor set the state on a new course.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports.

(Hoff) “I’ll be back about 1:15, Chris…”

(Zind) Phil Hoff still spends part of each day at his Burlington law office. Today he’s heading out to have lunch with a group of old friends who call themselves the Romeos, an acronym that stands for “Retired Old Men Eating Out.” This is the first Romeo lunch since the election.

(Hoff) “You can be sure that the election will be a significant part of our conversation.”

(Zind) At 80, four decades after he left the governor’s office, Hoff remains politically engaged, speaking out on issues and endorsing candidates. University of Vermont Political Science Professor Garrison Nelson.

(Nelson) “He has never left the arena. That’s one of the things that’s fascinating. He still speaks on public issues, he can still generate controversy. Phil is a person who has never shrunk from combat.”

(Zind) Hoff was elected at a time when Democrats were in ascension nationally. John F. Kennedy was president and Hoff’s youthful good looks and progressive policies fit the era. Garrison Nelson says when Hoff took office in 1962, the nation was moving forward. Vermont was not.

(Nelson) “Vermont had been in trouble. Vermont was in decline. I remember one of the cracks at the time was, ‘What’s green and goes backward?’ The answer was Vermont.”

(Zind) In the early 1960s, Vermont was a long trip from anywhere. Soon the interstate highway system would bring new people and new business to the state. As the population and state revenues grew, Hoff organized state government to help relieve towns of the growing financial burdens of social programs and schools. For the first time there was statewide planning in areas like the economy, education and land use.

William Kearns was Hoff’s Administration Secretary. Kearns says Hoff saw activist government as a force for good. He says one of Hoff’s greatest contributions was to bring openness to Vermont state government.

(Kearns) “Previous to that, if you watched the people going in and coming out of the governor’s office, it was basically the special interests: telephone companies, power companies. When Hoff came in, the place opened up and you’d see people in there who never expected to be in the governor’s office before.”

(Zind) Hoff was elected by a wide margin in his second term, helped by President Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory. On election night in 1964, Johnson called Hoff to congratulate him.

(Johnson) “By God, I wish you’d teach me how to run. You run like one of these Texas jackrabbits!”
(Hoff) “I have to admit it, Mr. President, but you ran ahead of me. Not much, but you did.”

(Zind) Hoff’s cordial relationship with Johnson ended when he became the first Democratic governor to break with the president over the war in Vietnam. Hoff was the first governor to win a third two-year term. He decided not to seek a fourth.

In 1970, he lost a race for U.S. Senate. There were personal problems and a controversial program he established in his third and final term as governor. The Vermont-New York Youth Project brought inner city kids to Vermont. At the time there were riots in the cities and racial issues were tearing at the country. Hoff’s detractors feared he was importing those problems to Vermont.

(Hoff) “That was badly misinterpreted on the part of significant numbers of particularly working people who were Democrats who turned against me. That probably had more to do with my loss than my position on Vietnam or even my struggle with alcohol.”

(Zind) Garrison Nelson says the time may be gone when progressive Democrats like Hoff can win elections. But Hoff’s not convinced the time has passed for his kind of politician.

(Hoff) “Not me. I think the Democratic Party as a party has made serious mistakes in not reaching out to the disadvantaged, to the lower people on the income ladder. I don’t think we’ve been doing that and as a result we’ve lost many of them. I think if we were true to our heritage we would start reaching out to them and trying to help them.”

(Zind) Hoff says above all he wants his administration to be remembered for caring for the less fortunate. He says he remains the same staunch and unapologetic liberal who became governor of Vermont 42 years ago.

(Hoff) “That’s who I am and I’ll never change.”

(Zind) For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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