Hoff’s Election Changed Party Tradition in the State

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(Host) In the 1940s and 50s, Vermont was regarded as the most Republican state in the nation. No Vermont Democrat had won an important statewide election since before the Civil War. Finally, in 1958, Democrat William Meyer of West Rupert won election to Congress and Vermont’s Democratic Party began to stir.

The party’s most historic victory came forty years ago, in 1962. Vermonters were reminded of the anniversary this week with the release of audio tapes documenting Hoff’s conversations with then-President Lyndon Johnson. The election of Phil Hoff returned the Democrats to the Governor’s office after a 106-year drought.

VPR’s Steve Zind looks at the factors that led to Hoff’s victory.

(Zind) In 1945, one newspaper editor described Vermont’s Democratic Party as “an exclusive coterie of losers.” Its candidates were obscure figures and indifferent campaigners. Bennington businessman Alex Drysdale’s 1954 Democratic run for lieutenant governor was typical. Len Wilson was a reporter for the Bennington Banner:

(Wilson) “I went all over the state with Alex, driving his car. I would stop at a gas station to get gas. Alex would get out and he’d talk to the people. Then he’d get back in the car and I’d say, ‘Alex, you never told them who you were or what you were running for.’ (laughs) ‘Oh, well,’ he’d say.”

(Zind) Six years later, Wilson himself was the Democratic Candidate for lieutenant governor. By then the party and the state had begun to change. Wilson says Hoff, a Protestant from Massachusetts, represented a departure from previous Democratic candidates who were French-Canadian or Irish Catholics:

(Wilson) “So it began to give us a somewhat different image of what the Democratic Party constituency was, and that constituency was changing over the 50’s through the big influx of people from down country, who brought Democratic Party affiliation along with them, or sympathy at least.”

(Zind) Hoff’s aggressive campaign style was also new to the party. Art Ristau was Associated Press bureau chief in Vermont in the early 1960s. He later worked in the Hoff administration. Ristau says the Democrats sensed Hoff could win. Four years earlier, their candidate Bernard Leddy had nearly won the gubernatorial election without campaigning:

(Ristau) “He didn’t want to be governor. Bernard had a big family to support. In fact, the joke around Burlington was, ‘Gee that was a close call, wasn’t it Bernard? you almost won!’ And of course, Phil’s approach to the job was very different. He wanted very much to be governor.”

(Zind) While Democrats were coming together around Hoff, the Republican Party was undergoing a rancorous split. Incumbent Governor F. Ray Keyser Jr. wasn’t popular with the liberal wing of the party. Mallary was a freshman Republican legislator in 1962. He says some liberal party members found Hoff more to their liking than their own candidate. Two of them formed the Vermont Independent Party and put Hoff on the ballot as the party’s only candidate. Mallory says the liberal Republicans’ efforts on Hoff’s behalf were significant:

(Mallary) “The number of votes that they got for Phil Hoff was the margin of victory.”

(Zind) Hoff’s energy, personality and good looks also helped win votes. Art Ristau says Hoff used billboards as an effective tool to convey a Kennedy-esque image:

(Ristau) “Billboards served him very, very well in 1962. And the slogan beside this very, very large blown up picture on the billboard of this really handsome blonde guy was, ‘Hoff: Now is The Time.'”

(Zind) Hoff’s time arrived in the early hours after election day as he waited in Winooski for the results that were to push him over the top. As journalist Steve Terry wrote in the Rutland Herald, Hoff “was standing in an open convertible, waving his hands in a victory sign…a lone Winooski policeman was trying to cope with a delirious celebration, and Hoff was shouting over and over,’A hundred years of bondage broken!'”

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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