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Eric Davis: Gov. Philip Hoff left a lasting legacy

Philip Hoff, who died last week, served as governor of Vermont from 1963 to 1969. He was an important figure in Vermont’s political history, and not only because he was the first Democrat ever elected governor.
When Hoff was inaugurated as governor in 1963, Vermont was a very different place from what it is today. The state’s economy depended heavily on dairy farming, logging, granite, marble and slate. The Legislature included a House of Representatives of 246 members, one from every city and town. The governor had little control over the executive branch, since most department heads were responsible to boards and commissions, not to the governor.
Public welfare was provided not by the state, but by local overseers of the poor. The interstate highway system had not been completed, and Vermont was seen as somewhat remote by people living in the metropolitan areas of the Northeast.
By the time Hoff left office in 1969, much had changed. Under pressure from the federal courts, the House had reapportioned itself into a 150-member body elected according to the one-person, one-vote standard. The overseers of the poor were replaced by state provision of social welfare services, many of which were federally funded as a result of President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society.”
The interstate highway system connected Vermont with the rest of the region. Ski areas found it easier to attract visitors from outside Vermont, and manufacturers found it easier to ship their products out-of-state. The state’s population grew by 14 percent between 1960 and 1970.
Hoff started a number of initiatives that were continued by his successors of both parties. He supported the reorganization of the many state departments, boards and commissions into agencies responsible to the governor. He recognized the need to control the growth and development facilitated by the interstate highways. He talked about the need for planning that growth, ideas that later made their way into Act 250. One of Hoff’s initiatives, school district consolidation, is still on the agenda of state government today.
Hoff was also known for his advocacy for civil rights and social justice policy, and for his early opposition to Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam War.
In 1962, the Vermont Democratic Party was in moribund shape, content to elect a few legislators and local officials, and to receive patronage appointments when a Democratic administration was in power in Washington. After six years as governor, Hoff left behind a Democratic Party that was strong enough — and had the voting support of enough new residents who had moved to Vermont in the 1960s — to elect another Democratic governor, Thomas Salmon, in 1972, and Vermont’s first Democratic U.S. senator, Patrick Leahy, in 1974.
An attorney in Burlington before he became involved in politics, Hoff first became visible on the statewide scene when he was elected Burlington’s single member of the Vermont House in 1960. During his time in the Statehouse, Hoff worked with others in Burlington to build a strong Democratic base in the city, out of which emerged two other Burlington Democrats, Madeleine Kunin and Howard Dean, who also went on to serve as governors of Vermont.
In many ways, Hoff was responsible for making Vermont a two-party state, rather than the Republican stronghold it had been between the formation of the Republican Party in the 1850s and the 1950s. This two-party competition continued through the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Only in the last 20 years or so has Vermont become the predominantly Democratic state, especially in elections for federal office, that it is today.
Philip Hoff will be remembered as someone who made significant contributions to both policy and politics in Vermont, and whose impact was felt for many years after he left the governor’s office.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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