Former Democratic Gov. Philip Hoff Dies At 93

Apr 27, 2018

It was announced in the Vermont House of Representatives on Friday morning that former Gov. Philip Hoff had died. His death brings into focus an era more than five decades ago, when for the first time in over a century, Vermont elected a Democrat to be governor. 

Hoff was born in Massachusetts in 1924. He served in the Navy during World War II and moved to Burlington with a new law degree in the early 1950s. In 1960, Hoff was elected to the Vermont House of Representatives.

In 1962, at age 38, Hoff defeated Republican incumbent F. Ray Keyser, Jr., and became the first Democratic governor of Vermont since the 1850s. Hoff celebrated his victory in Winooski, declaring "A hundred years of bondage, broken!"

A charismatic politician in the style of John F. Kennedy, Hoff’s election signaled a sea change in Vermont politics where Republicans dominated political life. 

On Nov. 19, 1962, Gov.-elect Philip Hoff, right, was joined by his wife Joan to meet with President John F. Kennedy at the White House.
Credit John Rous / Associated Press

In commenting on Hoff’s career, former statehouse reporter Chris Graff wrote that there was no single watershed issue that illuminated the Hoff era, but rather a can-do mood across the state.

"Phil Hoff brought a spirit, that Vermonters could do things," Graff said. "He opened up the possibilities that Vermonters hadn’t considered in the past. If you asked Phil Hoff, what was the most important thing that came out of his administration, he would tell you that it wasn’t any one thing — it was a spirit. That it was this sense that anything was possible."

During Hoff's gubernatorial tenure, a court-ordered reapportionment in 1965 ended Vermont's "one-town, one-seat" era in the Statehouse.

Philip Hoff and his wife, Joan, pose in front of the Vermont Statehouse at Hoff's gubernatorial inauguration, which took place Jan. 17, 1963.
Credit Associated Press

Back in 1999, when Hoff spoke about his career at length to VPR's Bob Kinzel, he said he thought reapportionment produced a change that was unanticipated at the time.

"It resulted in a decided shift in political power," Hoff recalled in that conversation. "So it wasn’t just a shift from rural Vermont to urban Vermont, but it was, more importantly, a shift from rather conservative policies to a good deal more progressive policies.

"So much so, you know, that most people don’t understand this, but I think it’s pretty clear that Vermont, if not the most progressive state in the nation, is clearly one of them."

When Hoff was elected, each town ran its own welfare program, with some federal help, but no state involvement at all. The new governor was determined to change that system.

"Quite honestly, in some communities it was shameful the way people on poverty were treated — I mean we had poor farms, and I could go on," Hoff recounted to VPR in 1999. "But the other side of the coin is of course that it's, in some ways, it's understandable, because there just wasn’t the money. And so one of the first things we did was to take over the welfare system in its entirety, and relieve the towns of any responsibility for it."

Hoff also had tried to change the way education was funded in Vermont. He backed a statewide education funding system that did not pass, and raised state education funding support to about 40 percent.

A liberal, Hoff was the first Democratic official to split with then-President Lyndon Johnson over the Vietnam War, and he later campaigned around the country for Robert Kennedy during the 1968 presidential primary season.

This Jan. 9, 2003 photo, taken ahead of Jim Douglas' gubernatorial inauguration, features a number of former Vermont governors. From left: Howard Dean, Philip Hoff, Madeleine Kunin, Jim Douglas, Tom Salmon and F. Ray Keyser.
Credit Associated Press

In 1970, Hoff lost a run for the U.S. Senate against Republican incumbent Winston Prouty, a campaign that turned in part on the former governor's admission that he had a drinking problem.

Hoff returned to politics in the 1980s, serving three terms in the Vermont Senate. He also twice served as the Vermont Democratic Party chairman.

The three members of Vermont's congressional delegation all released statements following the news of Hoff's death.

Any summary of Phil Hoff’s life is an exercise in superlatives. He was a visionary, a trailblazer, a reformer and a transformative influence in both Vermont and on the national stage. He was an example of political courage to so many of us. Even his Kennedy-esque style was something new and fresh. To me, he was also a mentor, and a friend.

He had no patience for finger-to-the-wind politics. He put people first, and he modernized education, the judicial system and Vermont’s economic vitality in ways that have made lives better for generations of Vermonters.

"Phil Hoff was one of the great governors in Vermont history and one of the leading progressives of his era. History will remember him as a man of great courage who not only helped transform Vermont but was years ahead of his time in the fight for economic, social and racial justice."

"As our first Democratic governor in modern times, Phil Hoff was a groundbreaking leader in Vermont politics. He was a kind and decent man who cared deeply about our state and those less fortunate. He was a passionate and lifelong champion for social and economic justice and an early civil rights leader. Governor Hoff became a national voice of conscience in his courageous opposition to the Vietnam War, grounded in his distinguished military service as a member of the Greatest Generation."

The Vermont Democratic Party also issued the following statement on Twitter about Hoff on behalf of current chairman Terje Anderson:

"His career of public service extended well past his time as Governor. Those of us who had the honor of knowing and working with him during his lifetime were truly privileged, and the entire state is richer for his lifetime of public service."

Details of funeral arrangements have not been made public.

Update 5:10 p.m.: This post was updated to include more details about Hoff's life and career in politics. Former VPR host and reporter Steve Delaney helped prepare this remembrance.