This commentary is from Ralph W. Wright, a Democrat from Bennington who served as Speaker of the Vermont House of Representatives for 10 years. His book is called “Inside the Statehouse: Lessons from the President.
— An introduction: I wrote a little tribute to Phil Hoff. Perhaps you would consider publishing it. I had known Phil for over half a century and marveled at his unwavering, unwavering commitment to those less fortunate. His concern for the poor; seniors; and the sick among us have never been sidelined by peripheral considerations (read here: politics). I just thought people should be aware of how important he was in creating the Vermont we all love.
There should be a statue for Phil Hoff, sitting right next to Ethan Allen on the steps of the Capitol – or better yet, maybe on Church Street in Burlington.
Looking back on his six-year record as governor, it’s amazing what he’s accomplished. Just to mention that he was the first Democrat elected to the governorship since old John Robinson rode his mount to the Capitol in 1853 makes you cringe, “Who was that guy?”
The answer to that question should pretty much put him among the brazenest of the 81 Vermonters who ran and won the job.
His displeasure with “kidney governor” Ray Keyser came in the wee hours of the morning when Winooski finally filed his results. The small pocket of Vermonter Democrats had given Hoff all but 188 of them over 2,000 votes. Winooski, the town with the funny name, had crowned a king – “King Philip”.
The people of Vermont had never seen anything like it. This one-term House legislator had defeated not just any random or ordinary opponent, not just any embalmed incumbent, but the youngest governor to ever serve in Vermont. And, Monsignor, this so-called “King Philip” – well, he wasn’t just a democrat. He was one of those dopey do-gooder, fuzzy-headed liberal-type Democrats.
And beware, Hoff was not a “library liberal”. He was for real – and to their (you know who I’m referring to) chagrin, they would realize too late that they had grossly underestimated the young, handsome man who had acquired the derogatory label of ” flatlander”.
He was a “flatlander” of course – someone who had been a hometown football hero in Little Turner Falls, Mass.; served two years in the Pacific in a submarine, hunting and hiding from Japanese destroyers more than often (think about that for a moment); got out and made his way to Williams College, later earning a law degree.
So, flatlander or not, he had brains, brawn, and brass, and it’s a winning combo in just about every way — especially government.
What Hoff accomplished
Here, then, is a not-quite-complete list of the legislative accomplishments Governor Hoff oversaw during his six years in Montpellier. You are the judge.
- Creation of the Vermont Student Assistance Corp.
- Abolition of capitation.
- Independence of the Fish & Game department F.
- Beginning of the process of regionalization of public schools.
- Redistribution of the House of Representatives (reduced in size from 246 to 150, and it was to be an all-out war).
- Creation of the Legislative Council.
- Eliminated the death penalty (except for killing a cop) long before anyone else.
- Pronounced “Blue Lives Matter”.
- Review of the judicial system, regional airports and libraries.
- Creation of the Vermont Council on the Arts.
- Overhauled the welfare system, transferring 246 municipal overseers of the poor to the state.
- Joined Mayor John Lindsay in creating the New York/Vermont Youth Program – a summer exchange program that brought together 600 black New York students. It nearly doubled Vermont’s black population and in the process ripped off the crust of underlying racism that existed, causing everlasting damage to the young governor’s political prestige (Disclosure: I was director of an Upward Bound program at St. Johnsbury Academy at the time and the Governor persuaded me to take 30 of the Bronx kids. One still has my watch.)
- Condemned the conduct of the state police in the Irasburg Affair.
- Signing of the Human Rights Commission Act.
- Appointed a Governor’s Commission on Women.
- Creation of the Vermont ETV.
- Transformation of state college “normal” schools into the State College system.
- Signed into law two bills that would belie Vermont’s reputation for having more cows than people – the chilled cement tank/floor bills.
- Was the first governor to speak out against the war in Vietnam.
- Was the first governor to publicly oppose the re-election of Lyndon Johnson.
He had his failings and flaws.
His efforts to create a not-for-profit corporation to import and sell Canadian hydroelectricity never came to fruition. (Always not.)
He lost to Winston Prouty in 1970, primarily for his inability to overcome racial backlash on the New York/Vermont youth program – but not solely, as he publicly admitted mid-campaign that he had a problem with alcohol (and raise your hand if you think it’s a good idea politically); which, by the way, he successfully dealt with the last five decades of his life).
No matter where you land in terms of the group, it’s a litter that negates that he was special.
Just a brief story that tells you everything you need to know about Phil Hoff’s commitment to those less fortunate.
While attending the Bennington low-income advocacy group’s annual potluck in the 1980s, I was more than a little surprised to see Phil Hoff walk through the door of the sparsely attended event – without notice.
It was a long way from Burlington, especially on a weeknight, and I assumed he had been invited.
“Are you the guest speaker, Phil?” »
“No, not that I know.”
“So what are you doing here?”
“Well, they were by my side when I needed them and I haven’t forgotten them.”