Tuesday, May 01, 2018

Vermont Governor Phil Hoff, RIP


Working for Phil Hoff's failed Senate campaign in 1970 was my first semi-professional effort at electoral politics. Hoff was an up-and-coming Democrat who had shown unusual integrity by breaking early from President Lyndon Johnson's policy of escalating war in Vietnam. I believed then, as I believe now, that we win when we push such figures forward, even if we have to picket them afterward.

I'm doing something I seldom do here, just dropping in the whole of Hoff's obituary from a good source, Daily Kos Elections. They do a good job. I'll interpolate a few comments in italics:

Philip Hoff, whose 1962 win made him the first Democrat to serve as governor of Vermont in 108 years and only the second one ever, died Friday at the age of 93. Hoff had been elected to represent the entire city of Burlington in 1960: At the time, every one of the state's 246 towns and cities had its own state representative. He launched a bid against GOP Gov. F. Ray Keyser not long after, and the freshman legislator looked very much like a longshot. Keyser had won his first term 56-44 in 1960 as Richard Nixon was beating John F. Kennedy 59-41 in the state, and the GOP looked as strong as ever in a state that they had never lost in a presidential election since the party was formed.

However, Hoff benefited from his own Kennedy-esque charisma as well as a big split in the state GOP. A group of party leaders were frustrated with Keyser, and they were furious when he awarded a key contract for the Green Mountain Racetrack to an out-of-state firm. The group created the Vermont Independent Party and nominated Hoff (Vermont allows candidates to be nominated by multiple parties), which allowed Republicans unhappy with Keyser to vote for Hoff without actually having to vote Democratic. Hoff won 50.5-49.5 and shouted on election night, "A hundred years of bondage broken! A hundred years of bondage broken!"

As governor, Hoff successfully pushed to have the state House expanded to 150 members, abolished the poll tax, and increased state funding for education. Hoff also was a vocal supporter of the Civil Rights movement and started the Vermont-New York Youth Project, where black teenagers for Harlem were brought to the state for summer programs. The project was controversial in the Green Mountain State, where many white residents claimed he was just bringing inner-city problems to their backyard. He would later say he'd gone further than voters wanted, but said he had no regrets. Hard to imagine what it must have been like for the imported teenagers, but he was trying ....

Hoff was close to President Lyndon Johnson, who became the first Democratic presidential candidate to ever carry the state in 1964 as Hoff was being re-elected 65-35. Hoff won his third term 58-42 against Republican Richard Snelling, who would eventually become governor. But Hoff would split with his friend Johnson over the Vietnam War when he came out against escalating the conflict. Hoff did not seek re-election in 1968, and he briefly was touted as a possible vice presidential candidate; however, he took his name out of consideration when he learned his friend, Maine Sen. Edmund Muskie, was being eyed for the post.

Hoff ran for the Senate in 1970 against GOP incumbent Winston Prouty, but the campaign did not go well. By 1968, it was well-known in political circles that the governor had a drinking problem, and the GOP very much reminded voters about it. At a fundraising dinner, state House Majority Leader Walter Kennedy mentioned Hoff's heavy advertising and joked, "You've seen him plastered -- all over the landscape." Days later, Hoff acknowledged he had a problem as governor, but said he'd overcome it. Hoff ended up losing 59-40.

The campaign was an exercise in damage control; we had half a dozen young progressive Senators arrive to campaign for our candidate who they viewed as a peer. The most interesting was Indiana's Birch Bayh who shared his own history of getting sober. This was heady, self-revelatory, stuff at the time. Prouty died only a year later, trailed by rumors of alcoholism.

Hoff did get elected to the state Senate in 1982, where he would serve until 1989. The next year, Hoff was the first mainstream politician to back former Burlington Mayor Bernie Sander's successful independent bid for the U.S. House. While retired, Hoff remained active in politics, and he was an early supporter of both civil unions and later same-sex marriage.

I can't say I knew Phil Hoff; I was just a kid doing campaign work and learning the nuts and bolts, much of it from the AFL-CIO's Committee on Political Education (COPE). But I do remember one moving episode: I was assigned to escort Hoff on a sweep through central Vermont towns that had only recently seen their woolen mills run away to the South for lower labor costs. Locals were mired in stunned confusion, angry, and grieving for lost certainties. Phil was magnificent in these places, empathetic, and also able to remind people of the possibility of hope.

Some of Hoff's obituaries call him the "man who changed Vermont", presaging its current progressive politics. He was quite simply a decent guy.

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