Celebrating the 90th Birthday of Vermont's 73 Governor, Phil Hoff

Celebrating The 90th Birthday
Of Vermont’s 73rd Governor,
Phil Hoff

 

Mr. President, the Senior Senator from Vermont and I are pleased to call the Senate’s attention to a milestone in the life of a singular figure in the modern era of our state, former Governor Philip Hoff.

Phil Hoff, the 73rd Governor of the State of Vermont, made extraordinary contributions to the State of Vermont, and to our Nation.  We join all Vermonters in wishing him well as he marks his 90th birthday.

Many view Phil Hoff as the founder of progressive politics in Vermont.  His historical legacy to the state of Vermont, to New England, and to the Nation, is enormous.

Phil Hoff was an intrepid leader at a time when Vermont’s state government was in need of sweeping reform. Today, at a time when all too often “political courage” seems a contradiction in terms, we believe many of us would do well to look at the example Governor Hoff set while serving for three terms as Vermont’s governor. Phil Hoff always put the people of Vermont ahead of advancing his own career. Time and time again, he made decisions based on what he believed was right for the people of our state. He had a vision of a better and more just society, and he acted on that vision rather than on the basis of narrow political expediency. He was a leader, seeing the future and piloting Vermont toward it, always guided by a deep commitment to democratic practice and social justice.

His long career of public service began during World War II, when Phil Hoff put his studies on hold and joined the Navy, eventually joining the submarine service. Hoff served on the U.S.S. Sea Dog in the Pacific Theater, going on a number of combat tours in the dangerous waters near the main islands of Japan.

While in naval training in New London, Connecticut, a friend set him up on a blind date with a Connecticut College student. Her name was Joan Brower, and she and Phil would be married after the war, a marriage that was to last for six rich decades. Joan, in a variety of ways, including her strong efforts in fighting for quality education for Vermont youth,  played an important role in  Vermont.

After his graduation from Cornell Law School, Phil and Joan moved to Burlington, Vermont in 1951. Deeply committed to social justice, Hoff became involved in Democratic Party politics in the Green Mountain State, even though he grew up in a Republican family.

Phil Hoff was elected to the Vermont House of Representatives in 1960. He and a number of young freshman legislators, most of whom were under 40 and veterans of World War II, formed a group referred to by the press as the “Young Turks.” They worked together to breathe new life into the state Legislature and pass important reforms. This experience – both its hopes and its disappointments – motivated him to run for Governor in 1962.

For more than 100 years, the Republican Party dominated Vermont’s politics, controlling both houses of the Legislature and the governor’s office. Even in the landslide Presidential election of 1936, Vermont joined Maine as the only state that voted against President Roosevelt and his New Deal policies, leading to the revision of the old adage (referring to Maine being a bellwether state regarding presidential politics) from “As Maine goes, so goes the nation,” to “As Maine goes, so goes Vermont.”

A century of one-party rule left Vermont badly in need of reforms that could bring state government, the state’s education system, and the state’s economy into the second half of the 20th century.

Phil Hoff was not only a breath of fresh air, but a gale force of change. Governor Hoff achieved sweeping political reforms in a state where not much had changed in decades. When he took office, the Vermont House of Representatives was still apportioned by town, meaning Burlington, with a population of over 40,000, had the same representation as some of the smaller towns around the state with populations of less than a hundred. Assisted by Supreme Court decisions that declared representation should be based on “one man, one vote,” Hoff pushed through legislation that apportioned House seats by population. In addition, Hoff successfully insisted on repealing Vermont’s poll tax, expanding access to voting for all Vermonters.

Governor Hoff made reforming the state’s education system a top priority. At the time, Vermont was undergoing a significant transformation, both demographically and economically. Phil Hoff  quadrupled state aid to public schools, and organized the three state teachers colleges into a new, revitalized state college system that better met the needs of Vermont’s students. That system endures to this day and, with the addition of the state’s technical college and its extensive community college, is essential to the future of those seeking higher education.

Under Governor Hoff’s leadership, Vermont’s judicial system was modernized. Always a path breaker and an advocate for justice, Phil Hoff led the way to Vermont becoming one of the first states to abolish the death penalty.

No aspect of state government was beneath his notice, and he took Vermont forward in many ways, including terminating the outdated “Overseer of the Poor” system of welfare administration. He established the Vermont District Court, the Judicial Nominating Board, the Vermont State Housing Authority, and the Vermont Student Assistance Corporation (VSAC).

Phil Hoff was a practical legislator, but he never relinquished his vision of a better future. Although some of his proposals were not enacted or realized during his administration, they formed the basis of future reform. After he left office, the sweeping reorganization of Vermont’s state government was finally enacted, largely along the lines that Hoff had envisioned. In addition, the land-use laws first proposed by Governor Hoff were later enacted, thus preserving Vermont’s rural landscape for future generations.

Governor Phil Hoff not only had vision, he had great political courage. His commitment to do what was right, and not just what was expedient, placed him in the nation’s leadership on the major issues of his time. Phil Hoff opposed the Vietnam War, long before it was easy to do so. He was the first governor to criticize the President’s policy of waging that increasingly endless war.

Phil Hoff took a strong stance fighting for civil rights. He formed a state civil rights commission. Concerned about racial justice, he co-founded the Vermont-New York Youth Project with New York City Mayor John Lindsay, which brought together minority students from the city and Vermont students to work together on summer projects at several Vermont colleges.

Though his commitment to civil rights, and to a less imperial foreign policy were highly controversial at the time, they created a sense – both in Vermont and in the nation – that Vermont could be a national leader in shaping a more just and peaceful society.

When, all over America, people turn to Vermont and see a small state leading the way in innovative health care, in energy efficiency, in the fight for social justice, in moving toward a progressive future instead of regressing into a past built out of reactionary fantasies, it is the legacy of Phil Hoff that they are encountering.

Vermonters today embody his example, and consistently move along the path that Phil blazed.

It is our great pleasure to call Philip Hoff a friend. For us he remains, always, an inspiration. Leading Vermont into the contemporary era, he redefined our state and established the foundation for Vermont to become a national leader on issues, ranging from health care and education to the environment to civil rights.

In his first inaugural address as governor of Vermont, Phil Hoff said, “The people of Vermont have clearly said that they don't want to continue with the old ways, and if we fail to respond to forces at work in our society, we face a bleak future.” Those words, true then, are still true today. Phi Hoff, an inspiration then, remains an inspiration today.