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New Book Explains Vermont's Left Turn

Alums team up with professor emeritus to shed light on how Gov. Hoff ended 100 years of Republican rule

The election of Philip Hoff in 1962 as Vermont’s first Democratic governor in more than 100 years was one of those nights in the Green Mountain State when you remember exactly where you were. Sophomore Stephen Terry ’64 was listening on the radio in Delta Psi while his friend and future journalism colleague Anthony Marro ’65 was in the thick of the celebration in downtown Winooski as Hoff yelled from his Cadillac, “One hundred years of bondage broken!”

“It was very exciting,” recalls Terry, who later worked with Marro at the Vermont Press Bureau. “You sensed even at that young age that there was a pretty important event that just happened in Vermont. Both of us had been born and raised here, so it was just very different to pick up a newspaper and see a Democrat being elected governor.”

Marro, who went on to work as a reporter for the New York Times, Newsweek and Newsday, where he won two Pulitzer Prizes as a reporter on an investigative team and led the paper to a dozen more as editor, has a different vantage point. “I went down with some friends to check it out and the place was mobbed. It was cold and dark and it was quite exciting. Hoff showed up in an open convertible, and there were no troopers around so a couple of us jumped in the back seat and drove around town and waved to the crowd along with Hoff (a photo of Marro in the car can be seen in William Doyle’s The Vermont Political Tradition: And Those Who Helped Make It).   

The significance of Hoff’s victory is captured in a new book by Terry, Marro, and their history professor Samuel B. Hand, now professor emeritus, titled Philip Hoff: How Red Turned Blue in the Green Mountain State (2011, Castleton State College). It chronicles the rapid rise of Hoff, who moved to the state only a few years earlier to start a law career, and how his stunning victory had national implications and was the tipping point for the only state in America to have supported every Republican presidential candidate since the founding of the Republican Party in 1854. Prior to Hoff’s victory, “Vermont could still claim to be the star that had never set in the Republican firmament,” write the authors.

Crafting a cohesive historical narrative

The book began as a series of articles written by Terry in 1969 while at the Rutland Herald where he became managing editor before leaving to serve as legislative assistant to U.S. Senator George D. Aiken and eventually as senior vice president at Green Mountain Power. Hand, who compiled and co-edited The Essential Aiken with Terry in 2004, and Sally Johnson (Terry’s wife who passed away in 2010 and to whom the book is dedicated) edited the series into a monograph that was privately published and free of charge to those who were interested. In 2005, they decided to turn it into a book.

The level of detail and quality of storytelling is impressive and in many ways serves as a history of Vermont in the 1960s and 70s. Marro credits Hand with teaching him the importance of telling stories well -- something he carried with him throughout his career. “Sam was a great lecturer, and he really brought things to life. In an American history class I took he described how a cow got from Texas to the stock yards by going across these endless prairies and over rivers. By the time it got to Chicago he’d say, ‘Would you want to eat one of these things?’ He told the story so vividly of what happened on these cattle drives. I always tried to be as vivid as I could when describing things.”

Hand, who conducted the bulk of the historical research, drew from his past books The Star That Set: The Vermont Republican Party, 1854-1974 (2002) and The Vermont Encyclopedia (2003), which he wrote with Ralph Orth, emeritus professor of English. Hand credits Marro, who along with Terry conducted fresh interviews and sifted through oral histories in the UVM archives, with editing and re-writing and making it “much smoother.”

“It’s well grounded in history, but it’s written in a journalistic style,” says Marro. “It wasn’t intended to be just a biography of Hoff, but rather a story about a transformative period in the history of the state.” Terry said that in order to accomplish that, he and Marro had a strong sense that they “needed to place it in the context of what Vermont was then, and what its immediate past history had been leading up to the period that led Hoff to be a transformational figure.”

Prior to Hoff’s election, the book portrays Vermont as a “small and sleepy rural state where change came about only slowly and grudgingly.” But change was in the air with the election of John F. Kennedy, and Hoff, young, handsome and energetic, rode it all the way to Montpelier. Considering that a recount was required to confirm that Republican Robert T. Stafford beat Democrat Bernard Leddy in 1959 in the closest gubernatorial race in state history, it wasn’t a total shock that Hoff won. “Even Hoff said himself that it would have happened without him, but it would have been a slower process,” says Terry.

Changing demographics and race in Vermont

Vermont’s changing demographics were part of the reason for  Hoff’s victory as well as the fact that he wasn’t Catholic, according to the book, which includes commentary from UVM Professor Raul Hilberg, author of The Destruction of the European Jews, who recalls initially being resistant to come to Burlington because he expected to find discrimination against Jews. Instead, he found that “the discrimination was directed at Catholics.”

An entire chapter, “Civil Rights in the Whitest State,” a major part of Hoff’s legacy, is dedicated to race relations in Vermont and at UVM. Some of Hoff’s diversification programs were ahead of their time -- and his electorate -- according to Hand, who attributes Hoff’s failed bids to win the 1970 U.S. Senate bid. Terry says the same can be said for Hoff’s loss to Deane C. Davis in 1969 governor’s race. “There were a lot of Vermonters saying, ‘Boy, we need to pause a bit and take stock to see where we are,’” says Terry. “A lot of Hoff’s blue collar backers became very concerned that these programs weren’t going to be temporary and would result in a permanent influx of urban blacks who were going to compete for jobs with them,” adds Marro. “Hoff says he underestimated the amount of negative feedback he received.”

Hoff, now 87, would pass an alarming amount of legislation following a stagnant period of "caretaker" governors. He eliminated the Overseers of the Poor, locally appointed officials who were responsible for poverty in their communities, and had the state take over welfare in 1968. Marro says Hoff wanted to do the same with local education by pushing for stronger schools and fewer of them, which actually helped push the union school movement that became supervisory unions. “So this whole effort to improve and consolidate local education in Vermont certainly has their roots in what Hoff started.”

Terry says that although the total reorganization of the executive branch took place after Hoff left office, it should have taken place when he was still there. “Hoff wanted to reapportion the legislature, reorganize government and regionalize major things like highways, welfare and education. Reapportionment got done and regionalization got started. I would also give Hoff credit for planting the seeds by passing the legislation for what we now know as regional planning in Vermont.”

Hoff somehow accomplished all this with a Republican-dominated legislature. “There was much more bipartisan cooperation in those days than there is now,” Marro points out. “There were Republicans who did not stand in the way of a good idea."

A liberal tradition that continues today

One of the many political figures to show up at a recent book signing was former Governor Howard Dean. Terry and Marro argue that Hoff’s election turned Vermont into a two-party state that has continued to move left of center ever since. “Dean showed up at the book signing out of the respect for what Hoff had done as a forerunner to the kind of Vermont that eventually allowed someone like him to become a national figure,” says Terry. “It wasn’t until the late 70s or 80s that our legislature started to move away from a one-party legislature to a more competitive one. Now we’ve gone the other way, and it’s a heavily Democratic dominated legislature.”

Interestingly, Vermont has alternated between Democratic and Republican governors ever since Hoff’s election. The state’s national perception as a liberal bastion has increased more dramatically, however. Marro recalls seeing an emergence of stories about Dean being a raving liberal during his last year as editor of Newsday in 2003, but says that when he returned home to Vermont, he couldn’t find anyone who thought Dean was liberal.

“I do think it’s fair to say that in the 40-year period Vermont certainly became much more focused on what we now know as the liberal tradition in Vermont,” says Terry. “When Tony and I looked at the demographic changes in the decades of the 60s and 70s when Vermont grew by about 14 to 15 percent and the interstate highway was built, we had a lot of new faces and ideas in Vermont. At the same time, the government in Vermont became a much more activist institution as it dealt with environmental policy, energy policy, education policy. There was a climate for change and Hoff brought in fresh ideas and fresh approaches, and it really changed the psyche of Vermont.”