Editor’s note: This essay by Greg Guma is from The Vermont Way: Restless Spirits and Popular Movement, a new study of the state’s evolution and influence slated for release in 2012. To find out more, visit The Vermont Way.
For Phil Hoff, one of Vermont’s breakthrough governors in the 20th century, the main job of an elected leader is to push the envelope of change. “You have to stand up for things,” he once told me, “and if that results in you being defeated, it’s a risk you take.”
Hoff was speaking from experience, the sweet and the bitter. After three terms as governor in the tumultuous 1960s, he was trounced in a 1970 run for the U.S. Senate by incumbent Republican Winston Prouty. The main reason, as he saw it,was his civil rights activism, particularly sponsorship of the Vermont-New York Youth Project, which brought black teenagers up from New York to work and play with white Vermonters.
“It was enormously successful for the participants,” he said. “But it wasn’t well understood, and all the latent racism began to emerge. There’s no question it defeated me in the Senate race.”
Civil rights activism wasn’t the only thing that made Hoff’s years as governor special. To start, he was the first Democrat elected in a century – after just one term in the House. It was rough going at first. Facing an overwhelmingly Republican Legislature, he thought there was little chance he would be re-elected.
“So, why not damn the torpedoes, which I did,” he said. “They (voters) wanted us to shake up the establishment.”
The Democratic Party had been gaining strength since 1952, when Burlington City Attorney Robert Larrow ran for governor. His 39 percent showing against an incumbent demonstrated the potential to attract moderate Republicans and win not only in urban areas but statewide. Frank Branon, a Franklin County senator, built on that base in subsequent elections.
The 1958 race between Bernard Leddy and Republican Robert Stafford was close enough for a recount, while William Meyer, a forester who ran a grassroots campaign, became the first Democratic congressman in a century. But Meyer was soon tarred as a “commie lover” for supporting non-intervention in the affairs of China and defeated after a single term by Stafford, who spent the next two decades in the House and Senate.
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Hoff was part of a bipartisan group of legislators known as the “young turks,” an alliance that included Republican Franklin Billings, a Rockefeller-connected lawyer from Woodstock, and Ernest Gibson III, son of a former governor, grandson of a senator. Hoff claimed that the state had been damaged by a century of one-party rule. The endorsement of Republicans like A. Luke Crispe,a former Gibson law partner from Brattleboro, and T. Garry Buckley helped him to victory. They and other dissident Republicans had joined with Democrats to form the Vermont Independent Party, a strategy for wooing voters away from F. Ray Keyser, the Republican incumbent.
Larrow, who ran for attorney general in 1962, was pushing for redistricting of Burlington and, more crucially, reapportionment of the state Legislature based on population. Since the founding of Vermont representation in its Legislature had been based on the principle of one town-one vote; in other words, a town with only a thousand residents had the same legislative weight as a growing city.
Basing legislative seats in the House of Representatives on population instead would clearly increase representation from urban, Democratic communities like Burlington and Brattleboro. At this point Democrats were winning about 40 percent of the popular vote statewide but had only 20 percent of the legislative seats.
On Jan. 23, 1963, Crispe filed a lawsuit arguing that representation on the basis of towns and counties violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. When it reached U.S. District Court, the name on the lawsuit was renegade Republican Garry Buckley. One problem the reformers had was the solidly GOP Legislature. But they had a friend who was perfect for the job of House Speaker. Just as Crispe filed the reapportionment lawsuit in Brattleboro, Republican Franklin Billings was elected House Speaker with every Democratic vote.
The U.S. Supreme Court eventually agreed with the arguments of Larrow, Crispe and Buckley and ordered the state Legislature to make the change. The transition officially began on May 14, 1965, when the House of Representatives voted to reduce its size from 245 to 150 seats and elect each member based on population rather than geography. Traditionalists warned that small towns would no longer have much influence on the state’s direction.
In 1966, Hoff appointed Larrow and Billings to the Superior Court. In the 1970s another Democratic governor, Thomas Salmon, elevated both to the state Supreme Court. Buckley eventually became lieutenant governor.
During Hoff’s three terms, the nature and scope of state government dramatically changed. Those years brought a major expansion of the state college system, the state’s takeover of welfare, urban renewal projects, the first rehabilitation programs at Vermont prisons, and reluctant acceptance that a regional approach to planning was needed. As Joe Sherman put it in “Fast Lane on a Dirt Road,” “Vermonters seemed willing, at least for a while, to go with the irresistible tug of the American century. They were just climbing on board 60 years late.”
Hoff also pushed for a statewide development plan. “It probably wasn’t very good,” he admitted later, “but no one had ever done it before.” Acknowledging “uncontrolled” growth, he argued that dependence on local tax revenues to support schools was one of the main culprits.
Historic moments like the one Hoff seized are few and far between, at least he thought so at the time. “But I also like to believe that we’re closer to one now than a lot of people think,” he said.
Correction: A. Luke Crispe was not appointed to the Superior Court by Hoff, as was stated in the original version of this story. Hoff did appoint Republican Franklin Billings as well as Democrat Robert Larrow, a reflection of the cross-party alliance that had led to reapportionment. The story was corrected on May 7 at noon.
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