“As for smoking, I finally beat that nasty habit last year,” Vermont State Sen. and former Democratic Gov. Phil Hoff wrote me in 1986.
Hoff’s death last week at age 93 brought out widespread recollections of him overcoming tremendous odds in different areas. Not only did he defy history in 1962 by winning election as Vermont’s first Democratic governor in 108 years, but he later faced and defeated a severe drinking problem.
In doing and being very public about it, Hoff closed the curtain on any chances he may have had as a player in national politics.
Having conquered alcoholism more than a decade before, Hoff had overcome another addiction—and added his hope that I would similarly end my own cigarette habit.
“And Phil smoked so much that his portrait in the State Capitol shows him holding a butt,” former Republican Gov. Jim Douglas told me.
Born in Massachusetts and raised in a Republican family, Philip Henderson Hoff interrupted his studies at Williams College to see action in the U.S. Navy during World War II. Upon his discharge, he finished his studies at Williams and earned a law degree at Cornell University. He settled in Burlington, Vermont because “[t]his is where I want to raise my kids.”
Hoff also made a decision to become a Democrat because he felt that his new party had better solutions to the problems of the post-war world.
In 1960, he was elected state representative. Two years later, running on the slogan “Now Is The Time,” Hoff sought the governorship by saying the Green Mountain State was changing and needed major overhauls in everything from its education to highways.
Vermont was indeed changing—growing by 40,000 since 1950 and another 55,000 in the 1960’s. As the Burlington Free Press noted, “many of the new Vermonters came to work at the growing IBM plant in Essex Junction, or drawn to the state’s rural character.”
In an upset that drew national attention, Hoff unseated one-term Republican Gov. F. Ray Keyser, Jr—at 35, the nation’s youngest governor, but was once described by a fellow Republican as “the oldest young man I ever met in my life.”
As his state’s first-ever Democratic governor and the only candidate ever to unseat a sitting governor in a general election, Hoff was an overnight political star. On November 19, he and wife Joan were called to Washington to meet with his political hero, President John F. Kennedy. Often likened to JFK, the young Hoff never discouraged the comparison.
For all his new ideas on the campaign trail, Gov. Hoff realized there was a lot he didn’t know about state government. As he told reporters, “I’m just trying to find out what in hell we’ve got so we can decide what to do about it.”
He did. Working with a Republican-ruled legislature, Hoff oversaw a regional school system (in which many towns joined into union school districts), an omnibus prison reform package, and early pollution control and environmental laws. A passionate civil rights advocate, the governor started the Vermont-New York Youth Project, which brought black teens from New York City to summer programs with Vermont youth.
Re-elected handily to two-year terms in 1964 and ’66, Hoff then took a brief sabbatical from politics to prepare for his next move: a race for the U.S. Senate in 1970 against two-term Republican Winston Prouty.
Running on his record as a reformer while governor and an opponent of the Vietnam War, Hoff at first seemed even money to unseat Prouty. But “over the fence gossip” began that in his twilight days as governor, Hoff was often late for meetings and at times smelled of liquor.
At a Republican fund-raising dinner, State Senate President Walter “Peanut” Kennedy joked that Hoff was a popular governor and added “You’ve seen him plastered—all over the landscape.”
Four days later, Hoff told a standing-room-only news conference he had a drinking problem but was getting it under control. He eventually lost to Prouty by a margin of 3-to-2.
“I think I would have been a force in the U.S. Senate,” he later said, “I think I would have done well.”
Following his defeat, his battle to avoid alcohol was finally won. He resumed his law practice but was clearly bored. Like John Quincy Adams serving in the U.S. House after serving as president, Hoff won election to the state senate in 1982. For six years, he was sought out for political advice by lawmakers of both parties.
Having once described himself as “the only Democrat in my administration,” Phil Hoff was a pivotal player in changing Vermont from a Republican to a Democratic state. In beating tremendous odds to do so, he proved he was what he was in his private life: an overcomer.
A footnote: In 2002, sixteen years after Hoff’s admonition to me, I finally kicked the habit and smoked my last cigarette.