Former Vt. Gov. Phil Hoff passes away at 93

Published: Apr. 27, 2018 at 11:43 AM EDT
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Former Vermont Governor Phil Hoff passed away Thursday. He was 93. His family says he died peacefully at his home in Shelburne. He is survived by his wife, Joan, four daughters, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Hoff burst onto Vermont's political stage in 1962. The one-term lawmaker pulled off a rare defeat of a sitting governor. When a legislative recount confirmed one of the narrowest victories in state history, Hoff was sworn in-- a liberal Democrat elected to lead a state that had known nothing but Republican governors for generations.

Hoff's six years as governor brought many changes to Vermont. Paralleling the Great Society era in Washington, Hoff ushered in a broad expansion of state government, launched an array of new social programs and more than doubled the state budget.

At the same time, Vermont began a building boom. The interstate highways brought more people and more commerce to the Green Mountains.

Hoff's policies won him a friend in the White House. Audio tapes released years later revealed Hoff had both a political and personal relationship with President Lyndon Johnson.

From a recording:

President Lyndon Johnson: I want to come back there if that's the way you treat your visitors.

Gov. Phil Hoff: I'll hold you to that.

President Lyndon Johnson: How is that sweet wife of yours?

Gov. Phil Hoff: She's great.

"He was a good deal older and I think I appealed to him in a son quality. I don't know that but I think that," Hoff told WCAX News.

Hoff decided not to run for a fourth term as governor in 1968. Two years later he was campaigning anew for a U.S. Senate seat. But his candidacy ran into trouble with a stunning public announcement. Hoff admitted what many close to him knew. He had a drinking problem.

"I've struggled with this thing for, for years," he said.

The man who conquered 100 years of Republican rule to win the governor's office could not conquer his personal demons.

"As I look back at this, I realize that probably I had a problem from the day I first took a drink of hard liquor. And it took me a long time to look myself squarely in the eye and admit that I had it," Hoff later said.

A month after his announcement, Hoff lost the Senate election to incumbent Winston Prouty.

But that was not the end of Phil Hoff's political career. He served in the state Senate during the 1980s, leading the cause for education funding reform.

And Hoff remained through the rest of his life a guiding force for Democrats in Vermont. He helped choose new leaders, craft party platforms and lobby legislation.

He was asked late in his life to judge the impact he had on the state.

"I'm not anxious to list my legacy. History will take care of that in one form or another," he said. "If you had to say a single thing, I would say it would be change. We came in and just turned this state right around. We didn't get everything done, but the bulk of it. The impact is still here today. Just totally changed the state. It was time."

Phil Hoff: a party man, a leader and an icon to the end.

Public officials are paying condolences to former governor Phil Hoff.

In a statement, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, said: "Marcelle and I are saddened by the passing of a great Vermonter and a true leader. But we are proud of and grateful to Phil Hoff for all he has done for our state and all of its people. He and his family are in our thoughts and in our prayers.

"Any summary of Phil Hoff’s life is an exercise in superlatives. He was a visionary, a trailblazer, a reformer and a transformative influence in both Vermont and on the national stage. He was an example of political courage to so many of us. Even his Kennedy-esque style was something new and fresh. To me, he was also a mentor, and a friend.

"He had no patience for finger-to-the-wind politics. He put people first, and he modernized education, the judicial system and Vermont’s economic vitality in ways that have made lives better for generations of Vermonters.

"He was an early voice of opposition to the Vietnam War, at a time when the war was still popular. I was proud, like him, to support other bold leaders, like Bobby Kennedy.

"He made a real difference in our state, touching and inspiring countless lives, in countless ways. I am blessed to be one of those whose lives he touched. I will always be grateful for his life, his example, and his friendship."

Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vermont, said: "Vermont and the nation lost a giant yesterday evening. As our first Democratic governor in modern times, Phil Hoff was a groundbreaking leader in Vermont politics. He was a kind and decent man who cared deeply about our state and those less fortunate. He was a passionate and lifelong champion for social and economic justice and an early civil rights leader. Governor Hoff became a national voice of conscience in his courageous opposition to the Vietnam War, grounded in his distinguished military service as a member of the Greatest Generation.

"Phil was a mentor of mine but more importantly, he was my friend. All those whose lives he touched will miss him, but he will not be forgotten. My heart goes out to Joan and their family."

T.J. Donovan, D-Vt. Attorney General, said: "My condolences to Joan Hoff and the entire Hoff family. Governor Phil Hoff was a giant in Vermont politics. He was the first Democrat elected Governor in over 100 years and he ushered in a new era of progressive leadership for our state. His record of public service from WWII veteran to Governor, his humility and compassion for all, served our nation and State well. He will be missed. Rest in peace Governor Hoff."

Rep. Johanna Donovan, D-Burlington, told WCAX News, "He was modern-thinking, he knew policy, he cared about people. He believed that it was part of our responsibility to take care of people and take care of our environment and to deliver services in the most efficient way."