Column: How Walter Paine Reshaped Vermont Politics

  • Former "Valley News" publisher Walter Paine answers a question during an interview in March 1988. Paine, who was also a part of the beginnings of the Montshire Museum of Science, died on Oct. 4, 2018. (Valley News - Larry Crowe) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Former Vermont Gov. Phil Hoff speaks in a 1982 photograph. Hoff, who served from 1963 to 1969, was the first Democrat elected governor in the state in 108 years. (Valley News photograph) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

For the Valley News
Saturday, October 13, 2018

He saved the Valley News from collapse, pushed the idea of regional planning and cooperation among towns on both sides of the Connecticut River, nurtured the whole idea of the “Upper Valley,” raised big money to build the Montshire Museum of Science and West Lebanon’s Kilton Public Library and performed a batch of other good deeds hereabouts over seven decades, but there is one thing he did that was hardly ever adequately recognized.

So before it is completely lost in the mists of history it must be noted that Walter Paine, who died last week at age 95, lit the fuse that would blow up the Vermont political landscape and end a century-long domination of public affairs in the state by a single party.

As was his manner in much of what he accomplished, he never claimed credit for triggering the toppling of a dynastic edifice. Even people who were close to Vermont politics in the early 1960s are hard-pressed to recall Paine’s role in events that would eventually reshape the governance structure in Montpelier and around the state.

In mid-1962, Chelsea Republican F. Ray Keyser was set to run for a second term as governor, and just about everyone figured he was a lock to roll over whomever the Democratic Party might put up to be the usual sacrificial lamb. A hotshot young lawyer from Burlington named Phil Hoff began nosing around about running for governor, and most of the people he contacted in the Democratic hierarchy were non-committal, even though Hoff during a term as Burlington’s lone representative in the Vermont House had been one of a small bipartisan caucus of reform-minded lawmakers looking to shake things up in the usually somnolent Assembly.

But Hoff expanded his exploration beyond the Chittenden County-Montpelier party axis and journeyed to the White River Junction area one day. There he was told he should head to Woodstock and meet with Walter Paine, the wealthy publisher of the Valley News, the local daily newspaper. Hoff and Paine spent a couple of hours discussing the situation and by the end Paine decided he liked the progressive message Hoff proposed to bring to a campaign if he was to run.

At that point, Hoff had virtually no money of his own or from anybody else to even start building a campaign apparatus. Paine saw the first imperative for Hoff as being development of some polling data to show whether he had even a glimmer of a chance to mount a successful campaign. Some positive information could shake loose some campaign money from donors if they thought such an investment could amount to something, Paine thought.

Where to get that seed money? Well, it was Walter Paine who sprang for it, and it would turn into a watershed development for a potential Hoff candidacy. Paine’s money would enable the hiring of Oliver Quayle, a nationally known political pollster, who promptly set to work developing the data that would determine whether Hoff had a chance.

The core finding in Quayle’s study was that a non-Catholic Democrat could be competitive against the incumbent Keyser. That was all Hoff, who came from a Protestant tradition, needed to convince himself that it was worth getting into the gubernatorial race. Religion half a century ago, of course, was a much larger factor in Vermont politics and, although it wasn’t a major overt factor in political discourse, it still figured in the private decision-making process of many voters. While encouraging Hoff to move forward with a candidacy, the Quayle findings also helped open the wallets of some heretofore reluctant key Democratic donors. It enabled hiring of staff, printing of signs and committing to modest media buys. In that era, the basic political advertising vehicles were Channel 3 in Burlington and, to a much lesser degree, the newspapers scattered around the state.

Few political handicappers that fall were ready to forecast a Hoff victory, but as October wore on his campaign gathered steam and the Republican establishment, long accustomed to rolling over weak and impoverished Democratic candidates, began to take notice, upping spending on Keyser ads. But when Election Night came and Hoff claimed a narrow victory, it was clear the course of Vermont political history was about to change.

The six Hoff years were highlighted by the complete overhaul of the Legislature to conform to the dictates of U.S. Supreme Court one-person, one-vote rulings, an action that helped pave the way for a swarm of progressive legislation that Hoff and like-minded legislative disciples would push to passage.

Walter Paine never talked much about his key role in moving Phil Hoff from obscurity to the center of the state’s political stage, preferring to leave that piece of history to largely fade away. Hoff did reward Paine in one way, appointing him to a seat on the University of Vermont board of trustees, a responsibility Paine would take very seriously in his years on that entity.

Paine and Hoff would later appear in another political drama, one in which Paine issued a mea culpa for an action he took that arguably could have impacted the outcome of another important political struggle. In 1970, Hoff was challenging incumbent U.S. Sen. Winston Prouty, and one day during the campaign Paine received information that Prouty was ill and unlikely to finish out another six-year term in Washington.

Paine wrote an editorial supporting Hoff and noting Prouty’s ill health. The editorial was all set in type and ready to go on the press when Paine received a call from Henry Black, a prominent White River Junction attorney, disputing the claim that Prouty’s health was failing. How Black knew of the pending bombshell editorial was never learned, but Paine would send orders to the composition foreman to pull the editorial and substitute another already in type minutes before the press was set to roll with that day’s edition.

Prouty won the election over Hoff, but his health did go downhill and he would die in office shortly into his new term. Paine owned up to making a major mistake by being talked out of what he had written back during the campaign season, and promised he’d never let it happen again.

Steve Taylor, of Meriden, was managing editor of the Valley News 1965-1972.