Conspiracy may be a little too strong to describe the process Vermont Republicans used to choose their governors, but only because everybody knew how the closed-door process worked.
For the first hundred years of the state’s history, Vermont’s powerful families and corporate interests decided amongst themselves who would serve as governor. It took a war hero to smash open the system.
Vermont Republicans Rule
The Vermont Republican Party, the only viable party in the state in the late 1800s and early 1900s, employed what it called the “Mountain Rule.” It dictated who would run in Vermont elections for governor and other statewide offices.
The rule was simple. It divided the state into east and west halves. Then the party selected candidates in an alternating pattern (i.e., east one election, west the next), with a term limit on the governor. Meanwhile, Vermont Republicans chose the lieutenant governor from the side of the state that the governor did not come from.
There were exceptions to the rule, and efforts to bring it to a halt, but they generally came up short. How was the rule enforced? Mainly through cooperation and because the Proctor family, founders of the Vermont Marble Co., liked it the way it was.
Vermont Today summed it up this way:
Starting in the 1870s, the Proctor family assumed a leadership role that allowed it to run the state, with few interruptions, for some 80 years. Redfield Proctor, founder of the Vermont Marble Co., was elected governor in 1878; his son Fletcher, in 1906; Redfield, Jr., in 1922; and Fletcher’s son, Mortimer, in 1944. In between most of the governors were Proctor candidates chosen from the allied worlds of industry, utilities, railroads, and insurance.
The system came to an abrupt end in 1946 when Ernest Gibson Jr. returned from the World War II a bona fide war hero. As a younger man he had served as a U.S. senator, completing the term of his father who died in office. But Ernest, Jr., didn’t stand for reelection; he went to war instead and to combat glory in the Pacific. The Mountain Rule continued while he was away.
Upon returning home, Gibson was struck by the idea that the Mountain Rule was keeping the best-qualified candidates (namely himself) from office. So he challenged the orthodoxy and the incumbent, Mortimer Proctor.
Mark Bushnell explained in the Times-Argus that the newly returned Gibson appealed to an electorate revived by the successes of the war and eager to honor the country’s returning heroes. Gibson was both a decorated veteran and the subject of a widely-circulated photo, showing him with his head bandaged following a combat injury. Bushnell wrote:
The photograph gets much of the credit. But even without it, Ernest Gibson Jr. might still have transformed Vermont politics.
The Republican primary campaign of 1946 was as nasty as Vermont campaigns got. The progressive Gibson called his fellow Republican’s administration outmoded and stagnant. He also called the Mountain Rule “unwholesome.” In the end, he won the primary, then the general election. He served two term, and then accepted an appointment as a U.S. District judge.
Another 15 years would pass before a Democrat would win statewide office. The Gibson election, however, ushered into Vermont a new period of progressive policies that limited corporate power and improved working conditions..
For a more thorough look at the ins and outs of the Mountain Rule from the Vermont Historical Society, visit here.
This story was updated in 2022. Image of Mortimer Proctor By Billmckern – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19170089.