Snelling, Richard Arkwright

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Snelling, Richard Arkwright

(b. 18 February 1927 in Allentown, Pennsylvania; d. 13 August 1991 in Shelburne, Vermont), four-term Republican governor of Vermont who brought his experiences as a businessperson to the office and helped bolster Vermont’s economy.

Snelling was one of six children of Walter Othman Snelling, a scientist, and Marjorie Gharing, a homemaker. He grew up in Allentown and attended the University of Havana in Cuba and Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, before finally completing his B.A. degree at Harvard University in 1948. He served in the U.S. Army as a private in 1945 and 1946. He sold Electrolux vacuum cleaners to pay his way through Harvard, where he played football and graduated with high honors. On 14 June 1947 Snelling married Barbara Weil. They had four children.

In 1953 Snelling and his wife moved to Burlington, Vermont, where Snelling worked at the Burlington Chrysler Plymouth dealership. In 1957 he founded Shelburne Industries, which made ski equipment. Shortly after this he began his political apprenticeship in the Republican Party.

Snelling acquired some political experience as the chair of Shelburne’s planning and zoning boards and as the chair of the Chittenden County Planning Committee. His first significant involvement in politics was in 1956, when he was the Chittenden County chairman of Robert Stafford’s campaign for lieutenant governor. One of the singular features of Vermont election law, aside from governors serving two-year terms, is that candidates for governor and lieutenant governor run separate races, creating a situation in which candidates with different party affiliations can be elected to those offices. For example, the lieutenant governor during Snelling’s third term was Madeleine M. Kunin, a Democrat.

Snelling was a member of the Vermont Development Commission from 1959 to 1961, and he served in the Vermont House of Representatives from 1959 to 1960. He launched unsuccessful bids for lieutenant governor in 1964 and governor in 1966, but from 1963 to 1966 he was a member of the state Republican executive committee. He served another term in the Vermont House of Representatives from 1973 to 1977 and was the majority leader for the 1975-1976 term. He also served as a delegate to the Republican National Conventions during this time.

In addition to his political activities, Snelling continued his involvement in business and public service. As the president and chief executive officer of Shelburne Industries, he was active in the Greater Burlington Industrial Corporation and was elected president and chair of its executive committee, serving from 1961 to 1964. He was the chair of the Vermont Aeronautics Board from 1969 to 1972.

Snelling’s political and business activities were not unique among the businesspeople involved in American political life. Winning the gubernatorial election on 2 November 1976 marked the emergence of a skilled politician who successfully represented himself to the public as a no-nonsense businessperson who was not political but who wanted to serve. He demonstrated that government could make a difference, an idea some distance from the reigning ideology of the national Republican party, New Federalism. New Federalism called for a smaller national government, one less involved in providing programs that the states could more efficiently provide, while maintaining a strong military. Snelling persuaded utilities in his own state and in other states to cooperate in contracting for Canadian imports, an issue he and Premier René Lévesque began working on in Snelling’s first term. He signed legislation that helped the skiing industry and Vermont’s tourism economy and that protected the state’s water. Over the course of his four terms in office, employment in Vermont climbed 20 percent. In addition he made headway in property tax and education reforms.

Snelling’s election as governor also serves as the date from which his involvement in national Republican politics grew. Shortly after his reelection to a second term in 1978 he was chosen as vice chairman of the Republican Governors Association, and he became chairman of the association in November 1979. In national circles Snelling aligned with former president Gerald Ford and encouraged him to run in the 1980 primary. He addressed the Republican National Convention on 15 July 1980 and in the same month characterized the Carter administration as “the greatest failure in the history of the Presidency.”

Although Snelling and his wife attended President Ronald Reagan’s invitation-only inaugural gala, Snelling emerged in the 1980s as an articulate and forceful critic of Reagan’s approach to federalism, passing programs down to the states without providing budgetary support. As the spokesperson for the nation’s governors Snelling made a strong case for federal deficit reduction, arguing that higher taxes and cuts in defense and domestic spending would be necessary. He endorsed Proposition One, an initiative to persuade Congress to balance the federal budget by 1990.

By 1984 Snelling was completing a fourth term, a first in the twentieth-century history of Vermont. After announcing that he would not seek a fifth term, he entered the senatorial race against the Democratic senator from Vermont, Patrick Leahy. Both men were popular, and Snelling, a seasoned campaigner and familiar with the ways of Vermont face-to-face politics, unwisely ran a negative campaign and made many wrong moves. Leahy won the November 1986 elections, and Snelling’s political career seemed at an end. As if to note that, the University of Vermont awarded Snelling an honorary doctorate of law for his service to the state and the nation.

Snelling did not stay retired, however. He decided to seek a fifth gubernatorial term to undo, as he saw it, the budgetary wreckage of the Kunin years that succeeded his tenure as governor. Elected over Kunin in 1990, he successfully engineered the largest single tax increase in Vermont history to that date to bring the state’s budget deficit under control. He died of an apparent heart attack in August 1991, the first governor of Vermont to die in office since 1870. He is buried in Shelburne.

Snelling was a robust and physically active man who flew his own plane and loved to play tennis. He enjoyed sailing and captained his sailboat across the Atlantic in the summer of 1985. The sense of health and vigor that he conveyed made his death that much more surprising and saddening to the people of Vermont. Snelling represented himself as someone who wanted to serve, a characterization that is in fact historically true.

For further information on Snelling see Michael Barone, Grant Ujifusa, and Douglas Matthews, The Almanac of American Politics (1976, 1978, 1980, 1986, 1988, 1992), and Marie Marmo Mullaney, Biographical Directory of the Governors of the United States, 1988-1994 (1994). Obituaries are in the Burlington Free Press (14 Aug. 1991) and New York Times (15 Aug. 1991).

Robert B. Carey