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Kunin governs Vermont in style cool as the Green Mountains. State's first woman governor uses consensus-building technique but holds fast to `inner beliefs'

Plush carpeting, a glossy oak desk, and an office the size of a swimming pool don't seem to fit the understated, down-to-earth manner of Vermont Gov. Madeleine M. Kunin. And Ms. Kunin -- the first woman and only the third Democrat to occupy the Vermont governor's office -- certainly does not employ the bold and brassy leadership style of her predecessor, three-term Republican Richard Snelling.

As one of only two woman governors in the United States (the other is Martha Layne Collins (D) of Kentucky), Kunin has crafted a quiet, consensus-building style in contrast to Mr. Snelling's method of attack, which featured strong, unwavering ideas on almost all issues.

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Governor Kunin's deference to a wide range of opinions, however, seems ideally suited for the town-meeting politics that typifies Vermont -- a small, rural state that has been marching to the political left as the rest of the country has been drifting toward the right.

Her leadership style has gained the liberal governor so much public support that potential Republican challengers in this year's gubernatorial election race have been running scared -- or rather, not running at all. (Vermont governors serve two-year terms.)

In a recent poll, the mild-mannered Swiss native drew approval from some 76 percent of her fellow Vermonters, many of whom just call her Madeleine. But her constant collaboration and consensusmaking have caught flak from critics on all points of the political spectrum for being too weak and indecisive.

She doesn't accept that. The governor says her first year in office has taught her how to bite the political bullet. ``If I've learned anything in a year's time, it's a greater level of comfort with making difficult decisions -- and recognizing that you cannot always find agreement,'' she says.

Kunin recently displayed that toughness when she reproached the owners of the Killington ski resort -- the largest in a state heavily dependent on the ski industry -- for ``whining and crying'' about strict environmental regulations.

``I'm not going to be bullied or pushed around by the group of the day,'' she muses. ``You've got to have political courage. You've got to have your own inner beliefs.''

``There are about 10 issues on which [Kunin] is absolutely solid and clear where her values are,'' says Lynn Hegland, executive director of the Governor's Commission on the Status of Women. Along with Kunin's commitment to education and the rural environment that draws people to Vermont, Ms. Hegland ticks off as examples: mandatory seat belt laws, pay equity for women, and raising the drinking age from 18 to 21 (a battle Kunin won in early February).

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``On the others, she's open -- she wants to listen to others' ideas,'' says Ms. Hegland, who says the governor is ``trying to create power with rather than power over.''

But that effort has created an administration that waffles on the issues, according to critics from the rapidly growing progressive wing of the state Democratic Party, as well as from Republicans. ``She's not a consensus-builder; she's a consensus-utilizer,'' says Lt. Gov. Peter Smith, a state GOP leader who says he will probably steer clear of the gubernatorial race in deference to Kunin's popularity. ``She looks to where consensus is, and then utilizes it. If you're going to build consensus, you've got to take a position and then work through a process of give and take. That's not happening here.''

As a result, says Mr. Smith, Kunin has been able to hijack other lawmakers' successes. Several groups of legislators worked on some of the state's new environmental laws, he says, but Kunin has claimed them as her own. It irks Smith that Kunin and state Democrats are also getting credit for a surging economy and a declining deficit -- two conditions he insists sprung from actions taken by former Governor Snelling.

This year, however, Kunin faces heavy cuts in federal funding, which accounts for 35 percent of Vermont's annual budget. And while she has established a contingency fund to mitigate the effects of the federal Gramm-Rudman deficit-reduction law, her budget's proposed 9 percent spending increase could face some heavy resistance in the General Assembly.

Even Smith, however, admits that the governor may come out of the legislative battering unscathed because of the ``symbolic'' appeal of her administration.

A critic on the other side of the political spectrum, is Bernard Sanders, socialist mayor of the City of Burlington, who could be a spoiler if he decides to run for governor this year as an independent. ``What irritates me,'' he says, ``is her wishy-washiness with what she is. Where does the governor stand? What does she believe?''

The Burlington mayor's own rock-solid convictions are reflected in his modest office decorations: a portrait of Eugene Debs and a poster proclaiming Burlington's sister-city relationship with Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua.

The outspoken Brooklyn native, who was part of a flow of progressives into the state in the late 1960s and '70s, is upset by Kunin's lack of support for his ``fair tax initiative'' -- an attempt to establish vigorously progressive taxes in Vermont.

``There is no support for it,'' responds the governor, yielding typically to the consensus in the General Assembly. ``Vermont actually does have a very progressive income tax. But by and large there is no easy way to collect taxes in this state. There's only so much wealth,'' she says, noting that Vermont is one of the poorest states in the nation.

While poor in wealth, the rural state is rich in political understanding, according to Kunin. ``The good part of being governor in Vermont is that there is still a lot of faith in the political process,'' says the woman whose image as a leader in touch with everyday life seems to command such faith.

``In Vermont,'' she adds, ``there is a value system that a lot of people share.'' And right now, Vermonters value -- above all -- a governor with a new approach, a governor who believes that ``what is considered strong in leadership style -- intimidation, keeping a distance from critics, talking instead of listening -- may, in fact, be weak.''

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