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Now Is the Time for Women, Governor Says

Reflecting on her two decades in politics, Vermont's chief executive urges more women to enter the fray. INTERVIEW: MADELEINE KUNIN

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TWELVE of Vermont's former governors - all men - peer stoically from portraits on each wall of her state house office here. But Swiss immigrant-turned three-time governor Madeleine Kunin seems undaunted by their presence. ``You look at all these men here, and they didn't think that I'd be here, but they didn't think that Nelson Mandela would be there either, or Vaclav Havel,'' says Mrs. Kunin, a Democrat who was elected the first woman governor of this rural, traditionally Republican state in 1984.

During an interview in Vermont's small, gold-domed capitol building in this city of about 9,000, the poised and eloquent chief executive of the Green Mountain State talked about her experience as a woman in politics, and how women bring a unique perspective and intensity to public office and to so-called ``women's issues.'' The increasing importance of these issues in a post-cold war era makes now a ripe time for women to move into politics, she says.

Kunin, who decided in April not to run for a fourth term, made what traditionally have been known as women's issues - the environment, education, and human services - a priority in her three terms. During her administration, Vermont passed strict environmental legislation on water quality, land conservation, and waste management, and she is credited with increasing state aid to education and child-care programs.

Vermont has received national recognition this year for efforts on these goals: the Children's Defense Fund rated it as the No. 1 state for children's services, and a North Carolina regional policy organization ranked it No. 1 for environmental health. Recently, Fortune Magazine named Kunin one of the nation's 10 ``education governors.''

Although she has been criticized within the state as a poor manager during flush fiscal years and for stating ambitious goals without following through, the Vermont leader says she will retire in January with a sense of accomplishment.

``She'll be regarded fondly as a person who retired the deficit, as a person with a strong commitment to energy, environment, education, and women's issues,'' says Garrison Nelson, a political scientist at the University of Vermont in Burlington.

Part of what has shaped Kunin's goals and philosophies is her background. A Jewish immigrant, she fled Europe and came to New York City with her mother and brother in 1940 when she was six.

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