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A Yankee Independent Governs Maine

ANGUS KING has an unenviable job.

As governor of Maine, he has the standard worries of budgets and services. As a politician, he must promise Mainers a better economic future and stable taxes, just as the state's dominant industries of fishing, logging, and defense hit a granite wall. And as an independent, he must face these tasks alone.

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Yet independence does have its privileges. ''If I was in a party, I'd have an instant set of friends, but also an instant set of enemies,'' Mr. King says, while being driven to a speech in Portland, Maine. ''As an independent, I have skeptics, but no enemies. I can develop a level of trust that I would be unable to do if I was in a party.''

So far, so good: Opinion polls give the sandy-haired chief executive -- the nation's only sitting independent governor -- high approval ratings. Yet his honeymoon with voters may end when the tougher decision of budgets and state layoffs come up later this summer.

He seems to be ''getting the tone right'' for now, says Sandy Maisel, a political scientist at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. But most of the sensitive issues haven't come up for discussion, and ''I don't think we know yet whether he can prove successful'' in dealing with them.

If ever there was a state where an independent should flourish, it is Maine. The state lacks a strong party structure, there is no consensus on ideology, and Mainers seem to take the bumper-sticker idea of Yankee independence more seriously than most. King, in fact, isn't the state's first independent governor. James Longley served a term in the 1970s.

King did manage to get elected last November, though, at a time when the electorate appeared to be shifting right. To be sure, he embraced many conservative principles, running as a yuppie businessman who could make government work. He promised reform of education, environmental, and welfare programs, and pledged to ''help businesses get richer so they can create jobs for Maine's unemployed workers.'' In true Yankee fashion, he vowed to be frugal by cutting government spending and avoiding new taxes.

A former parttime interviewer for PBS, King won the election with only a third of the vote, beating a moderate Democrat, a moderate Republican, and a left-leaning Greens Party candidate.

Despite the lack of a mandate, he has been deft at bridging differences by emphasizing a folksy, can-do approach. That includes plenty of informal meetings with politicians and the public -- a Maine tradition voters don't expect to be flouted. ''People say, 'Let's get together over lunch,' '' explains Steve Ballard, a political scientist at the University of Maine, Orono. ''We work out problems in small communities that way.''

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At a recent breakfast meeting with legislative leaders at the governor's mansion, Rep. Walter Whitcomb (R) says he can feel the heat from constituents.

''I've got people telling me I'm too liberal,'' the state House GOP leader laughs. Across the table, House Speaker Dan Gwadosky (D) shares the lament, telling about ambitious freshman Democrats he deals with ''who are so far to the left that they're right.''

The breakfast -- eggs, hash, strawberries, and a glass of milk for the governor -- is the first and longest meeting of the day for King. Topics range from reformulated gas to snowmobiles. And a fishing story or two.

For an independent, King says, such meetings are crucial. ''It's a relationship thing. You don't want to be a stranger when you need some help.''

But these weekly breakfasts also help ''smooth the rougher edges of partisan politics,'' he says. In Maine, ''the governor is the only elected official who represents all the people, and he should take a less parochial view and a more long-range view on the issues.''

This nonpartisan approach seems to suit Mainers just fine, says Mr. Maisel. Voters here tend to lean conservative on budget or business issues, he says, but most avoid the social conservative approach of the religious right.

For now, the legislature seems content to put its toughest issue -- the budget -- into the governor's hands. They have come up with a proposed two-year fiscal plan that includes $43 million in cuts. But most of the trims -- nearly $30 million -- would be put off till the second year.

And if tax revenues fail to meet the costs of government programs, the legislature has proposed giving the governor wider discretion to cut back on the state bureaucracy, although not the programs themselves. The state attorney general is looking into whether such a proposal is constitutional.

King, a father of two with a jogger's frame, has been focusing on both parochial and national concerns since taking office. On this day, in a meeting with state lawmakers, he talks of how Maine can improve its highways and shipping ports with less money. ''Is this enough money? Probably not. Is this what we can afford? Yes.''

Then, in a chat with former Governor and Sen. Edwin Muskie, the two share a moment of mirth about the state's ''old Yankee distrust of power'' and how it seems to have caught on elsewhere.

Later, at the governor's mansion, executives from Osram/Sylvania explain how public schools could provide better training for workers at their new light-bulb plant in Bangor.

King wants to help reinvigorate key industries, such as papermills, by providing them with funds to update their facilities. Like other governors, King also has his eyes set on telecommunications and other ''businesses that could be anywhere.''

To keep his programs moving, King relies on a diverse staff: 10 Democrats, four independents, and two Republicans. They echo the governor's pro-business stance and have won outside praise.

State bureaucrats, faced with likely layoffs, have been less supportive.

Does he expect other states to elect independents?

''It depends on what the parties do,'' he says. ''If they get to work and do what people want done, then they will still get votes.''

If not, then there will be a ''huge wave of independents in the next election.''

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