Governor Weld Bucks Anti-Incumbent Mood

Success in avoiding tax increases boosts prospects for reelection

WHEN Bay State Gov. William Weld (R) began his first term in office nearly three years ago, he issued a call for a leaner, better managed ``entreprenurial government.''

At the time, Massachusetts was faced with a mounting budget deficit, bloated state bureaucracy, and an angry electorate. Since then, Mr. Weld has cut spending, laid off thousands of workers, initiated government privatization plans, and brought the budget crisis under control. The first Republican in the governor's seat since 1974, he has charted a different course from his predecessors.

Next November, he will be tested on his performance in the gubernatorial race. Already, despite his popularity, he is faced with new questions and criticisms as Democratic strategists plot their line of attack.

Incumbent governors have reason to be concerned. In a CNN/USA Today Gallup poll taken last month, 62 percent of respondents said their House representatives deserve to be reelected, but only 50 percent felt the same about their governors.

``Governors are the least safe incumbents in American politics,'' says William Schneider, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. ``People hold governors responsible for everything that goes wrong.''

Weld, however, has managed to stay above anti-incumbent sentiment. In fact, he and Texas Gov. Ann Richards (D) are well-positioned for reelection because both have avoided large, across-the-board tax increases, Mr. Schneider says.

Weld has also balanced three state budgets and kept Massachusetts fiscally sound. His liberal positions on social issues has also helped him in this largely Democratic state: He is pro-choice, pro-gay rights, and committed to strong environmental policies. This fall, Weld, formerly opposed to gun control, introduced some of the nation's strictest gun-control laws.

But critics have questioned his leadership. Some say he is too detached and disinterested. Others have raised concerns about his ethics after news reports revealed cases of influence-peddling in his administration. Though he has not been found to be involved in any wrongdoing, the issue takes on special significance for the former United States attorney, who campaigned to remove the ``stench factor'' of corrupt state government.

``The point is that this governor, in 1990, ran as saying he would be a different kind of governor. This is a guy, when he was US attorney, who would investigate a rumor,'' says Democratic consultant Michael Goldman.

Others feel that he has cut too deeply into state programs. Higher education, human services, and local aid have taken hits. Job loss has been a major concern, though the economy is showing signs of improvement.

But Weld has, nevertheless, managed to maintain bipartisan support for many initiatives. Democratic support of his fiscal policies in the state legislature was crucial during his first year. And he has remained a friend, albeit a distant one, to liberal constituencies, a dominant force in state politics.

``He has a line to liberals...,'' Schneider says. ``A lot of them don't trust him, but they don't despise him. A lot of them don't like his economic policies, but they do not hate him.''

Democratic leaders of course want to unseat him in the fall election. So far, the field of challengers is limited. Rep. Joseph Kennedy and state Attorney General Scott Harshbarger talked about running, but have decided against it. US ambassador to the Vatican and former Boston Mayor Raymond Flynn has flirted with the idea, but is still new to his Vatican job. And Boston University president John Silber has shown interest in running as an independent, though he faces renewed questions over whether he benefited from the sale of a BU-run medical diagnostics firm in 1989.

At this stage, just two relatively unknown candidates have emerged as serious contenders. One is state Sen. Michael Barrett, who is offering himself as a ``different kind of Democrat,'' perhaps in the mold of former presidential candidate Paul Tsongas and President Clinton, says Dan Payne, a Democratic political consultant. Mr. Barrett supports the North American Free Trade Agreement and has sided with Weld on some of his privatization initiatives.

The other contender is state Rep. Mark Roosevelt, President Theodore Roosevelt's great-grandson. Political analysts say he may adopt more of a traditional Democratic campaign. He plans to focus on job creation and attracting businesses to the state, says campaign manager Tripp Jones.

Besides the challenge of name recognition, the two candidates face a rigorous campaign. The fall Democratic primary winner has only a five-to-six-week final campaign against Weld, who is not likely to face a serious Republican primary battle.

Mr. Jones admits that Weld will be a formidable opponent. ``Most so-called experts believe that Governor Weld ... is an incumbent who is relatively popular. There is no question that this campaign is going to be a lot of work.''

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