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'Volleyball Mom' Redefines N.H. Politics

The moderate from Madbury may show how a New Democrat governor can succeed in the 'inhospitable environment' of a Republican state

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 24, 1997



CONCORD, N.H.

When it comes to staking out the political middle ground, President Clinton has nothing on Jeanne Shaheen. In fact, New Hampshire's new governor may offer a clearer definition of what it means to be a "New Democrat" than the president himself.

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So it is that Governor Shaheen, now presiding over a tax-phobic state that hadn't elected a Democrat since 1978, is enjoying 80 percent approval ratings as she passes her first 100 days in office.

So far, her quiet, centrist programs have been sliding through the State House faster than Alberto Tomba on the downhill. If such momentum holds, Shaheen could offer Democrats a political road map for 1998, when 36 of the nation's governorships go up for grabs - many of them in Republican territory.

"Shaheen has to show that Democrats can survive in an inhospitable environment," says William Schneider, senior policy analyst at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. Shaheen, like Mr. Clinton, does best when she "sticks with an agenda of small items," he adds, "not with a scary big-government approach."

Shaheen won election last November on a pledge to keep government small and to veto a state income tax. She promised to open the electric utilities to free-market competition. Her only nod to liberalism was to push for statewide public kindergarten, paid for by a cigarette tax. When members of her own party called her budget "the best Republican budget this state has seen in 20 years," they meant it as a compliment.

Even so, delivering on her promises could be difficult. Somehow, she must whittle a $30 million budget deficit left by her predecessor, Gov. Steve Merrill (R), without invoking the "T" word: taxes.

So far, the moderate from Madbury has worked to find common ground with the state's most powerful interests, from business leaders to environmentalists to die-hard conservatives, say political observers here.

For her part, Shaheen says the centrist path is not just a strategy; it's a way of life honed over the past 20 years in state politics.

"My campaign is a reflection of what I believe in," she said in a recent interview. "I think I got elected because I addressed issues that make a difference for the average family - improving the schools, lowering electric rates, affordable health care."

In a state where old Yankee values of frugality and self-sufficiency are a given, she adds, "you are always trying to be prudent in how the state spends money."

IF New Hampshire's latest governor seems to lack the personal ambition that makes national headlines, it may be because New Hampshirites keep their politicians on a short leash. Governors here serve two-year terms, and state lawmakers are paid only $100 a year. Even the governor's mansion - a quaint two-bedroom Colonial - seems designed to keep politicians from getting too comfortable in office. Few governors, including Shaheen, bother to move in.

For Shaheen, achieving limited goals seems to take precedence over national aspirations. Unlike the nation's only other female governor, Christine Todd Whitman (R) of New Jersey, whose dramatic tax cut grabbed headlines, Shaheen has been largely ignored by the national press. And unlike former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu (R), she has avoided partisan sound-bites.

"She's a brilliant short-term strategist," says Richard Winters, a political scientist at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. "And that's the way governors should be. She has a strong sense of what's possible."

Shaheen's political skills show best in person, he adds, away from the TV cameras. "She's a very careful, unflappable individual. She has none of the personal negatives of Bill Clinton and a lot of the same personal warmth."