'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 , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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"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."

Aides to Shaheen say the governor never gets so caught up in the minutiae of policy that she forgets her other priority: her family. Between meetings, she is most likely to chat about her husband, Bill, and her daughters - Stefany, a political science major now studying in Italy, Stacey, a high school senior who plays volleyball, and Molly, a fifth-grader.

In the Republican-held statehouse, Shaheen's quiet style wins points with former colleagues.

"She's a high-character individual," says state Senate majority leader Joe Delahunte (R). "Whether she wins or loses, people respect her."

"Education is her thrust, and I think we're all interested in the same thing," he adds. "It's just a question of how you improve what you've got and how you pay for it."

While opinion polls have been positive, citizens at work on a recent day in Concord admitted they hadn't yet seen enough of Shaheen to know if she has staying power.

At the Ace Hardware Store in Concord, shop clerk Eric Arden says Shaheen seems to be sticking to the promises that won his vote last fall. "I'm a part-time student, so her ideas on education caught my eye," he says. "Also I figured we should give a woman a chance to run the state. Maybe she would do things differently."

Across town at the Old Colony Barber Shop, however, a customer who identifies himself only as Bill takes a more skeptical view. "A politician is a politician," he says, as flecks of silver accumulate on his shoulders. "The only thing that changes is the name."

Some observers note that Shaheen's expected victory on the kindergarten proposal may be forgotten by voters if she fails to lower electric rates, as promised. Her plan to open electric utilities to competition has stalled in the courts. Mediators are set to hear from both the governor and the major utility, Public Service Company of New Hampshire, which claims it will be at a disadvantage if it is forced to absorb the huge costs of building power plants without passing those costs on to consumers.

For her part, Shaheen remains optimistic that voters will have regained confidence in small state government by the end of her two-year term. But it will likely mean she will have to keep working 12- and 14-hour days to get it done.

With such a schedule, there's little room for relaxation or social activities.

"When I come home at night," she laughs, "I read to my daughter and go to bed."

JEANNE WHO?

Jeanne Shaheen is the Democratic Party's only female governor - and she's leading a state long known for its abhorrence of 'tax-and-spend' liberals. If she has ducked the national limelight, her Yankee work ethic has so far impressed New Hampshirites.

* Victory margin. She won, 57 percent to 40 percent. She got about half the men's votes and twice the women's votes as her GOP challenger.

* Key issues. Lowering the state's high electric rates, expanding kindergarten statewide, keeping a vow not to create an income tax.

* Distinguishing characteristics. Lawmakers from both parties say she's methodical, prepared, earnest, 'a nice person.' She's also a volleyball mom.

* Experience. She served as a state senator for three terms.

* First political fight: As an undergrad at Pennsylvania's Shippensburg State College in 1969, she challenged a campus curfew that allowed men to stay out later than women.

* Early political coup. Shaheen organized Gary Hart's 1984 upset victory over Walter Mondale in the state's first-in-the-nation primary.

* Family. Shaheen is married to attorney and former judge Bill Shaheen. They have three daughters.

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