When Montanans call, their governor answers

Skimming through the phone book here, you will find a listing for Schwinden, Ted. What makes this unusual is that Mr. Schwinden is Montana's governor.

This listing is possible because politics and government in this little known and thinly populated state remain far more personal than in most of the rest of the United States. But it also reflects a major theme in the Schwinden governorship: stemming the erosion of public confidence in government by being more responsive.

Schwinden, a Democrat and a dry-land wheat farmer with a master's degree in history and political science, has a style that is the exact opposite of what you might call presidential, as traveling with him for a day made plain. A slightly built man with a down-turned mouth and the weathered face of a farmer, he is a politician with the common touch. Yet peering out from behind the metal-rimmed glasses are the keen eyes of a high school valedictorian who came within a thesis of obtaining a PhD in history before returning to run his parents' farm.

Schwinden has made ''accessibility'' the cornerstone of his administration. Besides listing his phone number, he encourages people to drop by the mansion, flies around the state in a six-seat Beechcraft, publishes his schedule daily, and invites local journalists to attend any meeting, except where a person he is seeing requests privacy.

''Although the listed number was part of my campaign, I have it for more than its political advantage,'' Schwinden maintains over the roar of the Beechcraft's engines. ''If we don't begin to restore confidence in our government, I'm not sure our system can survive.''

The key to reversing this lack of confidence is a more responsive government, he argues. His listed number is a small step in that direction, he contends.

It seems to have worked that way with Joyce Nelson of Bozeman. She and her neighbors recently became upset because some old buildings nearby were being burned down without thought to atmospheric conditions. ''We tried all the local officials but just couldn't get any action,'' she recalls. Because she didn't know how to get in touch with the state air quality board, Mrs. Nelson called the governor.

Schwinden not only gave her the information she wanted, but he also personally contacted the state officials concerned and got the burning postponed. ''I'm very satisfied,'' Mrs. Nelson says, adding, ''It makes you feel better about government, knowing that somebody high up cares about what's going on at a local level.''

''I'm not sure about the rest of the country, but here in Montana we have a chance to regain public confidence,'' the governor maintains.

Schwinden also accepts many invitations to banquets and local conferences. In September, he gave 23 speeches - a schedule even he admits is excessive. For example, on Oct. 1 he flew to Great Falls for a United Way banquet and then dashed to Billings to tour a ranch for emotionally disturbed children and to speak at a fund-raising dinner for the Montana Rescue Mission, returning to Helena after 11 p.m.

His opponents, and some of his supporters, say he lavishes too much time and energy on these types of activities, to the detriment of other gubernatorial responsibilities.

''Sometimes it appears that he is overplaying the responsiveness issue. Montana government has always been pretty open. He has created advisory panels for everything. That makes people feel as if they are doing something - but I wonder whether they are primarily cosmetic,'' comments Montana House majority leader Robert Marks, a Republican who has gubernatorial aspirations.

Schwinden maintains that restoring people's confidence is worth the effort. ''Besides, solving these problems for people gives me a feeling of victory in a job which has all too few victories,'' the governor adds.

Mr. Marks and some other local politicians also fault Schwinden for overmanaging. ''He's appointed some good people, but he doesn't let them work,'' says Marks.

The governor admits that there may be some truth to this criticism. ''I didn't take this job to get a vacation. I work (hard), and I expect everyone else to do the same. I only have two speeds: full and stop,'' he acknowledges.

Despite these objections, Schwinden has managed to remain remarkably noncontro-versial, although he has been in state politics since the 1950s. The worst ''impropriety'' for which he has been taken to task in his 20 months as governor (his term expires in 1985) is accepting an expense-paid trip to Washington, D.C., from the Atlantic Richfield Company to participate in a conference it was sponsoring. ''It never occurred to us that people might object ,'' Schwinden acknowledges.

In a recent Peter Hart poll conducted for the governor, 62 percent of the Montanans surveyed professed positive feelings about Schwinden. Only 15 percent were negative.

According to the same survey, the top concern of Montanans is economic development. Unemployment is running at 7.7 percent here, with some timber areas in the western part of the state topping 16 percent.

The problem was graphically illustrated by the Rev. Tommy Thomas, director of the Montana Rescue Mission, when the governor toured a new building in Billings that the mission is completing. According to the Rev. Mr. Thomas, the number of meals the mission has been serving in this city has been increasing by 30 percent a year. In contrast to a few years ago, only about a third of those now being fed are typical vagabonds.

Although a Democrat, Schwinden is a fiscal conservative. In fact, he can be downright frugal, something that sits well in Montana. As a school board member, he vetoed the purchase of electric pencil sharpeners because he considered them an unnecessary luxury. While director of the state land department, he kept salaries so low that the Legislature stepped in to give his employees a raise.

Unlike some of its neighboring states, Montana has a budget that is in relatively good shape, with an expected surplus of $40 million. One reason for this surplus is the state's controversial 30 percent tax on its coal. Part of this money goes into a trust fund, most of which has been put into out-of-state investments. But the governor supports an initiative that would require that 25 percent of these funds be invested within the state. Also, he proposed some increases in state highway construction as a jobs program, but the Legislature rejected the idea. At the same time, he called in a group of local business people to review all state operations and recommend how its various departments can be made more effective and efficient.

''It's frustrating, because at the most a state can have a 10 percent effect on its own economy,'' Schwinden observes.

Although he currently has the support of state environmentalists, he is considered somewhat soft on the issue. Indeed, he considers environmentalism to be a luxury made possible by the nation's affluence and something that is likely to weaken during tough economic times.

Being the son of poor farmers has taught him the importance of survival, Schwinden says. His academic training has helped him articulate his views and put things in perspective. So far, this combination appears to be just what Montanans like.

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