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Two Politicians Who Broke Mold in Vermont

Charles Hillinger's America

April 28, 1985|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

MONTPELIER, Vt. — Madeleine Kunin, 51, is Vermont's first woman governor and only the third Democrat to preside over the state since the Civil War.

If the mayor of Burlington, Vermont's largest city, has his way, Kunin's successor will be America's first Socialist governor.

"Vermont is ripe for a third-party takeover, and I may be the one to pull it off," said Bernard (Bernie) Sanders, 43, a Socialist, re-elected last month to his third term as mayor of Burlington.

Both Kunin and Sanders attribute their political success to the independent nature of Vermont voters. Both are Flatlanders, as Vermonters call residents not native of the state.

The low-key governor and the flamboyant mayor were born and raised outside Vermont. They both moved here when they were in their mid-20s.

Madeleine May was 24, a recent graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism, when she moved to Vermont in 1957.

"I didn't know anyone in Vermont. But I moved here because of an opportunity to work for the Burlington Free Press as a general assignment reporter," the governor said during an interview in her Capitol office.

"Most newspapers at the time would hire women only to do society news and write for women's pages. I wanted to cover all types of breaking news."

Paris in Her Plans

Her plans were to work in Burlington two or three years, then go to Paris and get a job as a reporter for the Paris Herald Tribune.

She never made it to Paris.

She stayed in Burlington. Married. Raised four children.

Twenty-eight years ago she came here as a stranger. Today everyone in Vermont (population 515,000) knows who she is.

Kunin was inaugurated Jan. 10 as Vermont's 74th governor. She is one of only two women governors currently in office; the other, Martha L. Collins, 48, is the Democratic governor of Kentucky. Unlike other governors, Kunin can never become President because she wasn't born in the United States.

In 1940, when Hitler's troops were marching through France, the governor's mother, a widow, fearing the Nazis' next invasion might be her homeland, Switzerland, packed up her belongings and sailed to America with her two children, Madeleine, 6, and Edgar, 10. Their father, a shoe importer, had died in a drowning accident in Switzerland when she was 3.

The three spoke German and knew no English when they arrived in America. To make ends meet, Kunin's mother supported herself and her two children baby-sitting, sewing and taking in boarders.

In her inaugural speech at the granite Doric-style 1859 Vermont Statehouse, with a gold dome topped by a statue of the Roman goddess Ceres, Kunin recalled her heritage:

"It is the immigrant spirit of hope which I wish to bring to state government. A spirit which instills in our children the belief that anyone can achieve anything in this country with hard work and education and a fair chance.

"I stand here with my husband and children. I stand here with the memory of my mother, my aunt, my grandmother who could never have dreamt I would be in this place on this day, but, who, through the courage of their lives, gave me the stamina to stand as tall as they did."

She paid tribute to the women of Vermont who made her election possible: "As first woman to take the oath of office of governor of the state of Vermont, I recognize that I was able to raise my right hand before you only because so many women had raised their voices, long before my words were spoken."

As a high school student, she planned to become a teacher. Under her picture in her Pittsfield, Mass., high school yearbook is a rhyme: "Mady will teach the ABCs, so class, may she have your attention, please?"

Decided on Journalism

But in college she decided on journalism. She has a BA in history from the University of Massachusetts, where she worked as a waitress to pay her way. She has an MA from Columbia and later earned another MA in English literature from the University of Vermont.

The 5-foot-7, trim, friendly, easy-going governor is married to Dr. Arthur Kunin, a kidney specialist and University of Vermont professor of medicine. They have three sons, ages 22, 19 and 15, and a 23-year-old daughter. Their youngest son lives at home, the two older boys are in college and their daughter is a sculptor's assistant.

Madeleine Kunin was one of the very few women elected to major political offices in 1984. A Democrat in a traditionally Republican state, she defeated Republican state Atty. Gen. John Easton by just 62 votes, more than the 50% that Vermont law requires for the $60,000 job as governor.

Kunin had been a typical middle-class homemaker, raising her family, before deciding to run for the state House of Representatives. The year was 1972. She won, served three two-year terms and became party whip and chairman of the Appropriations Committee. In 1978 she was elected to a two-year term as lieutenant governor and was reelected in 1980. In 1982 she ran for governor and lost. She ran again last year, this time winning.

Two Portraits

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