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Sister, Brother Wield Influence In Vt. Statehouse

February 20, 1985

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) _ Two of the most powerful figures in the Vermont Statehouse huddled in a hallway.

″Anything you want, kid,″ Gov. Madeleine Kunin said before acknowledging with a laugh that she is the younger of the two.

″Talk about sibling rivalry in the halls of the statehouse,″ responded Sen. Edgar May with jocular affection.

Vermont’s first woman governor and the current chairman of the influential Senate Appropriations Committee - which reviews the governor’s proposed state budgets - represent a unique political brother-sister combination.

Fleeing the spread of Naziism in Europe, they came to the United States together by freighter more than 40 years ago. They came to power on paths that, while similar, were separate.

Ms. Kunin, 51, as a House member from Burlington, rose quickly to chair the appropriations committee and later won statewide election as lieutenant governor. After a 1982 gubernatorial defeat, she was on the sidelines until her election in November.

May, as a House member from Springfield, rose quickly to health and welfare chairman and later won a county-wide election as state senator. When Democrats took control of the Senate this year, he became appropriations chairman.

The day May’s appointment to that position was announced, the governor passed by the committee’s Statehouse office and poked her head in to congratulate her older brother.

″I said, ’Thank you, governor,‴ May recalled. ″And she said, ‘I won’t tell them that you flunked math.’ I said, ’Governor, you don’t have a chit on me because I’ve already confessed it.‴

Little mention of the relationship is made by lawmakers. In fact, Senate Republicans pushed for May to head appropriations because they perceived him as less fiscally liberal than other candidates.

″Of the three we had to choose from, Edgar was clearly our choice,″ said Lt. Gov. Peter Smith, the lone Republican on a three-member Senate panel that decided committee assignments this year.

″I really don’t think the relationship is an issue. It’s interesting, but there isn’t any conflict in my mind.″

Since May was appointed chairman, however, reporters have asked on several occasions if the family tie compromises the separation of executive and legislative powers.

So often has it been raised that the governor - hours after an inquiry about the relationship during a news conference - kidded her brother that she was a bit nervous about shaking hands in public.

Ms. Kunin’s position is that, while close as siblings and in philosophy, she and her brother are not wed in a secret and conspiratorial relationship that is harmful to Vermont.

″Even though Vermont is a small state, there’s plenty of room for both of us,″ she said recently. ″It’s not like we jointly have undue influence. There’s no collusion going on.″

May acknowledged his concern over perceptions of the relationship, saying that was among the reasons he asked to chair health and welfare instead of the appropriations committee.

Now, May is as eager as the governor to have the public novelty of the relationship wear off.

″I hope it will disappear because I intend to be the spokesman for the appropriations committee,″ he said. ″The fact that I am the governor’s brother is irrelevant in my job.″

Stephen Kimbell, longtime adviser to Ms. Kunin, described the occupancy of powerful positions by sister and brother as ″a fascinating and unique coincidence, nothing more.

″When they’re both in their 90s, it will provide some fascinating reminiscences when they’re together for Thanksgiving.″