By Colleen O’Dea
NJ Spotlight
December 24, 2019

While she won’t be at tonight’s hearing of the committee looking into the mistreatment of women in New Jersey politics, the only woman elected to New Jersey’s highest office has at least one suggestion for improving the lot of women in politics everywhere: Elect more women.

“It’s unfortunate, but New Jersey is not alone,” said Christine Todd Whitman, New Jersey’s first — and still only — female governor about continuing sexism in politics.

The ad hoc Workgroup on Harassment, Sexual Assault and Misogyny in New Jersey Politics convened by Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) is holding its second public listening session tonight at Rowan College at Burlington County in Mount Laurel from 4 p.m. to 7:30 pm. Weinberg, currently the highest-ranking and longest-serving woman in state government, said the sessions are both to hear from women “about their lived experiences relating to harassment, sexual assault and misogyny, and to gather ideas on steps that can be taken to positively change the political climate for women.”

Whitman, 73, has decades of lived experiences. She spent much of her life in politics, beginning in childhood when she attended the Republican National Convention at age 9 and met President Dwight D. Eisenhower. She has worked on others’ campaigns, campaigned herself and served in county, state and federal positions. She was New Jersey’s governor from 1994 to 2001 and today is co-founder and president of The Whitman Strategy Group, a consulting firm specializing in government relations, and environmental and energy issues.

Supposed to be the token female
In an August 2012 interview for the Rutgers Center on the American Governor, Whitman described how when she was approached about running for Somerset County freeholder, her first elective position, it was to be the token female.

“There was an opening for a woman,” said Whitman, who at the time was a trustee on the board of what was then called Somerset County College and today is Raritan Valley Community College. “They only had one woman slot — not officially but you know, unofficially.” There were actually two freeholder ballot slots open, she continued: “I was the only one asked if I’d — the others were all male — and I was the only one asked if I had a college degree. I answered, it didn’t make a difference to me. I did have one and it was only after I got on the board that I discovered that only one other member of the board actually had a college degree.”

Whitman won two terms, serving 5½ years beginning in 1983. She was also a mother of two, and her devotion to those duties did not sit well — at least initially — with her male counterparts. The Oldwick woman described the first time she told the men she could not attend a meeting because of a conflict with an event involving her daughter, Kate.

“They rolled their eyes, like a ‘what did you expect’ look,” Whitman said in a telephone interview from Arizona, where she spends winters. But she said she got up to speed on the issue at hand and proved to the men, “You can do this and still fulfill the obligations of your office.”

Whitman said she also faced in many a meeting over the years “what I think every woman faces” — when she would offer a comment or suggestion about an issue, the men at the table would gloss over it, but when a man would make roughly the same point minutes later, suddenly they would all agree that it was a great idea.

When GOP pulled her funding
In 1988, Whitman became president of the state Board of Public Utilities under Gov. Thomas H. Kean. She resigned from that position two years later to challenge the state’s popular Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley. Everyone viewed her as a sacrificial lamb and the former pro basketball player outspent her 12-to-1. The Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee had promised her $300,000 for the end of her campaign, which she had hoped to spend on ads.

“In the last 10 days, they pulled the money,” Whitman recalled. “They said I was going to lose and they were going to give the money to men who had a better chance. Of all the challenger candidates, I did the best.” Whitman surprised the entire New Jersey political establishment by coming within three points, or less than 60,000 votes, of Bradley.

Although she didn’t win that race, it positioned her as a major player in statewide GOP circles. In 1993, she ran for the Republican gubernatorial nomination and bested two men in a close race. After the primary, Whitman said she sat down with one of her opponents to try to build a relationship and bring unity to the party. “He spent the entire time telling me how I could have run my campaign better,” she said. “I had won!”

Whitman went on to narrowly beat incumbent Democrat Jim Florio, who had enacted a wildly unpopular $2.8 billion tax hike shortly after winning his first term. Then things changed, she said, and any overt sexism stopped.

“They had to respect the office,” Whitman said. “I wasn’t going to do anything about my sex.”

The ‘estrogen palace’
Still, she heard rumors about the reaction men in the State House were having when she appointed a number of women to high-level positions in her Cabinet and inner circle: chief of staff and chief of policy and planning, attorney general, secretary of state and commissioners of banking, community affairs, personnel.

“They were calling it the estrogen palace,” she said.

Whitman blames some of what seems to be a renewed sexism, at least nationally, on President Donald Trump. Asked whether she had thought women would have gained an equal footing by now, she said, “You would have thought. But we’ve got this president who brings all these things up. He has brought it to the fore again.”

She, and other political observers, blamed the failure of Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren to do better in the Democratic presidential primary race partly, at least, on sexism. Whitman said that Warren was criticized for her plan for paying for a Medicare-for-all style health care system, while Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders did not face the same scrutiny for his proposal.

“At least she put out a complete plan for how to pay for it,” Whitman said.

One way to improve the treatment of women in politics is to get more women engaged in the process, both as participants in the parties and in campaigns, and running for office, Whitman said.

She is not alone in suggesting this. While much of the testimony before the first ad hoc committee meeting dealt with sexual harassment, others — including some members of the committee — spoke of the need for women to support one another and back female candidates.

Time is ‘long past for a woman president’
Jean Sinzdak, associate director of the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) at Rutgers University, said research has shown that the presence of women in office can improve governmental processes.

“The environment would be better, the atmosphere would be better, women would be treated better,” Sinzdak said. “Women change policy conversations. They’re more likely to work across the aisle. They’re more collegial … Certainly, you could imagine a room where half the Legislature was female, that would be a very different culture and a very different environment.”

Currently, according to CAWP, just 37 lawmakers in Trenton are women, making up just over 30% of the total. That ranks New Jersey 21st in the country. Although women comprise more than half of the population, they make up more than half the legislature in only one state, Nevada.

Every year, CAWP operates a program called Ready to Run, designed to provide inspiration to and a “practical political roadmap” for women considering running for office, Sinzdak said. The program, which this year is scheduled for March 20-21 on Rutgers’ New Brunswick campus, typically draws between 150 and 200 participants. CAWP’s partners operate Ready to Run programs in 20 states across the country.

Whitman said getting women involved at the local or state level is important, but so is getting more women into executive positions in businesses, where they can make decisions about where to direct a corporation’s political contributions or have sufficient funds to help finance their own campaigns.

She hopes more women will be engaged and involved in this year’s elections and in the future, and that women won’t have to wait too much longer to reach the nation’s highest office.

“It’s discouraging that we have to keep having this discussion,” she said. “The time is long past for a woman president. I hope we break through soon.”

Photo credit: Fortune Brainstorm (CC BY-NC-20 2.0)