By Carol Gorga Williams
Asbury Park Press
September 13, 2013
WEST LONG BRANCH — It was less than 25 years ago but sexism in Trenton was still rampant, former Gov. Christine Todd Whitman said in response to a question from a political science student at Monmouth University Thursday.
Whitman — who made her debut Thursday as the school’s 2013-14 Public Servant-in- Residence — discussed some of the challenges she faced as she ran for office and served as governor.
Whitman in 1994 became the state’s first female chief executive and only the 13th female governor in the United States. She said she took her position and then proceeded to appoint some “highly qualified women” to posts previously held by men.
Once in office, she said she regularly heard references to her “Estrogen Palace.”
But “I didn’t think of them as ‘The Testosterone Castle,’ ” Whitman said of the men who still filled the majority of positions in government.
In her new university post, Whitman will advise students about life in public service and she pledged to make herself as available as possible to the capacity crowd at Woodrow Wilson Hall auditorium. Her chat with students Thursday ran the gamut from her experiences with sexism to her struggles with Congress over the environment.
The former governor will give select lectures and participate in public events on campus during the fall and spring semesters.
“Governor Whitman’s deep knowledge of the issues and her extensive experience are invaluable,” Monmouth University President Paul R. Brown said. “They will bring a real-world perspective to our students in particular and the Monmouth community in general.”
Whitman said many journalists described what she wore and questioned how she could connect with the average voter with her perfectly coiffed appearance.
“It is amazing how many political reporters are fashion reporters deep inside,” she said. “I wasn’t going to change my sex.”
The fact that she did not rise in state politics by the traditional route — election to the state Legislature — may have been behind her reception, she said.
“There was pushback,” she explained. “I was never one of the boys.”
Whitman took another route to state power. Initially, she served on the board at Somerset County College, which she followed with two terms as a Somerset County freeholder. She nearly unseated the vastly popular U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley, D-N.J., and served as head of the state Board of Public Utilities under Gov. Thomas H. Kean.
She ran for governor with a pledge to lower state income taxes 10 percent in each of the first three years, a pledge she kept. But even then, there were those who claimed the plan came from her husband, John Whitman.
She served as governor from 1994 to 2001, attracting the attention of President George W. Bush. She initially preferred either a position at the United Nations — which was not in the cards because of her pro-choice position — or as head of the U.S. Commerce Department. But Bush instead offered her the Environmental Protection Agency, she said.
She rented an apartment in Washington, D.C., on a month-to-month lease and found she did not get along with Vice President Dick Cheney, “who I didn’t see exactly eye-to-eye with on many issues.” Her relationship with Bush was much better, and one of her dogs was mother to first dog Barney during that time, she said.
Whitman instead found herself held on a tight leash by a divided Congress while Cheney pushed for substantially less environmental regulation.
“Politics is terrible now, but it has been coming on for a long time,” said Whitman, author of the best-seller “It’s My Party Too: Taking Back the Republican Party and Saving The Country.”
“I was prepared for the environmentalists … but it was the 360 that got me,” she said of Congress, whose overwhelming membership did not seem inclined to make meaningful change, she said.
“It was very frustrating,” she said of inconsistencies between the federal Clean Water and Clean Air acts. “Anytime you tried to do something creative, you got hammered and got taken to town.”
She expressed sadness with the way she believes each party seems headed.
“The people in the middle are left there shaking their heads,” she said. “The center is here…(but) the majority of the people controlling the process are at the extremes.
“President Obama is being attacked by the left,” she noted. “The assumption is you are going to lose if you don’t cater to the left or the right.”