By Rick Malwitz
Gannett New Jersey
January 17, 2010

Among those Chris Christie reached out to prior to being inaugurated governor is someone who has been there and done that.

Prior to Christie’s victory over Gov. Jon S. Corzine in November, Christie Whitman was the last Republican elected governor of New Jersey. In 1993 she defeated an incumbent Democrat, Gov. Jim Florio.

Whitman has spoken with Christie since his November victory, and has talked to members of his transition team.

“He knows Tom Kean and I are always there for him,” said Whitman.

Kean, a Republican, served as governor from 1982 to 1990.

Though the former and the governor-elect are linked by the name Christie – his as a surname and hers as a given name – she recognizes that they will have entered office in radically different times.

When Whitman was inaugurated in 1994 the state budget was $15.4 billion with a deficit estimated at $1 billion.

While the budget Christie inherits has nearly doubled to $29.8 billion, the deficit has ballooned ninefold, to an estimated $9 billion.

“The first two years (of the Christie administration) are not going to be fun,” said Whitman.

”He is going to have to make cuts, rein in spending and tell a lot of people ‘no.’ He is very aware of the problems he’s got to deal with.”

Whitman recalled that the American economy was doing well when she governed New Jersey in the 1990s, unlike today.

“The national economy is not recovering now the way it was back then,” she said.

Christie will also have to grapple with a different legislative lineup in Trenton.

When Whitman was elected she was greeted in Trenton by a state Senate that had a 24-16 Republican majority, and an Assembly with a 53-27 Republican majority.

Today Democrats have a 23-17 majority in the state senate and a 47-33 majority in the Assembly.

As for governing, Whitman said it is best to lean on familiar political allies.

“Once you’re there (in Trenton) you want people you can rely on. The people you were most comfortable with before (the election), those are the people you want around you,” she said.

Whitman noted that Christie’s initial cabinet appointees came from the middle of the political road, until his nomination last week of Bret Schundler to be state education commissioner. Schundler, a Republican who ran for governor twice on a conservative platform, has been a champion of school choice and a school voucher program.

While the choice ruffled feathers among teachers’ unions and their Democratic Party allies, the choice was praised by powerful State Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-Union) and the Rev. Reginald Jackson, director of the Black Ministers Council.

Among the lessons Christie will have to learn first hand, said Whitman, is having to scour Trenton to see where the money is.

“You have no idea how money gets around, how easy it is to hide things,” said Whitman.

Christie’s family also will learn there are good things about a parent being a governor, and bad things. When Whitman was inaugurated her two children were 16 and 14. Christie’s four children range in age from 6 to 14.

There will be a loss of privacy. However, said Whitman, the Christie children will enjoy it when they have access to tickets to events at the Meadowlands.

One thing that will help Christie’s standing with New Jersey residents is his being an unmistakable Jersey Guy.

Whitman recalled how former governor Kean was criticized for vacationing on Long Island’s Fisher Island, while Corzine preferred the Hamptons.

Whitman said her family spent one week far away from it all – whitewater rafting in the Rockies, for example – before returning to the Jersey Shore. “My kids loved Island Beach,” she said.

She figures the Christie family will be Jersey Shore people, too.

Whitman served for seven years, extending her tenure when she defeated Jim McGreevey in the 1997 election. She left office in 2001 to join the Bush administration as head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

She now heads The Whitman Strategy Group, an energy and environmental consulting firm based in Princeton.

While she will have no formal role in the Christie administration, Whitman said the new governor knows how to reach her.

In preparation for the Christie administration, members of his transition team spoke with all living former governors. According to Joseph Kryillos, R-Monmouth, a member of the team, there was an agreement among team members to not comment on the meetings.