Christie Whitman's moves in '95 included finishing her tax cut ahead of schedule, delivering the GOP response to President Clinton's State of the Union speech and naming an I-295 rest stop after Howard Stern. (AP)
|In the summer of 1995, after pushing through her promised 30 percent tax cut a year ahead of schedule, New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman was being talked about as presidential timber by America’s GOP and the media.
Among moderate Republicans, at least, there was talk of a "dream ticket" to challenge President Clinton’s reelection bid: Whitman and Gulf War hero Gen. Colin Powell.
Whitman’s gaunt face and toothy smile was showing up on television and national magazines, and plenty of influential people were saying New Jersey’s governor had the inside track for vice president and could even win the presidency.
"Christie," as most in Jersey were referring to her by then, was a winner.
From a reluctant legislature controlled by her own party, she won the third part of the phased-in tax cut she had promised while campaigning for governor in 1993.
Whitman had stood her ground against public employees seeking raises and an end to her "privatizing’’ of public jobs, convincing the unions to settle for meager pay hikes and first-ever co-pays on their health insurance.
On July 5, the New York Times wrote: "Although Mrs. Whitman’s philosophy verges on the liberal on social issues like abortion rights and welfare, when she deals with the direct heirs to the progressive movement in America in organized labor, she sits squarely with the most conservative of her fellow Republicans.’’
Later in the month the Times would sing her praises again: "With a recently enacted $16 billion budget, she has cut income taxes as promised in two years instead of three, without shredding local or social program. Small wonder that she is being talked about for the national Republican ticket.’’
Soon after, Larry King had her on his million-viewer CNN television interview program, "Larry King Live,’’ saying she was of "national interest’’ because of the "charisma’’ she showed during her response to Clinton’s State of Union address in January.
Looking sharp and professional in a bright blue suit, Whitman fielded questions from television network heavyweights Jeff Greenfield, Lesley Stahl and Lisa Meyers with aplomb, dodging talk about Jersey’s unemployment rate and state-owned television station.
When one former Jerseyan called to say he left the state because he lost his job, Whitman responded succinctly: "Well, we’re creating more job.’’
Whitman’s exposure to America wasn’t all serious stuff either: She broadened her name recognition and showed a silly side in February 1995 as a guest on the popular morning radio show of Howard Stern, announcing to the shock jock that she was naming an I-295 rest stop after him.
Christie was magic in 1995.
So why, only two years later, was she in the battle of her political life to hold on to the governorship? Why, in October 1997, were she and Colin Powell on the rostrum together at Nottingham High School, not the White House?
The shifting winds of American politics is the short answer. Further insights require a deeper look, back to the very roots of Christine Todd Whitman.
She was born in New York City on Sept. 26, 1946, the youngest of four born to a father whose family had made a fortune as builders for the Rockefellers and a mother whose wealthy line was steeped in GOP politics.
Whitman grew up on the family estate, Pontefract, the 232-acre Todd family estate and farm in Oldwick, nestled in the rolling hills of northwestern Jersey.
Eight years younger than the third of the Todd children, Christie grew up as an only child, free to have friends over to enjoy the swimming pool and tennis courts on the grounds near the white family mansion.
It was the perfect setting for the tomboy Christie would become. A Whitman biography by former Trentonian reporter Sandy McClure said Christie the little girl "loved to spend her days roughhousing with boys, riding horses, fishing and climbing trees.
"Christie was a willful, spoiled child, a homely tomboy who tested the patience of her parents and her teachers. She was, however, a free spirit who love the outdoors and always had a reason for her willful behavior.’’
Whitman herself says she was a plain, overweight child with straight hair who preferred blue jeans and, in the easy-going atmosphere of her home and surroundings, was able to get away with wearing the scruffiest of attire.
"The thing I hated more than anything else in the world was putting on a skirt,’’ Whitman told the biographer with a laugh 40 years after the childhood conflict.
She attended first grade at the Far Hills Country Day School, a grammar school for the privileged of the Jersey horse country that her mother had helped found, before her father’s Republican ties took her to Paris.
Webster Todd, her father, gave her first exposure to politics as a GOP mover and shaker who got behind the presidential candidacy of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower early. It paid off with his appointment as economic minister to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Little Christie was enrolled in the American School of Paris, which put her in with other English-speaking children from the families of diplomats and the like. She hated it.
To deal with the boredom of a school that cut American kids off from the Paris experience, Christie told teacher and classmates of how Dad routinely chased Mom around the dining room table with a hatchet.
When school counselors called the Todds to report the talk, Christie’s mother, Eleanor Schley Todd, took her out of the school, saying staffers were too dumb to know a tall tale when they heard one.
Christie was put in an upper class French school, even though she couldn’t’ speak French. She learned the language quickly and loved the school.
But students at the French school were permitted to take recess at a Paris park famous as a lovers’ rendezvous. When the Todds found out how fascinated Christie was with watching men and woman kiss and caress in public, they took her out of that school.
She landed at a private school in Switzerland but by age 10, with Eisenhower seeking reelection was back home and at the Far Hills school, where she started her political career as a fund raiser for GOP.
Christie and three classmates festooned themselves with Eisenhower buttons and stickers and set up a lemonade stand at a steeplechase in Hunterdon County. They made $10 for the cause.
Web Todd, chairman of the Jersey GOP in the 1960s and 1970s, took little Christie to Republican nominating conventions in SanFrancisco in 1956 and Chicago in 1960. His position got her a good view of things from near the podium.
In ‘56 at the convention little Christie grabbed national attention twice. First she showed up a GOP women’s convention caucus wearing a Mickey Mouse hat with a play dagger poking out of it.
Then the little girl handed Eisenhower a golf club cover after he left the podium following his acceptance speech. He waved around the cover for photographers a bit later as he was boarding a train to leave the city.
She wasn’t really trying, but little Christie surely seemed determined to get noticed.
At age 14, she was packed off for a boarding high school in the hill country of rural Virginia, the Foxcroft School, which her mother had attended.
Miss Todd attended Wheaton College in Norton, Mass., and graduated with a degree in government in 1968. Christie’s connections got her jobs in Washington, and she was working for the Nixon re-election committee in 1972 when the Watergate break-in occurred, though she had no knowledge about it.
Back home after the Nixon reelection, at tennis courts and country clubs, Whitman started bumping into John Whitman, a young banker and financier who had emerged from Vietnam with two bronze stars and had been raised only a mile or two away from Pontefract, "Broken Bridge’’ in Latin.
People said the match was perfect because Whitman’s family was similar to the Todds, he being the son of a New York City judge and grandson of a New York governor. Christie and John said the attraction was dancing and talking politics.
Christie was committed to being a mother, however, so it would another 11 years before she could start her career in elective politics.
She started as a freeholder in Somerset County, winning election and reelection by campaigning in blue jeans and by listening intently when people complained about government.
In 1990, Jersey Republicans were looking for a sacrificial lamb to put up to run against powerful and popular U.S. Senator Bill Bradley, who was said to be a shoe-in even without his huge campaign war chest.
Whitman got to work, campaigning one-on-one and face-to-face with voters all across the state. Typically attired in jeans or sportswear, Whitman hammered away with talk about the need to reduce the size of government.
On Election Day, Bradley got more votes, but just barely, and Chistine Todd Whitman, the blue-blooded daughter of a state and national GOP leader, captured the national spotlight for the first time since her encounter with Eisenhower.
So by 1993, Jersey GOP was prepared to let her have at the incumbent Democratic governor, Jim Florio, who had angered the state by pushing through the largest tax hike in Jersey history in 1990.
With only weeks until the election, polls showed Whitman losing badly to Florio and, as one GOP insider said, another candidate would have folded up the tent. But Christie donned her blue jeans again and headed out to start pressing the flesh.
People liked what the tomboy had to say about cutting taxes by the slimmest margin in state history, elected her the first woman governor of Jersey.
Two years into her term, in 1995, polls showed Whitman winning easily in a rematch against Florio and even bigger if the Democrats put up someone else to challenge her.
America’s Republicans passed over Whitman when it came time to nominate a team to challenged Clinton and Gore in 1996. The shifting winds of the GOP politics gave America the Dole-Kemp ticket, which was roundly routed.
Still, Whitman in 1996 appeared destined to hold the Jersey governorship for the GOP in 1997 and her star was high among America’s Republicans.
With only five weeks until her reelection bid, however, Whitman was running neck-and-neck with a little-known Democratic, Woodbridge Mayor Jim McGreevey, and some pollsters were saying she could lose in November.
What had happened? Republicans wondered.
The answers might go back to the promises of Whitman’s first campaign: She had fulfilled the promise of a tax cut, sure, but what about reducing the size and cost of government?
On those counts, Whitman hadn’t really come through. By the magic summer of 1995, for example, the state budget had grown to $20 million, $500,000 million more than what Florio spent in his last year.
As noted in a Trentonian editorial called Whitman’s midterm report card, all her talk about "cutting state government’’ had turned into talk about her "reducing the growth of state government.’’
Whitman had cut the departments of Public Advocate and Higher Education, but that only saved $6 million, the newspaper said.
For all her toughness with state workers, the newspaper also pointed out that the number of them was up to 70,000 and that three times as many as six years earlier were then making more than $70,000 a year.
Nor, said the newspaper, was Whitman doing anything to cut the size of the governor’s staff. Eleven more gubernatorial aides making at least $50,000 were added in late 1995, bringing the number of high-paid Whitman staffers to 63.
Then there was that actuarial recalculation that took her 1996 budget out from under $800 million in payments due to the state employee pension fund — a one-shot deal made possible by Jersey’s booming economy.
Also helping her budget figures was the refinancing of $350 million in state debt, which Whitman’s finance experts said could be done without risk due to healthy increases in tax collection.
"Does it make sense,’’ the newspaper asked, "to in debt future taxpayers to the tune of $350 million in order to gain a short term political advantage?’’
Such were the themes McGreevey hammered away at during his campaign to unseat Whitman in 1997 and, as the pre-election polls showed, they were working with voters.
So Whitman was delighted on Oct. 23, 1997 when, in an appearance for a "non-political’’ event at Nottingham High, Colin Powell told the 600 assembled youngsters that he endorsed Christie Whitman for another term as Jersey’s governor.
Weeks later, Whitman would win reelection by another slim margin, and all the Republican talk about her as presidential timber would end.
Earlier this year, with Jersey’s GOP poised to put her up to run for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by presidential hopeful Bradley, Whitman delivered a shocker, saying she wouldn’t run.
When she leaves office in 2001, Whitman says she’ll be content to retire to the family estate in the Jersey horse country. Still, you never know how the political winds are going to blow.
|By PAUL MICKLE / The Trentonian|