Survivor of a brutal campaign and the shortest honeymoon on record, New Jersey's first female governor is still called a "broad down the hall" by members of her own party. But as Eric Pooley reports, she's not worried about a thing.
The governor in her Trenton office
The New Jersey state troopers knew all about this new governor and her Houdini act, and they were just not going to let her get away with it.
They knew that Christine Todd Whitman liked to slip the chains of her security detail and take long walks alone, and that she made a game of it. They knew this because shortly before Whitman was sworn in as governor, they had been forced to hang cowbells on the side door to her office so they could hear her when she tried to escape. She covered the bells with masking tape to silence them and sneaked out anyway. Then they posted a guard in the hall and ordered him not to take his eyes off the door.
"Hey -no fair," the governor elect said.
Now, a week after her inauguration, Whitman was attending a national governors' conference in Washington, D.C. Her troopers booked a hotel room between her suite and the elevator bank. They left their door open until they were sure she was ensconced for the night, then settled in themselves. They heard music from her radio coming through the wall, water running in her bathtub, then silence. The governor was relaxing, so they could relax.
Then the phone rang. A trooper picked up the receiver and heard the throaty roar of a Georgetown bar, boisterous singing -Carousel?-and a familiar voice.
"It's 11:00 P.M. -do you know where your governor is?"
"We're singing show tunes," said Christie Whitman. "Come on down and join us." She'd won again.
Life inside the bell jar doesn't always agree with newly elected governors. The pressures of the statehouse-skeptical reporters, obstinate legislators, intractable problems, voters who want promises kept-can make a public persona stiffen and crack like a papier-mâché mask drying in the sun.
Christie Whitman hasn't succumbed to these pressures-at least not yet. At 47, she is one of those rare public people who seem liberated by office. The omnipresent troopers provide her with a team for pickup basketball. The reporters give her a chance to exercise her talent for plain talk. Whether the legislature will bend to her will remains to be seen, but this much is clear: After just six months running the state of New Jersey, Whitman is an unlikely star in national Republican politics. She is comfortable with her power -critics say she regards it as her birthright- and so self-confident that she can let her impish side peek out from under the mantle of office.
"Just before the inauguration, she looked me in the eye and said, “It's starting to hit-I'll be the governor," says her close friend Hazel Gluck, now the best-positioned lobbyist in Trenton. "I said, 'I know. I'll have to start calling you Governor in public.' She said, 'It's just me-I put my panty hose on one leg at a time.' That's Christie, and people are getting to know her now, and to like her. She's letting her mischievous streak show."
That streak hasn't always been apparent. Last year, in a bitter photo finish race against incumbent Jim Florio, she seemed to be another plastic politician-a defeminized policy machine wearing the mask of a stoic good sport. It was a relentlessly nasty campaign, even by New Jersey's sour standards. The state's political system offers few paths to power; since there are only three statewide elected offices (two senators offstage in Washington and the governor), a Jersey politician's run for any of them is a huge leap. Historically, the state's few female politicians have found this leap unthinkable because they rarely got elected to the lower offices that are traditional jumping-off points for the top jobs. Even today the state is unfriendly to political women; its congressional delegation has just one female member, and only 15 of the 120 seats in the state legislature are filled by women -a level of female representation low enough to rank New Jersey forty-first out of 50 states.
"Christie and I always looked at the governor's office as the brass ring," says her husband, John Whitman, a millionaire financier. "An enormous reach, but one worth going for." Governor is the plum job: The state's CEO controls a $15.4 billion budget, wields extraordinary constitutional clout (including a line-item veto), and has enormous patronage power. The job is hard to get but easy to keep; before 1993, only one sitting governor had ever lost a reelection bid.
Jim Florio didn't want to break that record, but the $2.8 billion tax hike he pushed through in 1990 did him in. (At his campaign kickoff, one speaker tried to rally the crowd with this line: "No one ever accused him of being popular.") To divert attention from that, Florio turned Whitman into a cartoon, an heiress from New Jersey horse country who was hopelessly "out to lunch."
The daughter of Republican party powerhouses from another era, Whitman was famous mostly for her shockingly narrow 1990 loss to Senator Bill Bradley; her only previous elective office had been as a Somerset County freeholder, a kind of county supervisor. She was given to colossal gaffes ("Funny as it seems, $500 is a lot of money to some people"). Her amateurish campaign survived some epic blunders: When she unveiled her crucial plan to cut taxes, for instance, the numbers on the page literally did not add up, so her plan seemed no more than a cynical ploy. Distant on the stump, Whitman came across more like a set of policies than a person -a virtual candidate. No wonder she was dismissed as political dead meat.
Yet Whitman never lost her poise, and in the campaign's final weeks, she began to loosen up and talk about herself. The response was phenomenal -people seemed to want a reason to vote for her, and she gave them one. She squeaked into office on 25,628 votes out of 2.5 million cast. "After the election everyone was saying, 'More people voted against Florio than voted for you,’" Whitman says. "OK, that's true. But I still won."
She had two days to celebrate before her campaign consultant, Ed Rollins, firebombed the party. He boasted about handing out $500,000 in "street money" to church leaders to suppress the black vote. He tried to spin his way out of the mess, but the public was repelled, and Whitman was on her way to becoming a national symbol of racial misconduct. She called Rollins a liar, and her outrage seemed both genuine and innocent. Standing with a dozen angry ministers, including Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, she said that if it turned out that secret payments had been made to black churches, she would resign and call for a new election. Eventually, prosecutors said they'd found no evidence of wrong doing. But Whitman seemed hopelessly damaged just the same.
"Every once in a while I look at that picture of me with Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton," she says, "and I think, Did this really happen? Our honeymoon was so abruptly ended."
A second honeymoon is well under way. She has shed the ugly public image Florio tagged her with ("dumb rich bitch," as her husband so succinctly puts it), and her approval rating is a gaudy 78 percent. There's already speculation about a place for her on the 1996 Republican presidential ticket. She calls this "silly talk."
Whitman's appeal is due partly to the happy accident of an improving economy, partly to her fulfilling a promise to cut state income taxes. She's made good on about half of the promised 30 percent cut, and most folks salute her for it, because the pain it will inevitably bring is far on the horizon. So far, every political trick has worked to Whitman's advantage. When her honesty gets her into trouble with interest groups, it pleases the crowd. The teachers' union, for instance, hates Whitman's talk about teacher recertification, while parents love it. "She won't not answer a question, even if the answer is going to make some people mad," says her chief of staff, Judy Shaw. "We say, 'Hold your tongue,' but she doesn't know how."
A patrician with a populist touch, Whitman tries to deflect charges that her policies are warmed-over Reaganism by saying, "The problem with 'trickle down' economics is that it never trickled far enough." She has backed up this talk by
sparing social programs from the budget ax and raising the tax threshold so that 380,000 poor residents no longer pay state income tax. She has played the symbolism game well-swapping the state's Cadillacs for cheaper sedans, giving up the governor's helicopter (it is now a Medivac chopper). And she has displayed a clear-minded leadership style-last spring she countered the anti-Semitism of Nation of Islam spokesman Khalid Muhammad not by denying his right to free speech but by organizing free screenings of Schindler List.
Whitman's glaring weakness is her lack of a coherent urban strategy. She is fond of Jack Kemp -style "empowerment" rhetoric- smarter programs that do more with less, letting the poor take control of their lives, that sort of thing-but she falters when people try to pin her down. At one televised town meeting, someone asked Whitman if she would go after institutional racism -redlining by banks and real estate companies, inequities in the educational system- with the same fervor she directed against Khalid Muhammad's racist speech. This time, her plainspoken style failed her. "We're ensuring that we get behind that problem," she said, "so we can start to provide the basis that will allow for the growth and allow for the housing and bringing in the people into the cities, giving them good economic footholds so that they really can thrive…”
And so on, and on, and on.
Such lapses are rare. Where her predecessor conveyed a sense that governing was grim business, Whitman suggests it is a pleasure, something that can be mastered through the same clean thinking a businesswoman might bring to running her company or a mother to raising her kids. When she mentions contradictory policies that she's inherited-the state's practice of paying for fertility drugs for poor people on Medicaid and a welfare policy that denies added payments to women who have more children while on relief -her usual no-nonsense look turns incredulous. "We help you get pregnant, then withhold payments for additional kids, she says, making it clear that she wants to do away with the fertility coverage, not the tough-love welfare plan. "As governor, I try not to send mixed messages. It's the same lesson I learned years ago when I grabbed my son and got ready to whack him and said, 'Don't hit your sister!' Wait. Something's wrong with this message."
Whitman at home on the farm where she grew up.
She is learning to use her quick, astringent wit as a political weapon, deploying it as she moves through the perpetual present tense of public life: an endless cycle of TV and radio call-in shows, press events, town meetings, and public appearances. (Opponents call it cheap PR; Whitman calls it getting closer to the people.)Before the first round of a charity golf tournament in April, Whitman crossed paths with a state senator who opposed her tax cut. The senator was affable: "Governor, what would you like to shoot today?"
"You," she said.
The senator knew enough to laugh, but sometimes it's hard to tell if Whitman is joking. One afternoon I was sitting in her office, chatting with Whitman and her press secretary, Carl Golden. Whitman told us that she'd been thinking about a new slogan to promote the state. "How about DO IT IN NEW JERSEY?" she asked.
"DO IT IN NEW JERSEY?" Golden repeated in a lecherous voice.
"Do business in New Jersey," she said. "Do your fishing in New Jersey."
Golden laughed. "If I came out of the Holland Tunnel and saw a DO IT IN NEW JERSEY billboard," he said, "it might mean a great many things to me."
"Well," Whitman said blandly, "you want those kinds of slogans. You want to appeal to a lot of different people."
"Is New Jersey Ready for a Woman Governor?"
The article, from a mid-fifties edition of the Newark Evening News, implied that New Jersey was not. But if the state had been ready, the newspaper went on to say, Eleanor Schley Todd would have been the ideal candidate. Christie Whitman's mother-the longtime vice chairman of the Republican National Committee and a force in state politics and education-was so strong a personality that her sons called her the Hurricane, but only behind her back. Christie's father, Webster Todd, was a builder (New York City's Radio City Music Hall, Rockefeller Center), a fund-raiser, and a longtime GOP state chairman. "They were a power couple before the term existed," says a family friend.
Says Whitman, “They had a strong partnership, and the conversation was always equal. There was never any feeling of one being dominant. People were scared of them both."
The Todds raised four children-Christie, born in 1947, was the youngest-in an eighteenth-century farmhouse set on 222 acres in Hunterdon County, New Jersey. They called the place Pontefracht, and it was -and is- a working farm that works just hard enough to qualify for a tax break. If its farm production is limited, the sense of place it gave to Christie is not. (Two years ago she and her husband moved back to the farm, and she still spends weekends there.)
Everyone knew the Todds. Former New Jersey governor Thomas Kean calls them "the kind of strong, decent people that others count on for support and advice. They taught Christie to succeed."
Other girls she knew talked about horses and getting married, Christie wanted to work on political campaigns "because then it would be impossible to get bored." Graduating from the Chapin School, in Manhattan, in 1964, she went on to Wheaton College. There she studied international government (she already knew more about domestic politics than most of her professors), debated in favor of the Vietnam War, demonstrated for the pill. After graduation in 1968, she enlisted in Nelson Rockefeller's presidential campaign and got to join him in a New Jersey motorcade. "You'd see women come out of the beauty shop with their hair in curlers," Whitman remembers, "men come out of the barbershop with shaving cream on half their face. There weren't many politicians who inspired that kind of feeling."
She didn't yet aspire to become one herself. Options for political women were limited to behind-the-scenes work. Christie Todd went to Washington, worked some staff jobs, and then, in 1969, proposed a project to the Republican National Committee. She wanted to understand why colleges had started going up in flames the year after she graduated; why some groups-blacks, college students-hated Republicans.
It's a touching image: a sheltered, fresh-faced young woman traveling across the country with a tape recorder, interviewing welfare families, gang members, and student radicals about why they felt estranged from the party of Nixon.
“We were children," says Nancy Risque Rohrbach, who traveled with Christie Todd that summer and remains her best friend, "young, idealistic Republicans who wanted to shed that stiff old WASP outlook."
In the East Ward of Chicago, the sisters from another planet met the Black Disciples gang. "The meeting was in a long, narrow room," Whitman says. 'We were at the far end, away from the door, and the Disciples all came in wearing their stocking caps and stood between us and the door." The Black Disciples put the rich white girls through a little test, "slinging out every swearword they'd ever heard. But I'd grown up on a farm with two older brothers, and it didn't faze me. Once we got over that, we got into a very interesting discussion about the role gangs played in their lives. This was back before we were talking about dysfunctional families, yet it was clear that a lot of them had moved to a gang because it provided structure. They were just looking for someone to care about them."
She wrote it all up in a report, but the party didn't pay much attention. She was working at a desk job with the Peace Corps by then, and a young man named John Whitman had just come to town. Whitman-son of a New York judge, grandson of a New York governor- had been crossing paths with Christie Todd for years without paying her too much attention. He'd gone out with every girl in her class at Chapin; they'd met again during college, at parties and while skiing in Vermont. Now John was out of Yale, back from Vietnam, in Washington on a Harvard fellowship. He and Christie started playing tennis.
“I was the bright young man who was going to change the world," he says. “I was the Washington old-timer who'd seen it all in three years," she says. "We didn't like each other at all," they both say.
Christie Whitman swears she didn't know this was the man for her.
In 1973, however, she invited him to join her at Nixon's second inaugural ball. "She wanted someone not too serious but who liked to dance," says John Whitman. "It was unusual to keep bumping into the same person. I realized we were moving in the same direction. Christie moved to New York, and we started going out seriously."
They were married in April 1974, built a house, moved to England for a couple of years. She gave birth to Kate and then, a year later, to Taylor. She was a New Jersey mom, albeit an extremely wealthy and well-connected mom, when the Republican county chairman called in 1981 and asked if she would consider running for freeholder.
“I grabbed it."
Soon she became director of the county freeholders. She made a name for herself by plunging into sticky not-in-my-backyard political battles -siting a landfill, a homeless shelter, and a halfway house for alcoholic boys. The closer you get to the people, the worse the fights are," she says.
She was ready to move up from township politics when Tom Kean asked her to join his cabinet as president of the Board of Public Utilities.
"I'm not sure she thanked me," says Kean. "It's no fun being in charge of garbage, or telling people how much they'll pay for gas and electricity, but that was the job. Most of my cabinet members would come into my office and tell me the problem. Christie Whitman would come in and tell me the solution."
Other rising stars started figuring Whitman into their calculations.
Hazel Gluck, who had become Kean's transportation commissioner, remembers when Christie first floated the idea of running for Bill Bradley's Senate seat in 1990. "I said, 'Take a shot -at least you'll raise your name recognition."
Kean advised her against it. "If she lost by a lot-and conventional wisdom said she would- she'd be dead politically. I told her to wait until a congressional seat came up. Of course, she had more courage than I do."
Nobody else wanted to take on Bradley, or the Republican bosses would never have let Whitman try. The respected two-term Democratic senator and former basketball great was considered unbeatable. But Whitman would do anything to make the leap to statewide politics, and this was her opening. She knew better than to think she could win. Taylor and Kate, then eleven and twelve, were worried about leaving their friends behind, so she promised them they wouldn't be moving to Washington.
The party insiders took Christie for a light weight from a powerful family. "They assumed this would be the end of Christie. 'We don't have to worry about her anymore, says her husband. They gave her little support and less money-she raised $1 million to Bradley's $12 million. George Bush declined to make an appearance or attend a fund-raiser for her. Bradley's strategy was to pretend Whitman didn't exist. "It was like swimming uphill against the flood," she says. "He was so well financed, and everything he said made the papers. I was lucky if I made the obits."
Yet Whitman almost wrote Bradley's obit. Badly misjudging New Jersey's mood, the senator refused to give his opinion of the tax hike that Governor Florio had pushed through that year. Whitman made her opinion clear and tapped right into voter anger. She felt the change in the election's final weeks, knew how close she was, but she couldn't get the bosses to kick in any money. "The old boys just didn't believe in her," says Gluck. She pleaded for $200,000 for a last-minute media buy on Philadelphia IN, which reaches southern Jersey. The boys said no.
On election night, the Whitmans were dining in their hotel, waiting for the returns to come in. Taylor came into the room looking nervous and sad. "Mommy, you'd better come upstairs," he said. "You're ahead. You said we weren't going to Washington."
"Don't worry, honey," Christie Whitman said in her most motherly voice. "Essex and Hudson counties aren't in yet. It's OK."
When it was over, she had come within two points of unseating Bradley.
Whitman laughs now, thinking about that race while sitting at a long, gleaming table in her statehouse office. A smile consumes her narrow face. "Of course, I didn't really want to be senator," she says. "I wanted to be governor."
I ask her what was hardest about making it to this office.
"The children," she says, "are probably the toughest balancing act of all. Because they didn't ask for any of this."
They did ask to go away to school; they would be at Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts even if Mom wasn't governor. "Last weekend was Parents' Weekend," says Whitman. "Kate said, 'OK, we need to do some mother-daughter bonding.' She and I went off for a cup of coffee, just the two of us."
The separation is difficult, but the timing has made some things easier. The children left for school in the fall of 1993, just as Whitman's race against Florio was reaching its ugly crescendo.
"It was good they were away," says Whitman. "That would have been rough." A few months ago, Kate had to research something in The New York Times, and she went through all the issues from the fall. "She said, 'I didn't realize.'"
Kate was proud that her mother overcame so much-beginning with sexism and the Republican party's reluctance to support Whitman for governor. If a man had come so close to beating Bradley in 1990, Whitman's allies say, there would have been no doubt about who would face Florio in 1993. (Others point out that former state attorney general Cary Edwards would have run in the primary no matter what.) The larger point is unassailable: "The party didn't want Christie," says Hazel Gluck. "Republican leaders told her, 'It's not your turn, dear.' I said, 'Christie, if you wait your turn, your turn will never come."
Despite her own battle to be taken seriously, Whitman is uncomfortable calling attention to the problems of being a woman. In fact, of all the blunders that caused local pundits to refer to Whitman in the past tense -hiring, then cutting loose the TV consultant responsible for the infamous Willie Horton commercial; visiting Caso's Gun-a-Rama in Jersey City at a time when antigun sentiment was at an all-time high- her misplay of the gender issue may have been the worst.
"Reading her speeches and position papers, you couldn't tell if this was a man or a woman running," says Gluck. Whitman's husband (who was so protective he almost bopped a few reporters), her brother Dan, and Ed Rollins all thought she should ignore the issue. She agreed. "I felt it was the issues that were important." Maybe she took gender for granted because she’d never felt anything but equal.
Whatever the reason, Whitman soon grasped her error. On the campaign trail, she noticed that women were bringing their daughters to meet her. They started telling her she was a role model. Trailing Florio badly, she changed her style. Mowing a touch of emotion to creep into her voice, Whitman started implying that she was more caring than Florio. "I'm the mother of two teenagers," she said in a TV spot about drunk driving and gun control. "I know what it's like to worry on a Friday night." Riding an old-fashioned campaign bus from county to county, she signed autographs, waded into crowds, and heard people cheering when she avoided the Republican tendency to waffle on abortion rights. "I am pro-choice; I've always been pro-choice," she said at one stop. "It is a very personal decision between a woman and her physician, and the government should stay out of it."
"She had started to lose heart, but then she relaxed and became herself," says Nancy Risque Rohrbach, who rode the campaign bus with her old friend in the last weeks of the race. "Every day on the road she became stronger and stronger, the crowds built, the enthusiasm bubbled up -men cheering, women rushing out of beauty parlors with curlers in their hair." She'd become a charismatic politician -the kind she'd admired in Nelson Rockefeller 25 years before.
She downplays it now. "I am a mother and a wife, and those are important parts of my life, and I needed to talk about those, not just economics."
Sitting in her office-high ceilings, fresh-cut flowers-I ask if she thinks of herself as a feminist. Her hand goes to a gold flag pin on the lapel of her white linen jacket. If she wants to run for national office, Whitman must somehow come to terms with her party's right wing. Whitman hasn't yet figured out how. She has never danced around the issue of a woman's right to choose. But she does dance around the f word. "I believe in promoting women," she says. "I believe that women need to have a place at the table. We need more female voices. But I'm not out to run government as a woman or for women. I don't think most women want that." She falls into some boilerplate: "We are affected by the same issues; we care about economics and employment and-"
She stops abruptly. "I'm uncomfortable with any kind of label," she says finally. "It just doesn't fit. It raises expectations on both sides. If you say you're a feminist, people expect that you're going to do a lot of aggressive changes of policy. I say, just do it and let people decide what you are."
She starts thinking aloud about what's changed in politics over the past decade. "I am at the cusp as far as women are concerned. My sister, who is twelve years older than I, was brought up in a world where women were secretaries or supported by husbands. I wasn't. I don't think a woman could have run for governor ten years ago. It was tough enough today."
She doesn't dwell on the grudging support of her party in the governor's race, but she hasn't forgotten, either. "We made it," Whitman says, "and that's the bottom line. But there were some galling moments." At an end-of-year Republican party event, the outgoing state finance chairman started talking about how great it was that a particular fund had ended the year with more money than it started with. "My husband almost killed this person," says Whitman. "We could tell him why his fund had more money -because he didn’t spend a penny on my race, thank you very much."
I remind her of something she said during the campaign to political reporter Michael Aron: "I saw more knives in my father's back from friends than I ever did from enemies. I know how it works in this state.” One long knife said that Whitman's male advisers made her decisions for her. Aron, in his book Governor's Race, quotes this exchange between political operatives:
"How big is Whitman's tax cut going to be?" one asks.
"John hasn't made up her mind yet."
The truth is, she made up her own mind on a 30 percent cut over three years-and now she's reading economic tea leaves, trying to decide whether and when she'll be able to achieve the full cut. "We will do it," she says, but others aren't so sure. This year's budget was easy, because Whitman broke a campaign promise not to use "one shot" revenue sources (income that evaporates after a year, and thus doesn't solve any long-term budget headaches). Easy -but the legislature still squawked, teachers and state workers still protested, and Whitman still had to use that 78 percent approval rating as a hammer to pound the local pols into line.
Next year comes the hard part. Phase two of her tax cut will reduce state aid to towns and cities. Will voters blame her when local taxes are hiked to makeup for lost state aid? Will people feel too much pain? "The test will be how creatively she reduces the size of government," says Tom Kean. "What to downsize, what to privatize, what to do away with altogether. All those choices will be critical, and I know she will choose well."
Kean is an optimist and a friend; Trenton is full of others just waiting for this governor to slip -to lose her battle with the state workers' union (she's doing away with some cherished perks), to botch her bid to reform the public-school financing system, which has vexed every governor since Kean. Because property taxes fund schools, inner-city districts get less money than those in the suburbs. The state supreme court has demanded that the balance be redressed to the tune of $450 million, but voters oppose a Robin Hood-style redistribution of wealth. Whitman argues that dollars alone won't solve the problems of urban schools and has asked the court for more time. As a tax cutter, Whitman has the stature to tinker with the school-taxation system -but will she?
Her enemies hope she'll flinch. As a liberated politician, of course, she contemplates those enemies with a measure of serenity. "John hasn't made up her mind yet'-that was from Republicans," says Whitman. "And it still goes on. You know, 'The broads down the hall.' A lot of them don't think I know it; of course I know it. But you just can't waste time worrying about it. You don't forget. You know who they are. And you know never to turn your back on them again."