Christine Todd Whitman (born c. 1947) managed to defeat her opponent, James Florio, the incumbent Governor of New Jersey, with very little political experience.
From the beginning, Whitman was perceived as a long shot for the office—a woman and a Republican was considered an awkward mix. She advocated sweeping tax cuts, as well as abortion rights. And, in the beginning of her campaign, her platform was very disorganized. However, Florio had so offended his constituents by raising taxes and reacting slowly to the plummeting economy in his state, that in the end Whitman won.
Whitman has definitely been characterized as a woman of privilege—a millionaire who made much of her money on Wall Street. She descended from a well-to-do family with strong ties to the Republican party. Whitman's husband also has ties to the Republican party—his grandfather was once governor of New York. Whitman's siblings have also been involved in politics.
Whitman was not a career politician by any means when she ran for the New Jersey governor's office. Her only previous political experience had been winning election to the Somerset County Board of Chosen Freeholders, which is the governing body of that county. She served there for five years. Republican governor Thomas H. Kean subsequently appointed her to the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities, where she served until 1990.
That year she took a major plunge into the political spotlight by running against New Jersey Democratic senator Bill Bradley, a very popular incumbent. It seemed at first that she would be token opposition against Bradley. However, Florio had just been elected as governor, and as such raised taxes by $2.8 billion and instigated an unpopular increase in the state sales tax. This infuriated many New Jersey residents. Whitman kept her campaign focused on Florio's unpopular tax hikes, instead of on Bradley's work. Her technique succeeded, and she won an unprecedented 47 percent of the vote—hardly the margin of an "easy walkover" opponent.
Her finish in this campaign put her in an excellent position to run for the governor's office. She had such an impressive showing against Bradley that she was considered a prime contender. And Florio's tax policies would make her job easier. After his tax program went into effect, New Jersey dove into a recession deeper than that being experienced by the rest of the country. "Rarely has a state fallen so quickly from economic grace… . Its … disaster is entirely Florio-made," wrote Malcolm S. Forbes, Jr. in a Forbes editorial.
Florio's approval rating plunged to 20 percent. In 1991, the Democrats lost their majority in the state legislature, for the first time in 20 years. This made Florio's job even more difficult, since his ideas went against the politics of the Congress. They tried to repeal a sales tax increase, he vetoed it; they tried to repeal a ban on semiautomatic weapons, he vetoed it. When election time rolled around in 1993, Florio had an unimpressive approval rating of roughly 50 percent. However, he had the backing of the newly-elected president, Bill Clinton.
But Whitman's campaign was not without foibles either. She hired Larry McCarthy as her media consultant in August of 1993, to the outrage of many—he was responsible for the allegedly racist "Willie Horton" advertisements which aired during George Bush's campaign against Michael Dukakis. In response, Whitman countered that someone else had been in charge of the infamous ads, but McCarthy soon quit. While the controversy simmered, Whitman removed herself to go on a remote biking trip in Idaho.
Another scandal broke after she released her tax returns, which indicated that she and her husband had grossed an impressive $3.7 million in 1992. This fact made it harder for Whitman to seem like a "regular person" to the voters. Journalists also called into question her use of two rural homes as working farms. To respond to this, Whitman conducted a press party at one of the properties. Reporters found themselves at a real down-home event, with baked beans being served, and Whitman conducting tours in blue jeans. Her candor about the matter and willingness to answer questions scored points with many people.
Another problem with Whitman's campaign was her perceived lack of direction. It took her a long time to put together a clear tax package that would appeal to voters. In September of 1993 she finally unveiled her economic plan, which included many tax cuts, including one to slash income taxes 30 percent over several years. While the news sounded good, the voters seemed skeptical rather than enthused.
Whitman also attacked Florio's record on social programs. In a move to gain favor with conservatives, Florio had advocated making tighter restrictions on welfare allocations to mothers. One of the proposed changes involved forcing the women into naming the fathers of their babies. Outraged, Whitman attacked his ideas. "What is the governor's next idea in his headlong rush to embrace right-wing radicalism?" she was quoted as asking in Congressional Quarterly. "A program of tattoos for welfare mothers? A badge sewn on to their clothing identifying them as welfare recipients?" Her tactics backfired, however, when the Florio camp countered with angry letters from Jewish leaders who were outraged at Whitman's use of a Holocaust analogy for comparison.
Malcolm Forbes, one of Whitman's campaign advisers, wrote that "What makes Mrs. Whitman's tax ideas and approach so different, indeed so truly breathtaking, is that she plans to make her tax cuts the core of the budgeting process. Spending decisions will be made around the cuts, not vice-versa." Despite news like this, the public for the most part remained unconvinced, and the race was very close in the month leading up to the election.
Something changed that helped Whitman turn around the election. As her campaign gained momentum, she put increasing confidence into her campaign manager, Ed Rollins. A political analyst who had helped achieve Ronald Reagan's 1984 win, Rollins became a controversial figure when he switched camps to assist H. Ross Perot in his 1992 presidential bid. Shortly after taking the job with Perot, he left in disgust. In the last weeks of Whitman's campaign, Rollins simply took the reins, and immediately began to reorganize her campaign approach. "For much of the campaign," according to Congressional Quarterly, "Whitman seemed unable or even unwilling to capitalize on the anyone-but-Florio sentiment." Rollins changed all that by focusing on Florio's unpopular record in her stump speeches. Rollins also advised her to keep her own promises on the back burner, because she had encountered so much skepticism about them.
The tactic worked. The Eagleton Institute poll showed the incumbent governor as being ahead just one week before election day. But the undecided vote was just too close to call. Whitman won the November 2, 1993 election by just 26,000 votes. Constituents were just too concerned with Florio's previous records to place any confidence in him.
With her long campaign over, Whitman should have been able to breathe a sigh of relief. But, just a short time after the votes were in, Rollins told the press that the reason they had won was because they had paid African-American ministers to suppress the vote among their parishioners. "We went into black churches and we basically said to ministers who had endorsed Florio, 'Do you have a special project? And they said, 'We've already endorsed Florio.' We said, 'That's fine—don't get up on the Sunday pulpit and preach. We know you've endorsed him, but don't get up there and say it's your moral obligation that you go on Tuesday to vote for Jim Florio,"' Rollins was reported as saying in Time. Money was also supposedly paid to election workers in Democratic neighborhoods (who were supposed to be getting people to the polls) to stay home. Rollins bragged that these measures were key in Whitman's election to governor.
His comments unleashed a furor of responses from many people, most notably black ministers. Edward Verner, head of a Newark black minister's organization, commented in Time:" To suggest that the black vote or the black church is up for sale is a racist lie." Whitman herself was appalled, and claimed that her manager's statement was an unequivocated lie. Rollins soon retracted his statements, telling People that his remarks were "an exaggeration that turned out to be inaccurate." However, a federal judge ruled that an investigation would be necessary. Whitman assured the voters that she would agree to a new vote if any illegalities were uncovered.
Rollins's wife, Sherrie, claimed in People that her husband "feels awful about this furor he has created. He did not intend to hurt anyone. He feels so badly for Christie. He did not want to taint her victory." It turned out that no proof could be found to substantiate Rollins's initial claims, and by November 29, 1993, the Democrats abandoned their campaign to have the election results decertified. On January 12, 1994, state and federal investigators ended their investigation into the campaign and deemed Whitman innocent of the charges.
"Don't let the hullabaloo over the alleged antivoting activities of campaign manager Ed Rollins blind the nation to the significance of Christie Whitman's victory last month in the New Jersey gubernatorial election. She won on character and substance," Malcolm Forbes asserted in one of his magazine's editorials. After the election, Whitman went right ahead with her daring tax-cut proposals, even declaring that if they didn't work, she wouldn't run for reelection.
Whitman was very busy making personnel and policy decisions shortly after the Rollins controversy cleared. She made headlines when she added female state troopers to the group who were assigned to protect her and her family. She complained to Governor Florio that he had violated an understanding between the two of them and extended contracts, endorsed salary increases, and appointed people to positions before she took office.
On January 18, 1994, Christine Todd Whitman was officially inaugurated into the office of governor. And she faced serious challenges—the size of New Jersey's deficit had swelled to $1 billion. She nixed a proposal to use taxpayer's money to lure the Philadelphia 76ers from their home in Pennsylvania to Camden, New Jersey, and fully outlined her plans to cut state income taxes. In her inaugural address, she was so bold as to ask the Legislature to put into effect a five-percent tax cut retroactive to January 1. Her campaign promise had been to start cutting taxes by July 1, but she felt it necessary to start her proposals immediately.
Whitman's ultimate goal was to see state income taxes reduced by 30 percent within her first three years in office. She went on record as saying that she hoped these cuts would not force municipalities to raise taxes to cover missing state aid, but also said that she would not be responsible if this did happen.
Whitman outdid herself by reaching her goal in just two years, as opposed to the three she promised. She has also been involved in educational, environmental, and auto insurance reforms, and has taken steps to balance the state budget.
Whitman's popularity has swelled not only in her home state. People named Whitman one of their twenty-five most intriguing people of 1994, calling her "a one-woman political slogan."
Whitman was the first-ever governor chosen by the GOP to give the rebuttal to President Clinton's State of the Union address in 1995. Her audience was impressed with her response and the buzz began about the possibilities of her candidacy for vice president in 1996. Robert Dole, the Republican candidate, ultimately chose Jack Kemp as his running mate.
With ambitious and far-reaching tax plans, Whitman has impressed many political leaders. As Malcolm Forbes commented: "Opponents and pundits underestimated her backbone."
Further Reading on Christine Todd Whitman
Aron, Michael, Governor's Race: A TV Reporter's Chronicle of the 1993 Florio/Whitman Campaign, 1993.
Congressional Quarterly, October 13, 1990; September 25, 1993; November 6, 1993.
The Economist, October 23, 1993.
Editor & Publisher, October 30, 1993.
Forbes, October 11, 1993; February 13, 1995.
Nation, January 3/10, 1994.
National Review, August 23, 1993; November 1, 1993.
New York, September 6, 1993.
People, December 26, 1994.
Time, November 15, 1993; November 22, 1993; February 6, 1995.
U.S. News & World Report, November 22, 1993.
Village Voice, October 12, 1993; November 23, 1993.