New Jersey’s 50th governor and its only woman governor, Christine Todd Whitman stopped by campus Nov. 30 to talk to Brookdale Community College students.
Whitman, who was elected in 1993 and served two terms before become administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency in President George W. Bush’s administration, answered questions and shared insights with an appreciative audience in Brookdale’s Student Life Center during college hour.
Hosted by Political Science Professor Jonathan Moschberger, A Conversation With Christine Todd Whitman gave the former governor an opportunity to discuss her life and share advice with current students.
Whitman said she agreed with Moschberger’s contention that our education system needs more emphasis on teaching civics, the branches of government and how our government works. The audience was encouraged to sign a circulating petition to have mandatory civics classes added to New Jersey’s education curriculum.
Applause followed as Whitman added, “Most importantly, we need to teach more American History – ALL of our history. We’ve made mistakes, but that’s how we learn and move forward.”
“Are you surprised there have been no female governors following your term?” asked Moschberger.
“I am disappointed,” replied Whitman. “We need people who have different points of view… women, people of color and different backgrounds. That’s what leads to greater feedback and diverse ideas.”
Throughout her two terms of governorship, Whitman served as a role model for women and girls. She named the first woman to serve as a New Jersey governor’s chief of staff, the state’s first woman attorney general, the first woman chief justice of the state supreme court as well as promoting women into other cabinet positions.
When asked about the greatest challenges of her career, Whitman first spoke of the 911 tragedy, which was quickly followed by the anthrax attack. As the head of the EPA, she was at the World Trade Center site immediately following the collapse of the towers. It was chaotic and tragic. Respirators and protective gear were made available to the first responders, but they chose not to wear them.
“They were bulky and uncomfortable, and the weather was hot. I knew of the dangers of the toxins coming from the debris and fire, but as New York was managing the response, there was nothing more I could do.”
Whitman shared that her son was in Building 7 of the World Trade Center at the time of the attack. Believing he was in Building 2 that had collapsed when Whitman lost contact with him, she feared the worst. “I was in the middle of a meeting when he finally called my daughter and let me tell you, I literally flew across that room and grabbed the phone from my daughter. He was fine.”
Within a week after the World Trade Center terrorist attacks, deadly anthrax spores were mailed to several news media offices and representatives, killing five people and infecting 17 others. “The challenges were enormous during that period,” Whitman said.
When asked what her greatest accomplishment as governor was, Whitman discussed the constitutional amendment that preserved New Jersey’s open space, farmland and historic sites. Also, she led environmental initiatives that cleaned up contaminated areas, enforced stricter auto emission policies and promoted environmentally sensitive transportation efforts.
She is also recognized by the Natural Resources Defense Council as having instituted the most comprehensive beach monitoring system in the nation.
Whitman is currently the President of The Whitman Strategy Group (WSG), a consulting firm that specializes in helping leading companies find innovative solutions to environmental challenges.
When asked about the current political climate, Whitman shared that she is worried about democracy – the current climate is the worst she has ever seen. As the author of 11 books, including the New York Times bestseller “It’s My Party, Too,” she remains active in politics. She discussed the formation of the Forward Party and her role as co-chair. The new party, which is neither Left nor Right, was formed after studies showed that over 60 percent of voters want a new political party.
“If you are willing to show up and work with people from all walks of life to find real solutions that work in your communities, you are welcome at the Forward Party,” she said.
Moschberger asked if she had any advice for students who may be interested in pursuing a career in politics.
“Know why you want to be involved. Educate yourself. Pick an issue you feel passionate about and pursue that issue. Reach out to the people who represent you and let them know how you feel. Get involved. We live in a democracy – the very minimum you must do is vote.”
Whitman then signed books, posed for pictures, and spoke with each student and attendee individually.
Whitman offered these final thoughts: “This is a wonderful country. It has faults, but it’s only going to get better if you are engaged. It’s not perfect, but we need new voices and approaches. Be that voice.”
By Isabel Shaw, editor of student newspaper at Brookdale Community College majoring in Journalism.