18 Months in Office, N.J.'s Governor is Embattled and Seems to Like It


After a year and a half of relative calm, New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman is suddenly locked in intense political combat.

She seems to like it this way.

Her bare-knuckle approach to wage talks and her decision to lay off hundreds of workers have public employee unions in a state of apoplexy; two state workers were conducting hunger strikes recently. Democrats accuse her of bringing the state to the brink of fiscal ruin. And social and religious conservatives, opposed to her position favoring abortion rights, say they will block any attempt to put her on the national ballot in 1996.

You might think, given all the recent uproar, that Ms. Whitman would be showing the strain, maybe a crack or two in that patina of self-confidence.

But Ms. Whitman, daughter of old-line, patrician Republicans, seems determined to stay on course with plans for trimming the state work force, cutting business taxes, and implementing other policies she says will spark the state's economic resurgence.

In a recent interview marking her first 18 months in office, Ms. Whitman said that while she is concerned about state workers who will lose their jobs, New Jersey can no longer afford to support public-sector employment for which there is no useful purpose.

To her right-wing critics, Ms. Whitman said she shared some of the concerns of the Christian right about divorce rates and single-parent families. But she said she also believes that government can have only a limited role in setting right social problems.

'Whose morality?'

"The problem that you get into is the definition. Whose morality? Whose Bible?" Ms. Whitman said. "I mean, I like the King James Bible; I am not crazy about the Good News version; it has taken all the poetry out of the Bible. I like the 23rd Psalm the way I memorized it as a child."

In spite of the political uproar over her budget and tax cuts, Ms. Whitman seemed subdued during the interview. Prominently displayed in her office is a bust of Abraham Lincoln, a Republican whose appeal crosses all political divisions (Ronald Reagan was a big fan of his, as are many gay Republicans who have formed the Log Cabin Society and see the Civil War president as a Republican ideal).

Ms. Whitman said Democrats in the legislature who criticized her tax and budget policies were themselves party to the massive rise in state costs when Jim Florio was governor -- so they have little standing to make such criticism.

Ms. Whitman has had a string of public policy successes in the past few weeks.

The legislature enacted the third and final installment of her 1993 gubernatorial campaign pledge to cut state income taxes 30 percent. She has signed legislation carrying out the tax cut, putting her one year ahead of schedule on fulfilling her most celebrated and controversial campaign promise.

Ms. Whitman also appears to have bested several public employee unions in confrontations over her plans to cut benefits and provide only minimal increases in wages.

Toll collectors on the Garden State Parkway and the New Jersey Turnpike walked off their jobs last week but returned after judges ruled they had to go back to work -- and after it became clear that traffic was running smoothly without them.

So far, two unions have agreed to contracts with terms that are favorable to the state.

Given such a record -- especially at tax-cutting -- Ms. Whitman is viewed by many national political strategists as a top contender for the Republican vice presidential nomination next year.

But a Whitman candidacy would be opposed by social and religious conservatives, who say their main concern is what they view as the unraveling of American culture, not tax policy or the economy.

No abortion compromise

Ms. Whitman responds that there are some issues on which she can agree with the Christian right. But she will not compromise her core beliefs on a woman's right to an abortion. She also will not back off her opposition to notification of parents when a minor seeks an abortion -- or her belief that poor women should have access to Medicaid-funded abortions.

"I have no problem with what they [supporters of the Christian right] are saying or with their trying to have a dialogue about it," she said. "I think the dialogue is good. I think it is healthy. Where I do part company with them is when they try to enact their perception of morality into law.

"Most of the people I know who are pro-choice are precisely that, pro-choice," Ms. Whitman said. "They are just pro- giving women the right to choose what happens with their bodies. People who I know in various pro-choice movements will say, 'Let's put some focus on preventing unwanted pregnancy.' They are not saying, 'Let's go out and support abortions.' But it should be a woman's right to choose, and I don't believe in limiting it."

Ms. Whitman said it was correct for the Florio administration -- and the state legislature, which was then under Democratic control -- to cut off additional benefits for women who have children on welfare.

"Just the mere fact of saying you have a choice to make" is important, she said. "I know too many people, too many two-parent, working, dual-income families who would love to have three children or even two, but have stopped at one because they can't afford it," she said. "You can't ask that person to keep paying for someone who already knows they can't afford it."

L But she says social conservatives tend to idealize the past.

"I think we are a little bit naive if we think [broken families] never happened before," she said. "It has happened before. It hasn't always been wonderful."

While Democrats charge that Ms. Whitman balanced the state's $16 billion budget this year with fiscal gimmicks, her standing as an economic conservative is largely unchallenged among Republicans.

She has taken a particularly hard line in state employee contracts this year. That set the tone for contract talks with toll takers at the New Jersey Turnpike Authority and at the New Jersey Highway Authority.

Both agencies are nominally independent, conducting their own negotiations.

But the agencies' tough stance, which included hiring part-time replacements and threatening to fire workers who failed to return to their jobs, mirrored Ms. Whitman's own comments about firing state workers who walked off their jobs.

Ms. Whitman said she believes that years of economic good times have bloated public payrolls. She said the state is justified in asking public workers to accept cuts in health benefits because their salaries, once below those of the private sector, are now higher.

"We have done comparisons with what other states are doing, particularly in this region, and our health costs compared with New York and Pennsylvania are much higher; they're double New York's," she said. "The private sector has been doing it [downsizing] because it reflects the economic realities of the day, and state government needs to reflect that as well.

'The right thing to do'

"We are not doing it because IBM, or Schering Plough or Hill Refrigeration are doing it. We are doing it because I think it is the right thing to do, that we examine every program in the state to see that it is one we should be providing and doing as well as

possible, because there is no extra money left. There is no money to waste."

It is exactly because she is viewed as a potential national candidate that her pronouncements on economic and social issues prompt so much interest. But Ms. Whitman herself dismisses the idea that she will be named the vice-presidential candidate.

"I will be so happy this time next year when this [speculation about her future in national politics] is all over," she said. "You are not going to see me on the national ticket."

Chris Mondics wrote this article for the Knight-Ridder News Service.

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