By J. Trout Lowen
Sunday, June 18, 2006
Christine Todd Whitman is on a coast-to-coast mission to reclaim the Republican Party for moderates. The former New Jersey governor's political action committee plans to back "fiscally conservative, socially inclusive" Republicans.
ST. PAUL, Minn. (WOMENSENEWS)--Moderates, by their very nature, says Christine Todd Whitman, avoid extremist views or bombast. Often--maybe too often--they go along just to get along.
But the former two-term New Jersey governor, former head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and self-proclaimed moderate is working to change that.
Whitman has been touring the country since last year to promote her new political action committee, It's My Party Too, or IMP-PAC. Since January 2005 she has also been promoting her book, "It's My Party Too: The Battle for the Heart of the GOP and the Future of America."
All the while, she's been exhorting centrist Republicans to stand up and be counted. In carving out the middle ground within the GOP, Whitman supports stem cell research, same-sex marriage and abortion rights.
"I'm not willing to leave my party in the hands of those who would drag it so far away from what has traditionally defined Republicanism as to leave the party unrecognizable," the 59-year-old Whitman recently told an audience here in Minnesota, a historically Democratic stronghold where the GOP has recently gained ground.
Whitman founded IMP-PAC in February 2005 and has so far raised more than $1 million for the 2006 election cycle. Headquartered in New Jersey, it now has chapters in more than 25 states.
Donations to the political action committee, the Web site says, will help elect "fiscally conservative, socially inclusive" Republican candidates.
Whitman notes that the committee does not focus on any single candidate or issue. "Those are tough ways to raise money when you don't have either of those things going for you," she says. "That tells me there's a hunger out there for a movement back to the center where we can agree to disagree without being disagreeable."
Whitman says IMP-PAC intends to focus most of its efforts at the state and local level because the party needs to be reformed from the grass roots up, and because this is where many moderate Republican candidates often face bruising primary challenges from well-financed fundamentalist candidates.
IMP-PAC plans to support approximately 100 candidates for the November election. One is Rhode Island Sen. Lincoln Chafee, who is facing a primary challenge from Stephen Laffey, the Cranston, R.I., mayor and millionaire who has been endorsed by the conservative Club for Growth. IMP-PAC plans to announce its full candidate list in July.
"Moderates are not zealots," says Pat Carpenter, president of the WISH List, a political action committee based in Alexandria, Va., that supports pro-choice Republican female candidates at the state and federal level. "They need someone like a Christie to energize them and pull them together and unite them in our cause."
Whitman says the push for moderation goes well beyond her. She points to the Senate's "Gang of 14," a group of seven Republicans and seven Democrats who have been able to exert their influence in judicial nominations and are credited with diffusing an attempt to limit the ability of the Senate minority to filibuster.
She also points to the House Center Aisle Caucus, founded in early 2005 by Republican Rep. Timothy Johnson of Illinois and Democrat Steve Israel of New York. It offers a forum for civil dialogue and has close to 50 members split nearly evenly between parties.
But Carpenter cautions that the party's social conservatives are still well organized and working actively to undermine moderate candidates.
For example, in Michigan's conservative 7th District, Rep. Joe Schwartz, a moderate, is facing former state Rep. Tim Walberg. Backed by the Washington-based Club for Growth, Walberg, who finished third in an open-seat primary in 2004, is questioning Schwartz's conservative credentials, citing Schwartz's pro-choice views and his support from groups like Planned Parenthood.
Whitman angered many Republicans in 1997 when as governor she vetoed a state bill to ban so-called partial birth abortions because it didn't include an exception for the life or health of the mother.
In the National Review that year, columnist Kate O'Beirne described Whitman as having gone from the GOP's "It Girl" to "Nowhere Girl" for her abortion bill veto and for her refusal to sign a "no taxes" pledge.
The New Jersey Legislature overrode Whitman's veto, but the law was later struck down as unconstitutional.
Whitman says she believes there are many in the Republican Party who are less absolutist on abortion than the party leadership. "I believe it's ultimately a woman's right to choose," she says.
Whitman's message of political moderation received a warm reception in Minneapolis in early May at a fundraiser for pro-choice female candidates, but the audience of some 1,200 was mainly female Democrats. Last week, Whitman kicked off a conference call series open to the public that is sponsored by the nonpartisan Women's Campaign Fund, a Washington-based nonprofit that promotes women's participation in politics.
Whitman acknowledges that many people, including TV hosts like Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert, have asked her why she doesn't just switch parties, but she says she's not leaving a party where her roots run deep.
Whitman's parents met at the 1932 Republican National Convention in Chicago. Her father served as New Jersey's state party chair and her mother as vice chair of the Republican National Committee. Whitman attended her first national convention at age 9 and she's attended every national convention since.
Whitman says she's trying to energize moderates to wrestle control from those she terms "social fundamentalists" whose views on issues such as abortion, embryonic stem cell research and same-sex marriage have been driving the party hard to the right.
"I do not believe they represent a majority of the voters," Whitman says. "And yet, there are those who control the levers of power, and certainly have access to the media, that would have you believe that the Republican Party is pro-life to the extreme."
Often the only female governor present at meetings of the National Governors Association while she was in office from 1993 to 2000, Whitman says she's also committed to electing more women to public office.
Women have different life experiences and different ways of solving problems, she says, citing an example from her days as governor.
"I learned that some hospitals in New Jersey were discharging women less than 24 hours after they had given birth. Nobody had to convince me that needed to be changed."
At Whitman's urging, the New Jersey Legislature passed a bill requiring insurers to cover at least a 48-hour hospital stay for women after a routine delivery and 96 hours of hospitalization after a Caesarean section.
J. Trout Lowen is editor of the Minnesota Women's Press, a biweekly feminist newspaper based in St. Paul, Minn.
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