Christine Whitman

(WOMENSENEWS)–When asked about Christine Whitman’s political future, observers see a range of trajectories, from rising further in the national firmament, to crashing to earth back in her home state of New Jersey.

On one thing, however, they agree: The former two-term governor of New Jersey is stepping down as head of the Environmental Protection Agency because of her moderate politics, not hergender.

“(Whitman’s) leaving is just one thing, not part of a big picture about women in the administration,” said Hazel Gluck, a Trenton, N.J., lobbyist, political consultant and the co-chair of Whitman’s first victorious gubernatorial election campaign and her subsequent transition to office. Gluck pointed out that presidential advisor Karen Hughes, who resigned from the president’s staff last year to return home to Texas, is still considered an important advisor to the president.

“People come and go from administrations,” agreed Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics, part of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N. J. “Clearly, she had some challenges in that position but I don’t think this is something that reflects badly for the future of women in politics. There are still several women in the cabinet and I think Whitman may well be replaced by another woman. From that standpoint, the representation of women at the national level still looks good.”

Whitman, 56, announced her resignation in late May, saying she was leaving the agency as of June 27 because she was tired of having a commuter marriage and could not commit to serving for a second term. Her husband, John, a venture capitalist, had remained in New Jersey because of business commitments. Whitman’s resignation followed a similar departure announcement by Office of Management and Budget Director Mitch Daniels on May 6 and came in the same week as that of White House spokesperson Ari Fleischer.

Stepping Down, But Not Via the Mommy Track

On the surface, Whitman’s official reason for resigning–wanting to be at home in New Jersey with her husband–smacked of the “Mommy Track” syndrome, where women derail or delay careers because of home and family obligations. But Walsh said the “more time with the family” excuse is by now a cliche in political circles. “It’s become the thing to say. It’s the graceful way of stepping down. You hear it from a lot of men, too. I think the issue for Whitman is she had a tough few years in Washington and is looking to take a break.”

Whitman was once the darling of the national GOP, but Walsh said Whitman’s moderate views–particularly her pro-choice position on the hot button issue of abortion–are anathema to the further-right wing of the GOP that is now in ascendance, making any prominent role on the national scene unlikely for now.

Nonetheless, Gluck thinks Whitman still has the president’s support. “While there are conservatives in the party for whom she was the poster child because of the abortion issue, the president had a lot of confidence in her,” Gluck said. “I wouldn’t be one bit surprised if the president doesn’t ask her to do something in the government if something comes around where she would be of value.”

Walsh said she’s not so sure that Whitman would have an easy road ahead on the national political scene. “They would be smart to incorporate her, but she represents the moderate wing, so her role nationally will remain a question for a while. I don’t expect her to be shunned or ignored, but how high of a level of a position she will get, and what her aspirations are, I think, are all uncertain.”

Limited Opportunities in New Jersey

Meanwhile, Walsh sees few obvious local opportunities for Whitman.

“Back here in New Jersey, there’s not a whole lot to run for. I would be surprised if she ran against Jon Corzine for his Senate seat,” she said, referring the state’s first-term Democratic senator. “She may run for the seat now held by Frank Lautenberg, but that’s not up for five years,” she added, referring to the state’s other Democratic senator. “I think it’s always rough for former governors. There are not a lot of places to go and things to do.”

Pat Carpenter, executive director of The Wish List, a Washington, D.C.-based fundraising network for pro-choice Republican candidates, is more bullish about Whitman’s prospects.

“Her options are limitless,” said Carpenter, in a telephone interview. “She has the credentials to do anything. Whitman has been a role model for women and has set a wonderful example.”

Judith Saidel, executive director of the Center for Women in Government and Civil Society, at the State University of New York at Albany, echoes Carpenter’s confidence. “Whitman is now in a position to respond to a wide variety of opportunities. She has broad, executive-branch experience, was the number-one politician in a Northeast industrialized state and ran a complex bureaucracy as head of the EPA. She’s positioned to take on significant leadership challenges.”

Meanwhile, Saidel sees Whitman’s legacy in the Bush administration as positive for women. “Every time a woman holds a leadership post of this significance, the door is pushed open wider for other women to follow in her footsteps,” she said. “It edges the whole political system toward women leaders being more normative.”

Tumultuous Tenure at Environmental Agency

Whitman’s two and a half years as EPA director proved to be tumultuous, with her moderate stances on major environmental issues consistently undercut by others in the administration. One of the most public of these stumbles came in the early days of her tenure, when Bush reversed himself on limiting carbon-dioxide emissions as Whitman was insisting that the administration would stick to that campaign promise.

In the end, no one seemed happy with Whitman’s tenure at the agency. The usually diplomatic secretary of state, Colin L. Powell, called her the administration’s “wind dummy,” military parlance for landing-strip equipment that serves the purpose of a weather vane.

Though the agency did oversee progress in some areas, most environmentalists were highly critical of Whitman’s tenure. The prominent environmental group, the Natural Resources Defense Council, based in New York, described her term as, “a disaster for public health and the environment.”

Despite moves by the Bush administration that were in conflict with the environmental stances she held as governor–such as her backing of stiffer air-quality regulations–Whitman always maintained that she saw eye-to-eye with the president and was a team player.

Karyn D. Collins is a features writer at the Asbury Park Press in New Jersey.

— Samantha Xu contributed to this story.

For more information:

Environmental Protection Agency–
“Whitman, Proud of Accomplishments as She Prepares to Return Home to New Jersey, Resigns as Administrator of EPA, Effective June 27, 2003”:

Grist Magazine–
Christine Todd Whitman sent the following communication to all U.S. EPA employees on May 21, 2003, the day after she resigned her post as EPA administrator. The communication includes her letter of resignation to President Bush, dated May 20, 2003: