Home>Feature>Whitman, who grew up Republican, now backing Biden

Gov. Christine Todd Whitman campaigns with Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush in 2000. (Photo: Center for the American Governor, Eagleton Institute for Politics, Rutgers University.)

Whitman, who grew up Republican, now backing Biden

Some N.J. Republicans express disappointment, but two ex-Democratic governors saluted her independence

By Nikita Biryukov, August 17 2020 3:03 pm

When Christine Todd Whitman was six-years-old, Republican vice presidential candidate Richard Nixon campaign in Somerset County and she was asked to present a gift of some dolls for Nixon’s daughters to play with.

She was a Republican born into a Republican family.

Years before she became New Jersey’s first and only female governor, Whitman’s father, Webster Todd, twice chaired the Republican State Committee. Her Mother, Eleanor Schley Todd, was a Republican National Committeewoman for a decade and served as RNC vice chair. Both her grandfather’s were GOP fundraisers.  Her uncle ran for Congress as a Republican, and her brother was a GOP assemblyman in the 1960s.

She worked on former Vice President Nelson Rockefeller’s presidential campaign  in 1964 and met her husband, the late John Whitman, at President Richard Nixon’s inauguration ball in 1969.  (John Whitman’s grandfather was the Republican governor of New York.)

But after years of carrying the party’s torch, Whitman is set to back former Vice President Joe Biden against a Republican incumbent on one of the largest stages available in a pandemic — the Democratic National Convention.

Some of her fellow Republicans are less than pleased.

“There was a time when I was first starting to run for the legislature where her father was about the only Republican supporter left in New Jersey. He kept the party alive. I respect that,” said State Sen. Gerald Cardinale (R-Demarest). “I have a great deal of good feelings about her, but like all of us, I make mistakes, and I think this is a mistake on her part.”

Whitman, who headed the Environmental Protection Agency under President George W. Bush, isn’t leaving her party. Instead, she’s taking her opposition to President Donald Trump to a new level.

Though the former governor opposed Trump in 2016, her endorsement of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton came just a month before election day. In the churn of national news cycles still obsessed with Trump’s Twitter feed, the endorsement did little.

With Trump trailing Biden in the polls, the worry among Republicans is that the defection might have some impact this time around.

“It’s disappointing. It’s clearly disappointing,” former Somerset County GOP  chairman Dale Florio, who worked on Whitman’s campaigns for freeholder.  “She was once the leader of the party here in the state, and it would’ve been better if she just didn’t do anything.”

Once a top Whitman campaign advisor, Florio said he was “shocked” by news of Whitman’s upcoming convention speech.

Former Democratic Gov. Jim Florio, whom Whitman ousted to win her first bid as the state’s executive in 1993, was less surprised by the presidential defection.

“She and Trump are clearly from different worlds, so I’m not surprised of her being critical of the Trump administration,” he told the New Jersey Globe. “Most of the Republicans I have seen who are supporting Biden have just said that they can’t tolerate Trump as a Republican and, therefore, they’re leaving the party for this election.”

The two former governors serve as honorary co-chairs of Jersey Water Works, a non-profit with the mission of overhauling the state’s aging water infrastructure.

Not all Republicans were prepared to criticize Whitman for her presidential defection.

“Each person has to make his or her own decision, and I don’t criticize other people for the decision that they make,” said former Rep. Leonard Lance (R-Clinton Township).

Even Republican State Chairman Doug Steinhardt eschewed criticism of the former governor, instead opting to take shots at Biden.

“Joe Biden is a tool of the radical left wing of the Democratic party, no matter who speaks at their convention. Biden is proposing $4 Trillion in new taxes, and his new running-mate supports socialized medicine and an insane court packing scheme,” he said. “Joe Biden would be a disaster for the American people- taking the same extreme liberal policies that are causing people to flee New Jersey by the thousands and supersizing them.”

Unsurprisingly, New Jersey’s Democrats have welcomed Whitman’s support of Biden.

“I’m extremely proud of Governor Whitman.  It’s nice to see that she put her country ahead of politics,” Former Gov. Richard J.  Codey (D-Roseland) said. “Not too many in politics do that.”

Whitman isn’t the only Republican to lend a hand to Biden’s bid.

Former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who sought the Republican presidential nod in 2016, former Rep. Susan Molinari (R-N.Y.) and former eBay CEO Meg Whitman, a onetime California gubernatorial candidate and one Christ Christie’s finance chairs when he ran for president in 2016, are set to speak on Biden’s behalf Monday night.

“I have nothing but the highest regard for her. She is clearly doing what she thinks is right for her country and not her party. I have always respected those who do this,” Codey said. “I’m sure some in her party will criticize her, but I think we all know there are others who agree.”

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