Christie Whitman's resignation is in, and the conventional wisdom on her departure is that she could no longer tolerate toiling in the anti- environmental salt mines of the Bush administration. With the White House vendetta on the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Kyoto Protocol on global warming and so much more, the duties of her office finally became just too distasteful for this moderate, environmentally friendly former governor of New Jersey. So goes the mantra.
Give Whitman her due. She says she's not leaving because of clashes with the administration. "In fact, I haven't had any," Whitman told the press. Why not believe her? People talk about Whitman as a moderate because of her pro- choice stand on abortion, but on the environment she's no white hat in a bad crowd. She's a Bushwoman.
Whitman's EPA rolled back anti-pollution enforcement. That's no surprise. She did exactly the same thing in New Jersey. Sure, she backed a $1 billion bond issue to preserve a million acres of open space shortly before she left office and she makes much of her love of wilderness for recreation. But when it comes to protecting the public health, especially the health and welfare of those who live near industrial sites, Whitman left New Jersey with a trail of wreckage behind her.
In New Jersey she cut the environmental protection budget 30 percent, axed the jobs of hundreds of employees, and relaxed the duties of those inspectors still left to enforce pollution regulations. A famous survey found that her employees thought the biggest problem facing the state department of environmental protection was Whitman herself.
She's long been a fan of "voluntary compliance" by industry, the same approach embraced by the Bush administration, and years before Vice President Cheney was holding closed-door meetings with energy corporations, Whitman's staff were doing the same. As governor, she slashed enforcement budgets, and eliminated the office of Public Advocate, she even established an Office of Business Ombudsman to help businesses circumnavigate the law. Her motto was a rhetorical shingle that would hang perfectly outside her door in Washington: "Open for Business."
Also in keeping with the Bechtel-friendly Bush program, Whitman has a nasty habit of conflicting interests. An award-winning ten-month investigation by the local Bergen Record revealed that on multiple occasions, the businesses Gov. Whitman helped with her policies were ones in which she, her party or her venture capitalist husband had an investment. But just like her Bush team- mates, Whitman is famously tough on investigators.
Robert Martin was EPA ombudsman until Whitman came to office. His job it was to respond to citizens' complaints about EPA decisions. On Whitman's watch,
the EPA dramatically limited Citigroup's liability for a nuclear waste-site owned by a company subsidiary near Denver. Coloradoans were concerned because Whitman's husband, John, worked at Citigroup, most recently as Vice President and his spin-off company still handles millions of dollars of Citigroup assets.
When he began to inquire, Martin was reassigned.
Now New Yorkers have similar questions. Just two days after the attacks of Sept. 11 Whitman told residents near Ground Zero that their air was safe. "I'm glad to reassure the people of New York that their air is safe to breathe and their water is safe to drink," she said.
"But it wasn't safe. You can't have good science without good facts," said Martin. Travelers Insurance, which stood to lose multiple millions in attack- related medical claims, is another subsidiary of Citigroup, and Whitman herself own bonds in the New Jersey/New York Port Authority, the primary liable party in the World Trade Tower attacks. Whitman made Martin's job impossible after he initiated an investigation, and he quit.
Finally, while many are bemoaning the loss of Whitman's moderating influence on the administration on social issues, let's not forget that the most famous picture of "the Governor" (as she still liked to be called even at EPA) is a grainy photo of her patting down an innocent young African American on a night-time patrol she took part in with the New Jersey State Police even as the force stood accused of racial profiling.
As for reproductive rights, Whitman was a wealthy (her net worth sits at some $14.4 million) and, for a time, influential young stars in the Republican Party, but she never used her influence to much effect. To the contrary, when Govs. Pete Wilson and William Weld sought to speak their minds in support of Roe vs. Wade at the 1996 GOP convention, Whitman sold them out. She said not a word, and played along with the party's censors, even as she enjoyed the coveted role of RNC co-chair. Her fellow co-chair was that other up-and-coming young governor, George W. Bush. They were collaborators then. They still are.
Laura Flanders is the host of Working Assets Radio heard on KALW-91.7 FM in San Francisco. Her book, "Bushwomen: Tales of A Cynical Species" will be published in 2004 by Verso.
©2003 San Francisco Chronicle