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Gov. Christine Todd Whitman Shares Perspectives on Government and Policy with Political Science Students

12/5/13


West Windsor, N.J. – What could be a better way to learn about politics and government than by hearing from those who do it for a living?  That was the premise for Leonard Winogora, Senior Instructor in the Social Sciences, as he developed his State and Local Politics (POL 102) curriculum this fall.

“I decided to change the approach to a basic course.  I wanted my students to meet the people who do this work.  I knew they would get a better understanding of state, county and local government, as well as agencies and interest groups that operate in the state, by actually interacting with professionals in these fields,” Winogora explained.

One of the semester’s final speakers was Christine Todd Whitman, who visited Winogora’s class on Dec. 2.  Whitman served as New Jersey governor from 1994-2001, and then as head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency through 2003. Currently she is President of The Whitman Strategy Group (WSG), a consulting firm that specializes in energy and environmental issues.

Sharing her back story, Whitman noted that her first taste of political life came during a D.C. internship for New Jersey Republican Senator Clifford Case between her junior and senior years of college. After graduating from Wheaton College, she returned to Washington to work in the Office of Economic Opportunity.

While the job proved not to be her calling, she said it still helped in her career growth. “It’s important to learn what you don’t want to do. That's helps you find what you do want to do.”

Noting that she never intended to go into politics, Whitman said that growing up in a political family predisposed her to an interest in public policy, and one opportunity led to another. She advised students to “be prepared to take advantage of opportunities that come your way."

Early in her career, Whitman was appointed to the Board of Trustees of Somerset County College (now Raritan Valley Community College). Then, after serving as a Somerset County freeholder, she was asked by Gov. Kean to join his cabinet as head of the Board of Public Utilities.  It was Whitman's first opportunity to serve at the state level and she jumped at the chance.

Admitting that she did not know a lot about public utilities, she stressed that she was confident in her ability to find the answers.  “You have to surround yourself with creative people who have good ideas.  You have to have people you can count on,” she said.  It was an approach she would later expand upon as governor.

Whitman's first foray onto the big stage came in her unsuccessful run for the U.S. Senate in 1990, when she faced the very popular and far better financed incumbent, Bill Bradley.  She noted that she lost by only 3 percentage points and credited the surprisingly close result to Bradley’s lackluster campaign and her boots-on-the-ground approach.

From left, faculty member Leonard R. Winogora, students Anthony Farina and Cassandra Velez, Governor Whitman, Francisco Dominguez, Darryl Fletcher, Chioma Okoro and Joseph Hendershot.
Joe Hendershot, a Political Science major, asked several questions.

Student Francisco Dominguez speaks with Gov. Whitman after the class.
 

With her name established, three years later she ran for New Jersey governor and won.  Major priorities during her administration were improving the state’s economy and creating jobs.  “The most important incentives for business are low taxes and regulations that are business friendly,” she observed.

Whitman said that’s one of the reasons she remains such a strong supporter of community colleges.  “Our community college system is one of the state’s strongest attributes.  They help attract businesses looking for qualified employees."

Whitman also worked to preserve open space and championed other environmental causes, which established her as a candidate to head the Environmental Protection Agency under President George Bush.

“It was hard to turn down a national position,” she recalled, but noted that congressional constraints and strict regulations made the job extremely challenging.

Students responded to Whitman's remarks with questions ranging from cybersecurity to the state’s role in funding community colleges to ways to bring minority voters into the political process.

Whitman emphasized her strong commitment to the “get out the vote” message, and implored her young audience to do its part.  “In the elections this fall, only 17% of 18-25 year olds turned out to vote," she said. "Democracy demands involvement.”  She added that the New Jersey governor has the most power of any state in the country.  “If you don’t vote, you are saying you don’t care."

According to Professor Winogora, prior to each speaker's visit, students prepared by reading pertinent chapters in their textbook as well as supplemental materials. Additionally, they submitted thoughtful questions in advance.

Many of the speakers noted that their offices provide internships. "Students were very interested in seeing how they could pursue intern placements,” Winogora said, prompting him to invite Career Services to present a session on resume writing and interview skills.

Student Francisco Dominguez observed that the class was so much more interesting because of the guest speakers.  "It got us really engaged in learning,” he said, adding that he was also appreciative of the doors the class may open as he considers a career in politics.

Other VIP speakers included Benjamin Dworkin, Director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics; Elizabeth Bondurant, MCCC Professor of Criminal Justice; Donna Chiera, President of the New Jersey chapter of the American Federation of Teachers; Edward Potosnak, Executive Director of the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters; Diane Campbell, MCCC Executive Dean for Student Affairs; Michael Egenton, Senior Vice President for the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce; Brian Hughes, Mercer County Executive; Pamela Hersh, Vice President for Princeton HealthCare System and an MCCC Trustee; Linda Greenstein, New Jersey State Senator, 14th District; MCCC President Patricia Donohue;  and Elizabeth Lempert, Mayor of Princeton.

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