New Jersey’s first woman governor talks with Amanda Septimo, a Bronx native running for New York State Assembly, in the sixth episode of the Moneyish series Good Company.
A throw pillow embroidered with the assurance “Relax, There’s a Woman on the Job” sits on a floral-patterned armchair in Christine Todd Whitman’s Oldwick, N.J. home office. The former New Jersey governor, 71, is here to impart her considerable wisdom to 27-year-old Amanda Septimo, a South Bronx Democrat running for New York State Assembly in Thursday’s primary election.
Whitman, who was the state’s first and only female governor, is quick to point out she has no basis for comparison.
“I’ve never been a male governor — that’s not to be flip; it’s just to be accurate,” says the self-described Eisenhower Republican, who served as the Garden State’s 50th governor from 1994 to 2001. “While I’m always introduced as the first woman governor, the big thing was I was the first person to defeat an incumbent governor in the state since the constitution had been rewritten in 1947. That was the political achievement, not the being the first woman.”
In 1994, Whitman became one of just four women governors out of 50, a figure that currently sits at six. And the eventual Environmental Protection Agency administrator made her mark: She appointed Judy Shaw, the first woman chief of staff under a New Jersey governor, and Deborah Poritz, who served as both New Jersey’s first female attorney general and its first state Supreme Court chief justice. She also signed a bill in 1995 mandating that insurers pay for a second day in the hospital for new moms and their newborns.
And as a county freeholder in her early political career, she suggests, she helped shift the culture around tending to family obligations after she once chose to attend her daughter’s event instead of a meeting. “It certainly helped other women,” Whitman says of her overall presence in the political arena. “I can remember one legislator in particular said, ‘Now I can wear pants.’”
Whitman would go on to head the EPA from 2001 to 2003 under President George W. Bush, criticize the GOP’s increasingly rightward shift, and launch her own energy and environmental consulting firm, the Whitman Strategy Group. She would also emerge as one of President Trump’s few prominent Republican critics, even urging her party to call for his resignation in a recent op-ed.
The former governor sat down last month with Septimo, who’s vying in this week’s election to represent the 84th assembly district, to share her stories and advice — a bipartisan pairing that seemed all the more remarkable given today’s heightened political polarization. The two chat in the sixth episode of Good Company, a Moneyish original series that matches millennials with veterans in their field for mentorship and conversation. (Watch the video.)
Septimo, a former staffer for Rep. Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.) challenging 24-year incumbent Assemblywoman Carmen Arroyo, aspires to enter a male-dominated political landscape of her own: Women make up around 25% of state legislators in the U.S., according to Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics. Septimo is fueled by a desire to improve the neighborhood where she was born and raised, she says, pointing to the poor-quality schools, high asthma rates, opioid crisis and rapid gentrification in her district.
“When you put all of these crises all together, it’s really a crisis in leadership that we have,” Septimo says. “I’m running because I think people in the South Bronx deserve opportunity to have healthy, thriving, meaningful lives like everyone else. … I do think that there’s a responsibility to provide those pathways, and for a long time our policies just haven’t been doing that.”
She cut her activist teeth early, working with the nonprofit POINT Community Development Corporation as a teen, and volunteered in various capacities before earning a Posse Scholarship to attend Vanderbilt University. A community liaison gig with Serrano’s office led to a promotion to district director.
“There was certainly a lot of learning on the job, but you rise to meet the occasion,” Septimo says. “Talent is universal; it’s just opportunity that’s not. And I think I’m living proof of that. I’m sure there are a million girls in the South Bronx just like me.”
Septimo, gearing up for her primary election, asks Whitman how to push back on people who doubt the qualifications of a young woman in politics. “That’s their issue, not yours,” Whitman replies. “If you know what your issues are, if you know why you want to run, it’s not going to matter over time — you’re going to get more of them to come out for you than those who won’t. And the ones who won’t, if that’s because you’re a woman, there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Whitman also advises focusing on the job you were elected to do, not the next one on the horizon. (N.J. Gov. Chris Christie faced criticism in 2016, for example, over his absence from the state during his presidential bid.) She warns Septimo to catch herself before phrasing something in a way that can be taken out of context. Maintain your credibility amid influence from special interests, she says, pointing out “you’ve got to be able to live with yourself at the end of the day.”
And “if you truly believe you’ve made an egregious mistake,” say so, Whitman adds. The former EPA administrator in 2016 admitted she was wrong to say post-9/11 that the air around Ground Zero was safe to breathe.
Whitman also urges Septimo to take time for herself. “Come home, have dinner, have a drink, a glass of wine,” she says. “Relax for a little bit and go refresh, because you can get yourself into that position where you start spinning your wheels because you just can’t come up with a fresh idea or the way to say it, and you start stumbling over things — and that can be fatal.”
Both women are pleased to see the present wave of female candidates, particularly millennial ones, running for office. “More women is always better — this is one of the cases where less is not more,” Septimo says. “I think it builds a community of support. I’ve built a lot of meaningful friendships with other female candidates who are going through kind of similar experiences where they feel locked out of the establishment and really just not supported by traditional power centers.”
After all, Whitman says, “we need people with different perspectives; we need people with different life experiences.” “It’s exciting to see people like Amanda running for office, because they bring a breath of fresh air,” she adds. “And most of them are coming into this with a purpose to try to get us back to a point where people will talk to one another and solve problems — not just think about their political party affiliation, but think about what their policy positions are, and what it takes to solve problems.”
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