IN CENTER, WHITMAN FINDS HAPPY MEDIUM

A couple of weeks ago, during a small political confab held at Lack Construction, guests mingled in clusters awaiting a talk from the guest of honor, former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman. Roger Anderson, the president of the Santa Barbara Republican Club, dressed in a dark suit and a red tie covered with elephants, approached a group of people to introduce himself.

“Are those Republican elephants?” Someone asked.

Smiling impishly, Anderson replied, “Are there any other kind?”

For someone like Whitman, a self-styled moderate Republican, the answer to that question would be that, yes, all elephants are Republicans. But she would caution that several types of elephants belong to the same herd.

Since resigning as President Bush’s lead administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency in 2003, Whitman has waged an ambitious campaign to broaden what she terms the “Republican Party umbrella.” In 2005, she published the book, “It’s My Party, Too,” in which she promotes the basic values of ideological inclusion and tolerance. She also created a website, www.mypartytoo.com, which, coupled with nationwide speaking engagements, she uses to support centrist candidates in state and local elections. In California, she endorsed the candidacy Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Secretary of State Bruce McPherson and Steve Poizner, who ran for Insurance Commissioner (full election results not available at publication time).

“The Republican Party is big enough to fit everyone,” Whitman says.

Whitman’s beef with the Party is simple: hard-line conservatives have taken control and refuse to be influenced by moderates. This inflexibility, she claims, prevents leaders from solving difficult problems and endangers Republicans’ hold over the House and Senate.

“There are thinking people out there,” she says. “You don’t become a majority party by not associating with people you don’t disagree with.”

She blames the recent Republican party collapse partly on GOP “political operatives” running the “nastiest campaigns” that she believes are “turning people off.”

At Lack Construction headquarters on Carrillo Street, in front of an audience that numbered almost 50 people, Whitman called for both political parties to make more compromises. She says the country’s “most productive years” were between 1970 and 1992 when a Democrat-controlled Congress worked in tandem with Republicans to bring about significant environmental policies.

“There used to be a time when people argued passionately on the floor of the Senate and would then go out together and have cocktails,” Whitman says. “I’m a proud Republican, but I never thought I was elected as a governor just to represent the Republicans.”

Her disagreements with conservative politicians notwithstanding, Whitman does espouse conventional GOP tenets, such as “respect for the individual and less interference by government.” She believes in respecting the interests of taxpayers by cutting taxes, in balancing budgets and having an “engaged national policy.”

Whitman does credit the Bush administration for revitalizing the economy and for making recent positive steps to end the Iraq War, but she separates herself from many Republican leaders on social issues like abortion and gay marriage.

In her home state of New Jersey, the State Supreme Court ruled two weeks ago to afford gay couples the same rights and benefits enjoyed by opposite sex couples, a decision she more or less supported.

“I’ve always been adamant that government should keep out of marriage,” she says.

Still, as bad as Republicans have been, Whitman spares no criticisms for their counterparts across the aisle. “The Democratic agenda has been consistent. Bush is bad, Republicans are bad and it never ends,” she says. “Don’t tell me what you’re against, tell me what you’re for.”