Whitman Brings New Direction to EPA

A comparison between outgoing EPA Administrator Carol Browner and New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, President-elect Bush's choice to head the agency.

Perhaps the simplest way of grasping the difference between outgoing EPA Administrator Carol Browner and New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, President-elect Bush's choice to head the agency, is to compare what the two women did before they were appointed.

Before coming to Washington, Browner worked as an environmental official from Florida, and after she was installed to lead EPA she used her position to push for the kind of regulatory expansion that drives industry crazy.

Whitman is a successful politician, a Republican who has been elected twice to govern Democrat-leaning New Jersey.

To win popular and financial support in New Jersey, Whitman has had to balance the often-competing interests of environmentalists and business groups.

If Browner brought an impressive environmental resume to the top job at EPA, what Whitman brings to the table are her political skills, the ability to strike a balance between conflicting interest groups. In fact, President-elect Bush and Whitman often spoke of balance at the press conference, as both vowed to consider economic growth as well as environmental protection.

"Having served as governor," she said at the Dec. 22 press conference announcing her appointment, "I know what it's like to be on the receiving end of mandates from Washington."

Bush has announced his decision to maintain the cabinet rank of the EPA administrator, a sign that environmental protection will be a priority for the Bush Administration.

Reaction to her appointment has so far been mixed. National environmental groups like the Sierra Club said she had a "mixed record on the environment, but on balance we believe we could work with her."

The Sierra Club pointed to Whitman's leadership in protecting New Jersey's open space and to strengthening the nation's clean-air standards. New Jersey has played a key role in persuading Midwestern states to bear responsibility for the air pollution they send down-wind to the east coast.

Bush's allegedly lousy environmental record in Texas was a campaign issue, and the Sierra Club may have concluded Whitman at EPA is as good as it gets in a Bush Administration. In addition, national environmental groups have reasons to be diplomatic toward appointees: as the Sierra Club statement indicates, they will have to "work with" the new leader of EPA.

No such constraints muzzle the loose cannons at the Sierra Club's New Jersey (SCNJ) chapter -- or perhaps they know Whitman better.

Rich Isaac, political director of the SCNJ, pointed out that Whitman cut the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) budget 30 percent, significantly diminishing its capacity to enforce pollution laws.

"I would expect that she'll do the same at EPA, while at the same time being photographed hiking and bicycling," Isaac said.

But people with New Jersey business experience see it differently.

"The comments that Christy Whitman has been weak on environmental regulation does not ring true at all," said New Jersey-based consultant Joel Charm, president of Charm HS&E International. Charm specializes in helping companies improve their environmental management programs.

He said he has worked with corporations and employees of the NJDEP and while these people have had plenty to say about Whitman's other policies, they never criticized her environmental record.

"I'd give her high marks on how she's run the NJDEP," said Charm, "And I'm a Democrat."

Lisa Bromberg thinks Whitman is "a good choice for business." Bromberg is in a good position to know, as she specializes in environmental law at the Morristown, N.J., law firm of Porzio, Bromberg, & Newman.

One of the programs Whitman emphasized in her tenure was a brownfields redevelopment initiative that Bromberg termed "very successful" at redeveloping abandoned urban properties.

The American Chemistry Council moved quickly to give Whitman its endorsement the day of the announcement, and called on the senate to confirm her. For nearly everyone in the business community, Carol Browner will be a very easy act to follow.

Whitman's political skills were already in evidence last week, as she attempted to position herself in the political center in preparation for her senate confirmation hearings.

Despite the fact that it is difficult to find any industry groups or companies who oppose her appointment, she told the New York Times:

"The fact that we're being attacked by both sides leads me to believe that we're probably right where we need to be."

James Nash

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