Former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman spoke on the opening night of the Democratic National Convention on August 17 to endorse Joe Biden. Introducing herself as a “lifelong Republican,” Whitman was also the former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency in the George W. Bush administration. Her backing was presumably seen as a coup; opposing Trump, she presented herself as a rational, ethical voice.
Except that’s not the role Whitman chose when confronting one of the greatest public health crises of the last century.
By the late 1980s HIV/AIDS was devastating many communities, including people who inject drugs. In 1993, AIDS became the leading cause of death for young Black people. In 1994, as the HIV/AIDS epidemic grew in New Jersey, Christine Todd Whitman assumed the governorship of the state and appointed a Governor’s Advisory Council on AIDS.
To head this advisory group, Whitman selected a man she thought of as a safe choice: David W. Troast, who was known as a loyal Republican.
But he didn’t work out the way Whitman expected. Troast told the New York Times that “he was initially opposed to needle exchange programs, but was persuaded after visiting a similar program in the Bronx and by recent studies showing that easier access to clean needles slows the spread of the virus that causes AIDS.” So the council—comprising religious and community leaders, healthcare professionals, social service providers, state legislators and administration officials—voted overwhelmingly in support of such a program.
To no avail. Whitman ignored her Advisory Council and nixed syringe exchanges. More than this, New Jersey law enforcement used decoy “addicts” to arrest activists who distributed needles, destroying organized needle exchange efforts in the state by 1998, with the governor’s full-throated approval for “enforcing the law.”
Observers were surprised at the virulence of such a campaign led by a “moderate” Republican. Per the 1999 Times article:
The needle-less campaign, and the unusually aggressive tactic of using sting operations to snare advocates for AIDS victims, has made New Jersey the most active front in the nation’s fierce political battle about the merit of needle exchanges. The state’s unrelenting opposition to the programs also places Gov. Christine Todd Whitman in the uncharacteristic role of hard-liner.
At the same time, neighboring Republican governors in New York, Connecticut and Pennsylvania used state money to fund syringe programs, which had been shown to save lives and, incidentally, to save taxpayers the high cost of treating people with HIV/AIDS.
In her actions, Whitman went against all of the major US public health agencies. Again, from the Times:
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health and the Surgeon General have all released studies concluding that needle exchanges significantly decrease the spread of H.I.V. without increasing drug use. Mrs. Whitman dismisses their research as ”dubious, at best.”
Indeed, during her administration, New Jersey’s Robert Wood Johnson Foundation did decisive research showing that not only did such programs fight HIV transmission, they encouraged people with addiction to enter treatment.
…when Governor Whitman was asked recently to explain the factual basis for her unflinching belief that needle exchanges send the wrong message to children, she grew frustrated, as if the hypocrisy of the programs were so obvious it needed no explanation.
”As a mother, I know that it sets a bad example,” she said during an interview last month. ”’Do as I say, not as I do’ is a lousy way to lead, whether you’re running a family or running a state.”
Does this stonewall denial of the science around a public health disaster remind you of any other Republican office-holder?
Troast had projected the numbers of people who would be saved by a state needle exchange program:
In New Jersey, intravenous drug use accounted for 51 percent of the state’s 28,125 reported AIDS cases from the early 1980’s through December . The state ranks fifth in total number of AIDS cases. Mr. Troast said needle exchange programs could save an estimated 650 lives a year by reducing the transmission of the H.I.V. virus, which causes AIDS, among the state’s estimated 200,000 intravenous drug users.
Whitman vetoed this life-saving policy in 1996. Only in 2007 did New Jersey become “the final state in the United States to adopt a needle exchange program.” Multiplying Troast’s estimated saving of 650 lives a year by the 11-year delay in implementing needle exchange in New Jersey arrives at a total of about 7,000 dead (this does not include transmission to children—New Jersey was also a leader in pediatric HIV/AIDS cases).
Whitman has never indicated any regrets about this delay and its consequences. Nor did it hurt her career in the least. Seemingly, these Black or drug-user lives mattered little to New Jerseyans of the era. Not only was she re-elected, she remains a revered representative of “moderation” in the Republican Party.
But did she really have to be platformed at the 2020 Democratic National Convention?
Photograph of Whitman in 2017 by Petty Officer 3rd Class Nicole Barger via US Coast Guard