Former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman has not resigned herself to the history books, but has been deeply active in pro-democracy initiatives since leaving office. A staunch opponent of Donald Trump, the Garden State’s first female governor resigned from her position in 2001 to serve as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency during the George W. Bush administration. That may have been enough for most people to wrap up a successful career in public office, but Whitman has re-emerged as the co-chair of a new political party, the Forward Party, sharing the leadership position with former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang of New York.
Yang, a former Democrat who advocates for a universal basic income, and Whitman, who grew up and ascended politically in the ivy-swaddled environs of the Rockefeller and Nixonian Republican Party, could not be more different. Both, however, feel that the respect for their differences is the underlying foundation of a healthy democracy and the Forward Party is their nascent vehicle for trying to defend it. Whitman’s “radical centrism” has been a staple of her political being for almost three decades, co-founding the Republican Leadership Council and in 2021 the States United Democracy Center.
On a virtual conference Saturday morning, Whitman, joined by the Forward Party’s New Jersey lead Brian Varela, said that the Forward Party was the merger of three other entities: Yang’s Forward with the Renew America Movement (founded by former Trump-era Republican DHS deputy chief of staff Miles Taylor) and the Serve America Movement (led by former Republican Congressman David Jolly of Florida). Whitman said that the Forward Party was, unlike the Democratic and Republican Parties, not necessarily fixed to a specific platform, but rather fixed to certain shared values: pluralism, the constitution, and respect. This means that it is inevitable that future Forward Party candidates, or Forward Party-endorsed candidates, will have different points of view on certain topics.
Whitman acknowledged from the start that ideological differences were a reality, but not necessarily a problem. “I don’t think I agree with Andrew [Yang] on a whole lot of positions. But we both are absolutely dedicated to the importance of saving our democracy, and that’s why we work very well together on Forward and bringing these issues to the forefront.”
It is an unusual start, to say the least, for the leadership to be of differing minds when it comes to a political party, but the Forward Party is adopting a more decentralized approach, one inversely-structured to start at the bottom and build its way up, rather than with a top-down system.
“It takes some time to appreciate the fact that we are a party based on principles rather than specific positions on every issue the way current parties operate,” Whitman said. “That doesn’t mean we don’t have standards and we don’t take stances; we absolutely do. But we have these basic principles that are simple things like respect for the rule of law, upholding the Constitution, economic opportunity for all, security at home and abroad, and a willingness to change the way we elect our representatives. Because until we break the hold of the two parties on how we choose our elected representatives, we’re never going to change the system. That’s why we ask that anyone who wants to be associated with Forward agree to that.”
One of the top priorities for the Forward Party is to introduce ranked-choice voting open primaries. “That does a couple of things, it forces candidates to talk to everybody because they can’t just rely on their base right now, even in his contentious of time as we have had and are having in the country.” The former governor said that a small percentage of eligible voters tend to vote in primaries, which inevitably leads to the more extreme elements of the party having an advantage, thanks to their motivation, in shaping the direction of the given party in their image. “It’s something that continues to drive this wedge between the two parties. We want people who will work together, and that’s another one of our requirements. If you want to be associated with Forward and recognized as such, [candidates must] agree to work across the aisles.” If candidates wish to remain Republicans, Democrats, or other parties, they can still potentially earn a Forward Party endorsement.
All well and good, but independent candidacies and third parties have a historical track record of failure. Whitman does not shirk from the reality that launching the Forward Party would be anything less than a challenge.
Varela had said his view was that the “machines” were not typically threatened by independent candidates, but they were dedicated to suppressing third party opposition. “When you’re talking about third parties, this is when the guard goes up and they fight tooth and nail to try to prevent this.” He cited “the line” along with closed primaries and heavily gerrymandered redistricting as challenging for anything outside the two-party system from making headway.
Democrats and Republicans may disagree on a lot of things, but keeping the party status quo is one where they have common ground.
“It starts with your organization,” Whitman said when asked how the Forward Party could make headway. She cited her own Republican Party’s origins as proof that a party can, in fact, go from the outside to the mainstream. “You need to get an organization that’s formalized with somebody who is recognized as the chair, with a governing body, to help them do that hard work. It’s the hard work of building a party, which is never, never easy. It was six years after the Republican Party was formed in Ripon [Wisconsin], when it became a third party, and when Abraham Lincoln was elected, running under that banner. It takes time and it takes work. But the first thing that you need to do in New Jersey is get really organized so that you can have a better dialogue between Forward National and Forward New Jersey. We are pretty close together now anyway. But that’s what has to happen in order to ensure that we can get the organization set up such that it’s been prepared to work toward getting on the ballot.”
Eliminating the line, Varela said, would be one of the best ways to further democratize party politics. But the reality in New Jersey at least is that the trend is in the opposite direction. Insider NJ’s Fred Snowflack covered the experiences of the Morris County Republican Party adoption of the line, solidifying the party’s control amid a contentious campaign season. Indeed, they accomplished exactly what establishment party machinery wants, strengthening the power of a few to direct what is offered to the many. Proponents (who are obviously either Democrats or Republicans) say that this allows the parties to vet qualified candidates—people who will behave or do as they’re told—rather than introduce chaotic, unreasonable, or unqualified candidates to the electorate.
The MAGA movement, however, demonstrates an interesting exception to this rule, where white hot populism occasionally swamps the boss machinery. There is a caveat to this caveat, it should be said. This phenomenon has affected huge parts of what is derisively known as “fly-over country,” but is not especially evident in New Jersey. Here, more moderate candidates like Jack Ciattarelli came within a hand’s width of ousting Governor Murphy, having beaten MAGA torch-bearers like Phil Rizzo and Hirsch Singh in the GOP primary; the victory of policy-milquetoast Tom Kean, Jr., over a fiery right-wing culture warrior like Assemblyman Erik Peterson and Rizzo (again); or Bob Healey who vanquished the disgraced Ian Smith—who defied COVID lockdowns to keep his gym open and later, as a candidate, pleaded guilty to failure to take a breathalyzer test after being pulled over. Healey did not win, as Kean did over Congressman Malinowski, but he gave incumbent Congressman Andy Kim a run for his money in CD-3.
As far as seeing a systemic shift in the opposite direction than what New Jerseyans have experienced in party electoral structuring, Whitman thinks that New Jersey, among states, has it particularly hard. But she would not be a good co-chair if she was without hope.
The odds for eliminating the line? “I don’t think they’re very good, I’m afraid to say,” Whitman said, “ but that’s where Forward can come in. It’s not going to happen in this session, and it is not going to happen in the next session. It’s going to take several more years, I think, because it’s not in [parties’] best interest. I mean, why would you change a system that works so well for you, that guarantees you your seat?”
Where would the change have to come from? The people themselves, Whitman asserted. “There’s no incentive unless they hear from their constituents saying ‘damnit, we want this change.’ We can find the kind of independent candidates and give them the support they need, who are Forward-associated, and get them into the assembly or the Senate and start to make a difference. But it’s going to take a couple of years, I think, before we can see that, just because there’s absolutely nothing for those who are in power, who control the lines. They don’t want to give it up. That’s what’s gone wrong with our system. They’re so much about just keeping power.”
All is not gloom for the Forward Party, however, even though New Jersey may appear to be a state shackled in hardened-steel clamps to the two party duopoly. In other states, Forward has seen some traction. It might just be that if Forward does become a recognized party, New Jersey may be among the last to hop on the bandwagon.
“We were successful in some races,” the former governor cheered. “And obviously, we lost in some, but we’re now a movement in just about every state. We’ve got people working on every state. In fact, I was just in Nevada [Friday] where they have reached a Tea Party status recognition as has Texas and Maine. We expect Florida and North Carolina to [recognize Forward] as a party by next week or in the next three weeks.”
Almost all of the Forward Party members are volunteers, but Whitman said 33 states out of the 50 making up the union have a full-time staff now. “There were 10 ballot initiatives last cycle on ranked choice voting, eight of which passed. So it’s a movement that’s starting to grow. But of course, the other thing is, as soon as it does, and the parties recognize that, they start to push back hard. And they will. New Jersey right now has the opportunity. There are a couple of bills in the assembly and one in the Senate that have to do with rank choice voting. It’s going to be a tough battle.”
If voters are looking to the Forward Party for president in the 2024 elections, however, they won’t find any. “We’re not going to be running a presidential candidate in 2024, we as a board decided that it’s just not feasible… we’re focused on the ground up. This is a people’s movement, a movement that is creating a party.”
A common theme among voters is the sense that their leaders are out of touch or not connected with real issues, whether or not this is actually true. Non-competitive races would, logically, grant more security to the incumbents who can afford to have a less-present footprint in the community compared to places which frequently see primaries, or where party affiliations are closely balanced. To that end, the Forward Party’s perhaps idealistic approach to being values-oriented over specifically policy-oriented, would benefit, if not require, its prime objective of ranked-choice voting to be instituted, barring unusual circumstances in a given district.
“When I said we wouldn’t be having hard positions as Forward Party on particular issues, we’re going to recognize that there are differences,” Whitman said. “For instance, you take the gun issue. What’s right for Nevada is very different than what people are going to want in New Jersey. So when a Forward Party candidate is asked about that issue, they should answer as they feel and their constituents want.”
Whitman, however, has not been in the world of politics for decades without taking away some pragmatic wisdom. She took Utah as an example of how the Forward Party can advance its goals if not necessarily advancing the brand of the Forward Party itself, claiming that as a success in its own right. “We worked very closely with [independent US Senate candidate] Evan McMullin in Utah in the last cycle, and we were part of the reason, I think, why the Democrats agreed not to run a candidate at the end of the day. The Republicans suddenly got serious, because it finally seemed that he was gaining traction, and that scared them. So they threw a whole lot of money into it and the Republicans won. The theory in Utah was to run in the Senate because Utah will never, ever elect a Democrat. That just wasn’t going to happen. But to take the Democrats out of that process was very helpful to [McMullin].”
McMullin is a former Republican, now independent, as well as a former CIA intelligence officer. McMullin had opposed Donald Trump in 2016 and endorsed Joe Biden in 2020. The graduate of Bringham Young University had managed to take a significant 42.8% of the vote against Republican incumbent Senator Mike Lee in 2022.
Governor Whitman expressed her hopes that something similar could be achieved in Arizona. “We will support people running under any party: independent, Republican, Democrat, Green, as long as they agree to work across the aisle, respect the Constitution, respect the rule of law, and be willing to try to change the way we elect people opening the process… Here in Arizona, it’s a mess. I can guarantee that the Republicans will have an election-denier. Things still need to shake out as to what’s happening at the Senate level.”
Whitman said she plans to meet with Senator Krysten Simena to see if there is a possibility of a Forward Party relationship to be had there. Simena is a former Democrat who became an independent and, along with Joe Manchin, proved a headache for President Joe Biden where a 50/50 split Senate prior to the 2022 election required every Democrat to be on board with a given piece of legislation, in addition to a tie-breaking vote from Vice President Harris.
As every endeavor begins as a long-shot, especially when it comes to challenging something as institutionalized as political power structures, Whitman, Yang, and the Forward Party recognize that they have their work cut out for them. Their focus remains on the ground, hoping to build support and especially capitalize on races that have not seen much competition, whether due to apathy or unbeatable boss domination.
Whitman said that “it matters” who is the mayor and who sits on school boards or library commissions. “We’ve seen what’s been happening in states where books are being thrown out, and syllabuses are being overturned for not any particular reason that’s necessarily beneficial for the kids, or the public. That’s where we, as Forward, are focusing looking at candidates. We want to make sure that we have candidates who, in those elections where people don’t tend to vote, and their school board elections in New Jersey, particularly, are very often uncontested. When I look at my ballot in Hunterdon County every year, it’s just amazing to me how many of the seats are uncontested. But by doing that, by working at that level, you’re starting to create that mass that can influence the state level. There’s nothing to stop somebody from working and getting in touch with their local legislators and using the process that’s been set up for rank choice voting, and sending a letter to the governor at the same time. We can do both. It’s important not to forget the local. A lot of people want to go right to Congress or the presidency. We’re not about that. We’re about building a structure that’s going to last. You have to have a strong foundation to move forward and the local work that we’re doing. But at the same time, you still can reach out and put pressure on somebody like Governor Murphy to make changes that make it better and more equitable for independent candidates.”
For proponents of ranked choice voting and others dissatisfied with the party apparatus in the Garden State, they can keep their eyes open for more news of the Forward Party’s activities with their former governor as co-chair. As the Forward Party continues its development internally and establishes more operations around the country, Whitman said that they will plan to have a convention “of some sort,” either in-person or online, at the end of the summer or in the early autumn of this year.