Executive Protection Profile: Protecting N.J.'s Governor

After Gov. Christie Whitman insisted on having women on her team of bodyguards, one of the first to be brought in was Debbie Baker.

Fourteen years later, Baker is the leader of that team.

Baker, 43, a lieutenant in the State Police and the first woman to head the force's Executive Protection Unit, admits her job is more administrative - "sitting behind a desk, sending e-mails, doing evaluations" - than anything else.

But make no mistake: Every single day, guarding the governor is what it's all about.

"That's all I think about. It's my whole job and it starts from the minute I wake up," Baker, 43, said in an April 10 interview with The Star-Ledger.

And when a crisis arises, like Gov. Jon Corzine's serious auto crash the evening of April 12, it's Baker in the line of fire.

Whitman said: "They're always looking for a scapegoat. Of course, it's on her (Baker's) watch, and that tends to be where the blame gets put. But that would be unfair."

In the wake of the accident, Whitman has been named to co-chair a panel reviewing the EPU's policies and procedures. Baker will be among the first questioned by the commission. She has not commented since the accident.

A trooper for nearly 20 years, Baker was born in Burlington County. She grew up in Hunterdon County and wanted to be a teacher. But she had a tough time in college and dropped out. She completed her bachelor's degree in justice administration at Thomas Edison College last month.

"The 26-year plan," she joked. "I made a promise to my parents that I would do it. I think they thought I'd do it a little sooner."

Her alternative to teaching was the State Police.

"Even though it sounds hokey, I believed that somehow I could make a difference," she said.

The only woman graduate in the 105th State Police class of 1986, she was assigned to "ticket writer" duties on road patrol. One day she passed Drumthwacket, the governor's mansion in Princeton.

"I go, `Wow. That's the governor's mansion. I'd love to do that job.'"

In 1993, Whitman became the first woman elected New Jersey governor, and she noticed there were no women on the security detail.

"I wanted women on the detail," Whitman said. "It was a combination of things: It was personal comfort and I wanted to send a message. The troopers are very visible when they're with the governor, and I wanted to have women visibly with me."

She added: "I wanted the troopers to look less like thugs. I said, `You scare people. They don't want to come near you, and that's not good for the governor.'

"I always asked them to stay back as far as they could and just seem less scary."

Baker concedes that, with her slight build, she doesn't look the part.

"I tell people I'm a bodyguard for the governor," she said, "and they look at me and they say: `Oh my God, you're a bodyguard?' Because everyone has this preconceived notion of what a bodyguard is supposed to look like."

Governors guarded by Baker praised her competence - and her smile.

Baker said protecting a dignitary is more about planning and being alert.

Baker's first day with Whitman was Thanksgiving 1993. The State Police had already converted a laundry room into a command post in the governor-elect's home in Tewksbury.

"Her kitchen looked out into our office," Baker recalled. "I just remember her just standing in her kitchen staring in at us; she's standing in her kitchen, trying to wash dishes or whatever for Thanksgiving, and she's looking at us. That's got to be something: All of a sudden, `I've got three people in my house.'"

Baker and Whitman are now friends. Whitman said that will not have any impact on her probe of the EPU: "It's not a question of if you knew anybody on the unit prejudicing you. It's about working together to see if there is anything more that can or should be done."

After Whitman left office in January 2001, Baker was assigned to her successor, Donald DiFrancesco. He recalled being at a meeting at Drumthwacket on the morning of Sept. 11.

"Baker came in and said, `Governor, a plane just hit the World Trade Center,'" DiFrancesco said. "Twenty minutes later she came back and said, `A second plane hit; we have to get out of here.'" He didn't hesitate to follow her instructions to go to State Police headquarters in Ewing.

"She's one of the best," he said.

In 2005, Gov. Richard Codey promoted Baker to head the EPU. Corzine kept her in that job.

Two days before the crash, she said all governors need to be taught about security.

"Governors think, `No one is going to hurt me,'" Baker said. "The chance of us taking a bullet (for the governor) all sounds very sexy, I guess, but that's what we're supposed to do."

Last year Corzine chief of staff Tom Shea told Baker that the governor, planning to inspect the maximum-security New Jersey State Prison in Trenton, didn't want to send the normal advance team of troopers because he wanted the inspection to be a surprise.

"It's like, `No. That's not going to happen. That can't happen,'" Baker recalled. Sometimes, she said, "I really need to put my foot down."