Former New Jersey Governor Jim Florio dies at 85
Born in Brooklyn in 1935 to a blue-collar family, Florio dropped out of high school but earned his New Jersey equivalency diploma while serving in the United States Navy and competing as an amateur middleweight boxer. He eventually graduated from Trenton State College (now The College of New Jersey) and Rutgers Law School in Camden.
“Both my parents were working class people. None of them graduated from high school. My dad was a shipyard worker, industrious, kinda rough,” Florio said at a 2018 New Jersey State Bar Association event. “He was a gamer. I’m not a gambler, but I’m a gambler in the sense that he was. He was a real player. After WWII, we lived on his poker winnings for 18 months when the shipyard closed.
Florio entered politics as a lawyer, working for the City of Camden and other South Jersey towns beginning in the late 1960s. He was elected to the New Jersey General Assembly in 1969 and to Congress in 1974. He was governor from 1990 to 1994.
In Congress, Florio sponsored the Superfund Act—today New Jersey has more Superfund sites than any other state—and pushed legislation creating the Pinelands National Preserve in South Jersey.
In 1977, he ran for governor for the first time, unsuccessfully challenging Democratic incumbent Brendan Byrne in the primary. Florio became the Democratic nominee in 1981, losing to Republican Tom Kean by less than 2,000 votes – the narrowest gubernatorial margin in New Jersey history. In 1989, he ran for governor for his third time and defeated Republican Jim Courter in a landslide election that saw Democrats overthrow the Assembly to take full control of the Statehouse.
But his governorship was almost immediately beset by fiscal troubles. His first budget cut many state aid programs and raised taxes.
« We are faced with hard realities and tough decisions, » Florio said in his 1990 budget speech to the Legislative Assembly. “The time has come to face them. As one of my heroes, the great heavyweight Joe Louis, used to say, ‘You can run but you can’t hide.’
The events that would define his tenure took place a few months later, when the state Supreme Court issued a landmark decision requiring New Jersey’s poorer school districts to be funded at the same level as wealthier ones.
Facing budget shortfalls and demands for school funding, Florio signed multi-billion dollar increases in income and sales tax. While Florio pointed out that only 17% of New Jerseyans would pay higher income taxes, the increases — and in particular an expansion of the state sales tax to include, among other things, toilet paper — led to a revolt and massive protests at the Statehouse, spurred by a then little-known radio station, 101.5 FM.
Florio also faced protests over his 1990 law banning the sale of military-style assault weapons – then considered the toughest gun control law in the country. The late actor Charlton Heston, who became president of the National Rifle Association, excoriated Florio at a gun advocacy group dinner at Edison.
“New Jersey was the first state to ratify the Bill of Rights,” Heston said, according to a New York Times article. “I won’t sit idly by while you try to be the first to cancel it. »
Florio responded in pugilistic style. « It’s not Planet of the Apes, » he said, referring to the 1968 film Heston starred in. “It’s New Jersey. »
The unpopularity of Florio’s policies led to a disastrous midterm for Democrats in 1991, with Republicans toppling the Assembly and Senate with non-vetoing majorities. The Democrats will not regain control of the Assembly for 10 years and the Senate for 12 years.
But Florio and the GOP-led legislature would form what The New York Times described at the time as an « uneasy alliance, » agreeing on budgets, school funding and health care legislation. By 1993, Florio’s popularity had begun to pick up. In November of that year, Republican Christie Whitman beat Florio by just one percentage, 49.3% to 48.3%.
Whitman immediately set about reversing Florio-era tax increases, but some of her later policies, such as bail to pay state pension liabilities, would lead some to credit Florio as responsible governor. in tax terms.
In his final State of the State address in January 1994, Florio urged people to « rise above the politics of the moment » and to « rise above the temptation to define the community in a narrow and selfish way ».
“I believe we will do these things because we know the need to do them is greater than any price to pay,” he said.
Florio attempted a political comeback in 2000, running for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate after Senator Frank Lautenberg’s retirement announcement. Florio lost to Jon Corzine, who spent tens of millions on his campaign.
Florio founded a law firm, now known as Florio Perrucci Steinhardt Cappelli Tipton & Taylor, in 1996
Gov. Phil Murphy announced Monday morning that he would order state flags to fly at half mast in Florio’s honor.
« He was a leader who cared more about the future of New Jersey than his own political fortunes. And he was also a friend whose kind advice was invaluable to me and countless others in our state. Our communities are cleaner today because of the environmental efforts he championed in Congress. And our streets are safer today because of his tireless efforts to enact and defend the Assault Weapons Ban of our state, which remains the law to this day,” Murphy said.