New Jersey’s former Democratic governor Jim Florio, whose unpopular tax increases in 1990 cost him reelection but who is now remembered for his work on gun control and environmental protection, passed away on Sunday night. He was 85.
During his time in office, Florio was a major influence in passing the Superfund law, which established a system for paying for the cleanup of toxic waste sites. As the number of mass shootings increased after Florio left office, other Democratic lawmakers followed his lead and publicly clashed with the National Rifle Association over his ban on military-style assault guns.
Breaking News: Jim Florio, the former Democratic governor of New Jersey who lost his bid for re-election after raising taxes, died at 85. https://t.co/rmVi9xZFQL
— The New York Times (@nytimes) September 26, 2022
However, Florio’s political career ended because of a slew of tax increases necessitated by budget shortfalls and a landmark state Supreme Court verdict on school funding.
Florio, who was born in Brooklyn in 1935 to a working-class family, served in the United States Navy and competed as a middleweight amateur boxer while he received his high school equivalency degree in New Jersey. He completed his education at both Trenton State University, now called The College of New Jersey, and Rutgers University–Camden School of Law.
My mom and dad both came from modest backgrounds. They both dropped out of high school before finishing. Florio said at a 2018 New Jersey State Bar Association event, “My father was a shipyard worker; he was industrious and a touch rough around the edges.” That gambler was him. I don’t gamble for cash, but I can appreciate the thrill of the risk he took. In other words, he was a professional gambler. When the shipyard shut down after WWII, we survived on his poker profits for the next 18 months.
In the late 1960s, Florio began his political career as a lawyer representing the city of Camden and other South Jersey municipalities. In 1969, he won a seat in the New Jersey State Assembly, and in 1974, he was elected to the U.S. Congress. As governor, he presided from 1990 until 1994.
Florio advocated for legislation to establish the Pinelands National Reserve in southeastern New Jersey and sponsored the Superfund bill, which has resulted in more Superfund sites in New Jersey than any other state.
His first attempt at governorship was in 1977, when he faced off against Democratic incumbent Brendan Byrne in a primary election and ultimately lost. Florio was the Democratic contender for governor of New Jersey in 1981, when he was defeated by Republican Tom Kean by a margin of fewer than 2,000 votes, the closest race for that office in the state’s history. In 1989, he stood for governor for the third time, and he won by a landslide, giving Democrats control of both houses of the state legislature.
Financial difficulties plagued his administration as governor almost immediately. His first budget significantly reduced government assistance programs and raised taxes.
In his 1990 budget address to the Legislature, Florio observed, “We are confronted by tough realities and painful decisions.” “It’s time to face them. You may run, but you can’t hide, as the great heavyweight Joe Louis once said.
A few months later, the state Supreme Court issued a landmark rule mandating that New Jersey’s poorest school districts be funded at the same level as the state’s wealthiest, setting in motion a series of events that would characterize his term.
Florio signed multi-billion dollar income and sales tax increases in the face of budget difficulties and calls for school financing. Even though Florio claimed that only 17% of New Jersey residents would have to pay more in income taxes, the increases in taxes, and especially the extension of the state sales tax to include, among other things, toilet paper, sparked widespread outrage and massive protests at the Statehouse, sparked in part by a then-obscure radio station called 101.5 FM.
Protests were also directed against Florio in 1990, when he passed a legislation prohibiting the sale of military-style assault rifles. At the time, this was the nation’s strongest gun control law. At a banquet for a gun rights club in Edison, the late actor Charlton Heston, who later became president of the National Rifle Association, lambasted Florio.
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Florio’s retort was typical of a boxer’s. He referred to the 1968 film in which Charlton Heston played Caesar and stated, “This isn’t “The Planet of the Apes.” “You’re in the state of New Jersey.”
Due to the widespread disapproval of Florio’s policies, the Democrats suffered a devastating midterm defeat in 1991, and the Republicans gained veto-proof majorities in both the Assembly and the Senate. It would take the Democrats ten years to win back the Assembly and twelve to take the Senate.
Budgets, school funding, and health care legislation all came together in what The New York Times called a “uneasy partnership” between Florio and the GOP-led Legislature. Florio’s fortunes started turning around in 1993. Christie Whitman, a Republican, narrowly defeated Florio, a Democrat, by a vote of 49.3 percent to 48.3 percent in November of that year.
Even while Whitman wasted little time in reversing Florio’s tax hikes, her subsequent policies, such as issuing bonds to cover the state’s pension responsibilities, have led some to give Florio credit for being a fiscally savvy governor.
To “raise beyond the politics of the moment” and “rise above the temptation to define community in a limited and selfish sense,” Florio implored his audience in his final State of the State address in January 1994.
In his words, “the necessity to perform these things is greater than any price there is to pay,” hence the actions themselves will be taken.
In 2000, after then-Senator Frank Lautenberg announced his retirement, Florio ran for the Democratic candidacy for the United States Senate. Florio was defeated by Jon Corzine, whose campaign spent tens of millions more money.
In 1996, Florio established what is today Florio Perrucci Steinhardt Cappelli Tipton & Taylor, a law practice.
On Monday morning, Florida’s governor, Phil Murphy, stated that state flags would be lowered to half-staff in his honor.
He was a leader who put New Jersey’s future ahead of his own political gain. He was also a good friend whose wise advice helped myself and countless others in our state immensely. Because to his work in Congress to protect the environment, our cities and towns are much better than they were. The assault-weapons ban that he worked so hard to pass and defend in his state is still in effect today, making communities safer, as Murphy put it.