Every living former governor of New Jersey and scores of others today to pay tribute to James J. Florio today at a memorial service in Camden County, where the late governor, congressman and assemblyman began his political career more than 50 years ago as a candidate for the state legislature.
Florio, who died last week at age 85, had no shortage of tough races – he won a congressional seat in 1974 on his second try and came within 1,745 votes of defeating Tom Kean in the 1981 governor’s race – but his most difficult campaign might have been in 1979, when his name was not on the ballot.
In that race – a decade before George Norcross became county chairman, Florio and Camden Mayor Angelo Errichetti backed top-to-bottom slates for control of the Camden County Democratic organization. The race was nasty and deeply personal.
The fight between the two had been brewing for several years. In 1978, Errichetti backed former State Treasurer Richard Leone for the Democratic U.S. Senate nomination, while Florio endorsed retired New York Knicks star Bill Bradley. Bradley carried Camden County by a 65%-27% margin, an embarrassing loss for Errichetti.
Errichetti, who was also a state senator, was at the height of his political power. His slate ran on the Camden County Democratic organization line; the off-the-line candidates ran as the “Florio Democratic Team.”
Both factions ran full slates of candidates in three legislative districts and for the Camden County Board of Freeholders. Florio had the backing of the Camden County Democratic Chairman Michael Keating and Cherry Hill Democratic Municipal Chairman Lewis Katz. Errichetti had the support of State Sen. Joseph Maressa (D-Waterford), powerful Freeholder William Simon and former Democratic County Chairman James Joyce.
In the 4th legislative district, four-term incumbents Kenneth Gewirtz (D-Sewell) and Francis Gorman (D-Gloucester City) lost their seats to Florio Team members Daniel Dalton and Dennis Riley by more than 4,000 votes. Dalton was Florio’s top congressional staffer in New Jersey and Riley as an assistant county counsel in Gloucester.
Errichetti’s candidates, Assemblymen Ernest Schuck (D-Barrington) and Walter Rand (D-Camden) outdistanced the Florio-backed challengers, Camden City Councilman Daniel Ciechanowsi and Reno Domenico, a Camden city school official, by more than 2,000 votes in the 5th district, which include the city of Camden.
Next door in the Cherry Hill-based 6th district, a pair of three-term assemblywomen, Barbara Berman (D-Cherry Hill) and Mary Keating Croce (D-Pennsauken), ran with the Florio Team. The defeated former Camden County Freeholder Director M. Allan Vogelson and Camden County Treasurer John Gasparre by nearly 7,000 votes.
In the race for three freeholder seats, the organization backed incumbents Michael Hayes and Hilliard Moore, along with Bellmawr Mayor Joseph Petruzzi. A third incumbent, Edward Sayers, ran on the Florio team, along Cherry Hill Mayor Maria Barnaby Greenwald, and Wayne Bryant, an attorney from Lawnside.
Greenwald was the top vote-getter and the Florio Team won the freeholder primary by a margin of nearly 2-1.
The epilogue is better known: Errichetti was convicted on bribery and extortion charges stemming from the Abscam scandal and forfeited his mayoral post and Senate seat. He was sentenced to six years in prison.
Florio remained in Congress after his narrow 1981 loss and was easily elected governor in 1989.