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Dale Florio. (Photo: Kevin Sanders for New Jersey Globe)

Ciattarelli opposition to cigarette tax puts lobbyist in hot seat

Dale Florio, a top Ciattarelli strategist, is a hired gun for the tobacco industry

By David Wildstein, February 27 2020 6:10 pm

After Gov. Phil Murphy proposed raising the taxes on cigarettes by 61% on Tuesday, it took less than an hour for one of his potential opponents, former Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli (R-Hillsborough), to announce his opposition.

The reason, Democrats say, is that Ciattarelli’s top campaign advisor, Dale Florio, is a longtime lobbyist for the tobacco industry.

Florio’s State Street lobbying firm, Princeton Public Affairs Group, was paid $130,000 to lobby for Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris, in 2018, according to reports filed with the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission.

It’s no secret that Florio is fully engaged in helping Ciattarelli oust Murphy next  year.   Campaign meetings have been held in the firm’s Trenton office.  Interviews of potential campaign vendors took place there.  And a full-time employee of Florio’s firm staffed Ciattarelli today on the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce’s annual Walk to Washington train trip.

“When you hear Jack Ciattarelli attack Governor Murphy’s plans to fight back against smoking, remember who is advising him — Big Tobacco’s lobbyist in Trenton,” said Phil Swibinski, a spokesman for the New Jersey Democratic State Committee.

Florio has spent years successfully compartmentalizing two separate personas:  one as a Trenton lobbyist who has developed strong relationships with both sides of the aisle–  he attended a Democratic State Committee fundraiser at Murphy’s Middletown home in 2018;  in the other, as a former Somerset County GOP chairman, he was fiercely partisan in local elections.

But after Ciattarelli announced his candidacy for governor last month, Murphy’s political team has begun to focus on Florio.

The lobbyist’s insider role in trying to deny Murphy a second term appears to have played into the decision to raise the cigarette tax from $2.70 to $4.35 per pack, the New Jersey Globe has learned.

“Screw him,” one administration official said of Florio, who has lobbied for Philip Morris — first as an employee and then as a contract lobbyist — since the 1980s.

Ciattarelli’s response to the governor’s proposal largely mirrored tobacco industry talking points.

“Sky-rocketing taxes on cigarettes exploits and punishes the most marginalized members of the community, including those on the lowest rungs of our economic ladder,” he said after Murphy announced his proposal.

The Murphy administration maintains that higher taxes on cigarette sales decreases consumption, something the governor views as in the best long-term interests of a healthier state.

Swibinski suggests that Ciattarelli is more interested in protecting Florio’s client than showing concern for low income New Jerseyans.

Florio pushed back on the idea that Ciattarelli is doing his bidding.

“I’ve known him for 25 years.  Jack has a long record of doing what he thinks is right, Florio told the Globe.  “He’s probably the most independent person I know.”

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