The late Gov. Jim Florio “wasn’t the greatest politician,” according to Mike Perrucci, his law partner and longtime friend. But as recounted by a series of his family, friends, and political successors, he was a mentor, a father, and a tenacious fighter for what he believed in – and in the words of Perrucci, he was “the greatest statesman.”
A week after his death at age 85, Florio was memorialized today at a service held on Camden County College’s Blackwood campus. Speakers recounted his long career in politics – beginning as an assistant city solicitor in 1960s Camden and culminating in 1989 with his election to the governor’s office – and their own intersections with him along the way.
“New Jersey has lost a man of principle, who proved in both politics and life that we can disagree passionately on issues while remaining true friends with those with whom we disagree,” Gov. Phil Murphy said. “We’ve lost an exemplary public servant; we’ve lost, as was mentioned, a statesman. But we’ve in no way lost Jim’s spirit, and it will inspire us to do more with the time we have to set in place a better future for those who come long after we’re gone.”
In attendance was a phalanx of current and former New Jersey politicians, including every living governor: Murphy, Chris Christie, Jon Corzine, Richard Codey, Jim McGreevey, Donald DiFrancesco, John Bennett, Christine Todd Whitman, and Tom Kean. According to Murphy, it was the first time ever that those nine men and women had ever gathered at once.
Born in Brooklyn in 1937, Florio served in the U.S. Navy before moving to New Jersey to attend college and law school. Florio, also an amateur boxer, began moving up in South Jersey Democratic politics throughout the 1960s, eventually winning a seat in the State Assembly as a Democrat in 1969.
Florio first ran for Congress in 1972, losing to incumbent Rep. John E. Hunt (R-Pitman) as Richard Nixon was re-elected in a landslide. But Florio sought a rematch two years later and demolished Hunt 59-39%, beginning a fifteen-year career in the House.
Over the course of his congressional career, Florio made a name for himself as a champion of environmental protection. As speakers at today’s memorial noted, one of his greatest accomplishments was his Superfund legislation to clean up toxic waste sites, a landmark bill that was signed into law in 1980.
“He was feisty but principled, determined to improve the lives of those whom he represented,” said Rep. Donald Norcross (D-Camden), whose father was once a key Florio supporter and who now holds the successor to his Camden-based congressional seat.
Florio made two unsuccessful attempts at the governor’s office, first in 1977 and again in 1981, before finally succeeding in 1989, easily defeating Rep. Jim Courter (R-Allamuchy) to flip the governorship to Democrats.
His political futures were almost immediately marred by his decision to push through a $2.8 billion tax increase, a move intended to fund the state’s public schools. The increase ended up pushing Florio’s approval to a deep well – in October 1990, a Star-Ledger/Eagleton-Rutgers poll put it at 18-78% – creating a devastating legislative midterm wave that saw 31 seats flip blue-to-red in 1991.
But Florio’s one term as governor also came with successes, most notably his support for what was at the time the strictest assault weapon ban in the country. After his huge midterm losses, Florio managed to recover and only lost 49-48% to Christine Todd Whitman in 1993.
“Florio’s passion and work ethic were beyond compare, and he expected the same from his staff,” Florio’s former senior health advisor Amy Mansue said. “It didn’t matter where your path crossed with him. He continually inspired us to do the work which would have a tremendous impact on whatever subject area you worked on.”
Florio ran for U.S. Senate in 2000 but lost the Democratic primary to Jon Corzine, and his hopes of becoming Secretary of Labor under President Al Gore were dashed when George W. Bush won instead. That marked the end of his political career, and he spent his final two decades continuing to practice law, not stopping work until his death.
Today’s ceremony ended with a tribute from two of Florio’s five children, Chris Florio and Catherine Pipas, who remembered their father as an unwavering spirit who would want the future generations to keep up his fights.
“Dad is now relying upon all of us to save the planet; all of us to ensure justice; all of us to improve the health care system, enhance education, and protect people,” Pipas said. “He believed in the next generation. He believed in each of us.”