Home>Feature>The O’Toole Chronicles: Governor Jim Florio

Gov. Jim Florio at Gov. Phil Murphy's fiscal year 2023 budget address delivered on March 8, 2022. (Photo: Kevin Sanders for New Jersey Globe).

The O’Toole Chronicles: Governor Jim Florio

By Kevin O'Toole, September 27 2022 12:01 am

As a young man with no more than a cup of coffee in politics, my first introduction to Jim Florio was not flattering, it was the grassroots movement in the early 1990s called “Hands Across New Jersey.” For our younger readers, this was a political protest against tax increases imposed by then-Governor Jim Florio. At the time, it was perhaps the single most incredible show of political protest against our state government in New Jersey.

As I have written in the past, I was in college when I got my first taste of politics, interning for my local Congressman, Joseph Minish. Congressman Minish spoke of Jim Florio with high regard, as they served in the House of Representatives together, and I heard his name more and more as I became more acquainted with New Jersey politics.

In 1989, Jim Florio was already on his way to being elected Governor when I won a non-partisan election for a seat on the Cedar Grove Township Council.  So, as a very young elected official and legislative aide to Assemblyman John V. Kelly, I had a seat and watched what was my first gubernatorial transition from Tom Kean to Governor Florio.  As a staffer, I fielded calls from constituents angered over Florio’s tax increases, and with Kelly, I participated in some of those “Hands Across New Jersey” grassroots rallies.

By the time I was elected to the General Assembly in 1995, Governor Florio was out of office for two years. I served with a number of people who owed their political careers to him: Democrats from South Jersey who remained forever loyal to the titular head of their party; Democrats from other parts of the State who spoke of him with respect and admiration; and Republicans who in a way owed their political careers to a Democratic Governor who enabled their election.

With the benefit of hindsight, time spent in the Legislature, and a much broader view of political history, my perspective on Governor Florio looks quite different from those “Hands Across New Jersey” protests.  I have come to view Governor Florio through a much different lens, one of respect and admiration, for a fighter who stood up and did what he thought was right. He didn’t govern by reading polls – that much was clear. Jim Florio was a policy wonk who trusted his own beliefs and was comfortable in his own skin. He didn’t backpedal. He never retreated. Jim Florio was willing to fall on his sword in defense of his principles, and that is a lesson for all of us.

There are other guiding principles that Governor Florio can teach us:

  1.  Take your shot and run for office: Jim Florio wasn’t afraid to run for the New Jersey Assembly in 1969 as a 32-year-old attorney in a year when the Republican candidate for Governor was from Camden County.  He worked hard and he won;
  2.  Make lemons out of lemonade: Florio lost his first run for Congress, and then came back and won two years later;
  3.  If you lose a close race, just work harder: Florio was unafraid to take on an incumbent Governor in his own primary in 1977 (he lost to Brendan Byrne).  Then in 1981, he won a tough primary and lost an excruciatingly close race against Tom Kean (the margin, after a recount that lasted until Thanksgiving, was a mere 1,797 votes). He went back to Congress, fought to clean up toxic sites – all of us are grateful that Jim Florio was there to police Superfund sites – and then became Governor in 1989. This time, it was a landslide;
  4.  Live a life where you can keep your head up high: Florio was not oblivious to what people were saying about him, but he understood that it was, as they say, only business and not personal. It’s been almost 28 years since he was Governor, but he was able to move on to the next stages of his life with dignity and with his moral compass still intact. He built successful businesses and a burgeoning law firm. He continued to speak his mind until his final day. A true elder statesman of New Jersey.

Other parts of Governor Florio’s legacy go forgotten now.  We are enjoying cleaner beaches and oceans thanks to Congressman Florio. We are enjoying our natural resources and an abundance of open space thanks to Governor Florio. The mantle of ensuring South Jersey isn’t just viewed as “space between 195 and Delaware” is because of Jim Florio. He led the charge, and paved the way, for public servants, like Jack Collins and Steve Sweeney, to come along and ensure South Jersey got their fair share of State resources.

Too many times in this business we get consumed by the message of the day, poll numbers, an election around the corner, interest groups, and political expediency, but not Jim Florio. He governed by his beliefs and values, right or wrong; good or bad – results be damned. You can agree or disagree with his politics and approach, but you can’t say he wasn’t principled.

I didn’t vote for Jim Florio in 1989 or 1993, but today, I respect and admire him. Sometimes we don’t appreciate the hard work of good people until it’s too late.

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