Former governor, congressman Jim Florio dies at 85

Gun Rights

Jim Florio, the governor whose four-year tenure left New Jersey with an assault-weapons ban and higher taxes, spurring a trifecta of Republican control that persisted for years, died Sunday at 85.

Florio, a Democrat who spent 15 years as a congressman before leaving the post to seek the governorship in 1990, served a single term before being ousted amid anger over voluminous tax increases he shepherded into law and an assault weapons ban that remains among the nation’s strictest gun control measures.

Those who knew Florio called him a consummate gentleman whose friendship stretched across party lines, with many lamenting the increasing rarity of such openness in today’s politics.

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“I think it’s no joke that democracy itself is at stake in our country,” said Anthony “Skip” Cimino, a former Assemblyman ousted in the 1991 wave who served as Florio’s personnel commissioner. “If we had leaders like Jim Florio in office today, I don’t think we would have the kinds of issues that we’re facing right now.”

Faced with a looming deficit as the country exited what was then the longest peacetime economic boom in its history and turned into a recession that would peak midway through his tenure, Florio turned to taxes.

He wished to raise $2.8 billion through hikes to sales and excise taxes — tax hikes that were then the largest in the history of any state — to prepare New Jersey for the downturn and boost state education aid to urban and rural districts, to the detriment of better-funded suburban districts.

While Florio and those close to him stood by the tax increases in the decades since their passage, they spurred a wave of voter backlash that catapulted Republicans to supermajorities in both chambers in 1991 and would help buoy the party until after the turn of the new millennium. 

“I think it was unfair that people took it out on him — took it out on us as legislators, quite frankly, because we firmly believed we were doing the right thing along the way,” Cimino said. “There were things that needed to be addressed, and we couldn’t have a budget deficit. We had to have a balanced budget.”

The animus persisted to Florio’s own reelection in 1993, and his defeat that year to Republican Christine Todd Whitman was the third he faced throughout his life seeking New Jersey’s governorship. Even so, Florio never came to regret raising taxes. Decades after his reelection defeat, he stood by the policy even though an alternative path may have reshaped state history.

“It was clear to me that he was convinced that the decisions that he made and the policies he tried to enact during the time he was in the governor’s office, he thought, were right by the state of New Jersey,” said Doug Steinhardt, a partner at Florio, Steinhardt, Cappelli, Tipton & Taylor and former Republican state chairman. “It’s that determination to stand by your convictions that I think leaves a lasting impression.”

But taxes aren’t the whole of Florio’s legacy. Early into his term, the governor set off another firestorm by signing a sweeping assault weapons ban that outlawed dozens of semi-automatic rifles and shotguns while setting magazine limits and proscriptions on pistol grips and telescoping stocks.

“In anger, one of the stained glass windows in the annex was broken by a rock. It was almost an act of desecration,” said Jim McGreevey, who was then an assemblyman and who became governor himself in 2002. “Governor Florio was resolute. He said, ‘This will save lives. This is meaningful. This is purposeful.’”

That move eventually drew the ire of the National Rifle Association, but the gun group’s efforts at lobbying for repeal were defeated. New Jersey’s gun control laws are among the strictest in the country, and the assault weapons ban remains among them, though it is now the subject of a federal suit.

Florio’s legislative history extends past the borders of New Jersey. He championed the passage of the country’s first Superfund cleanup bill as a congressman in 1980, later pushing against members of his own party to expand the program with mandatory cleanup schedules for the Environmental Protection Agency and funding for health risk studies and aid to those affected by contamination.

He was also the principal author of the Staggers Rail Act, a bill that upended a century-and-a-half old regulatory system on the nation’s railroads. The bill effectively halved rail shipping costs, bringing struggling transit networks back into profitability after decades of decline.

“Our communities are cleaner today because of the environmental efforts he championed in Congress. And our streets are safer today because of his dogged effort to enact and defend our state’s assault-weapons ban, which remains the law to this day,” Gov. Phil Murphy said in a statement. “More than anything, Governor Florio showed that legacies are built by doing the right things.”

Florio remained active in state politics after his 1993 defeat, though he would never again hold elected office. He mounted a bid for U.S. Senate in 2000 but was defeated by former Goldman Sachs CEO Jon Corzine, who would become governor of New Jersey in 2006 and face his own defeat after one term in Trenton.

Forio was also chair of the New Jersey Pinelands National Commission from 2002 to 2005 and played a major role in the region winning its national reserve designation.

Despite his accomplishments, he may best be remembered as a relied-upon friend by those closest to him, even if that friend in need sat on the other side of the aisle.

Steinhardt, a Republican and longtime coworker who is now seeking retiring Sen. Michael Doherty’s seat, recalled the governor offered to give his campaign a boost in their final conversation.

“He said he would be happy to congratulate or condemn me, whichever I thought would be more helpful,” said Steinhardt. “He was a good partner. I think in hindsight, people will look back on his service, and he will be missed.”

Florio is survived by his wife, Lucinda, and their children and grandchildren.

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