South Jersey officials paid tribute Monday to the life and public service legacy of James J. “Jim” Florio, beloved by Democrats in South Jersey as a politician and environmentalist who rose politically to become New Jersey governor.
The accolades followed reports Monday that Florio had died at the age of 85.
Florio, a high school drop out who made better than just good, rose from a job as assistant attorney for the city of Camden to become a state legislator and then a congressman before being elected as the 49th governor of the state in 1990 and the first Italian-American to hold that position.
He already had served as a member of the United States House of Representatives for 15 years and gained a reputation as an environmentalist when he authored Superfund legislation to clean up hazardous waste sites and seek reimbursements from those responsible.
“I was saddened to learn of the passing of Governor Jim Florio. He was a dedicated public servant who cared deeply for our great state and its people. He was a true environmentalist, a trailblazer long before it was popular to do so,” said Congressman Donald Norcross, D-Camden, who expressed “deepest sympathies to Florio’s wife, Lucinda, and family.
“As a congressman he championed the Superfund law that has cleaned up dangerous chemicals in communities in New Jersey and around the country and as governor signed the state’s Clean Water Act, saving countless lives. He led by seeing the good in every individual and reached across party lines to do what was right even when it was hard. He will truly be missed.”Although a Brooklyn native and single-term chief executive, Florio was among the most enduring figures in South Jersey’s Democratic organization when he moved to Camden County early in his career as a lawyer. He also was a Navy veteran, amateur boxer and Rutgers Law School graduate.When Camden County freeholders put his name in lights on a Camden building in 2017, one official described the change as “a fitting tribute to an iconic public figure.”
“Governor Jim Florio was my friend, colleague and mentor. He provided a path for me and countless others as South Jersey’s biggest advocate over the last 50 years, riding that advocacy directly into the Governor’s mansion in 1990,” said Camden County Freeholder director Louis J. Cappelli, also a law partner of Florio.
Cappelli said Florio changed the course of politics in New Jersey and led the way in progressive policy for more than 30 years from his home in Camden County and never gave up hope for the struggling city of Camden.
“He had the last fiscally responsible budget in modern era, took a tough and popular stance against guns and the National Rifle Association and crafted the greatest environmental public policy from anyone in Congress in the last 50 years,” Cappelli added, also crediting him for the Campbell’s Soup Co. decision to maintain its global headquarters in Camden.
In another released statement the Burlington County Board of Commissioners said all of Burlington County and New Jersey mourns the loss of Governor Florio.
“He will be remembered as a leader and a statesman who championed New Jersey’s environment, public safety and education throughout his career…and was a courageous fighter who never backed down from a challenge or avoided a vote or action because it might also be unpopular,” the county gvernment commissioners said.
“(And) we were immensely proud he chose to make our county his adopted home during his later years. Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife and family during this time of loss.”
Assembly Majority Leader Louis Greenwald (D-Camden and Burlington) expressed deep sadness at Florio’s passing.
“Governor Florio was a good man who will be remembered for his staunch commitment to the people of New Jersey. He leaves behind a distinguished legacy of fighting to improve the lives of New Jersey residents. Whether championing environment and education issues or keeping our streets safe with commonsense gun safety laws, Governor Florio’s dedication to public service made New Jersey a better place to live. He will be missed,” Greenwald said.
Democrat congressman Andy Kim issued a statement from his Marlton office, praising Florio for a life of public service beginning with the Navy.
“Governor Florio embodied what it means to be a public servant. Through his work on the environment, gun safety, and programs that help uplift our most vulnerable communities, he made meaningful change within our state and our nation that will not be forgotten.”
Florio’s drive extended to his own life. He was a high school dropout who earned an equivalency degree after joining the Navy in 1955. He served as a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve from 1958 to 1975.
The future political pugilist also fought in the ring, compiling a 12-3 record as a middleweight, according to the New Jersey Boxing Hall of Fame, which inducted Florio as a member in 1990. In comments posted at the Hall’s website, Florio recalled his final fight against a considerably larger boxer who “hit me six times and broke something every time.”
After his Navy service, Florio earned degrees from Trenton State College and Rutgers Law School in Camden.
He began his law career as an assistant city attorney in Camden from 1967 to 1971, then served as solicitor for Runnemede, Woodlynne and Somerdale from 1969 to 1974, according to an online biography at the Eagleton Institute for Politics at Rutgers University.
Florio served three terms in the Assembly during his time as a solicitor.
That was followed by eight terms in Congress, where he represented the 1st District from January 1975 until becoming governor in January 1990.
As a congressman, Florio was the prime sponsor of the 1980 law that created the Superfund program to clean up polluted sites.
“I guess my particular interest came from New Jersey being one of the largest states with these problems,” Florio said in a 2005 interview with a representative of the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
“My congressional district has more of them than most, largely because the state was the center, continues to be the center, of a whole lot of refineries and chemical, petrochemical industrial sites, and this was kind of the residual problem from those sites operating,” he continued. “Many of them don’t operate any more, but the disposal practices of the past resulted in New Jersey being a place where these chemicals were dumped.”
Florio cruised to victory in the governor’s race, defeating a Republican congressman, James Courter, by a 62-38 percent margin, according to the Eagleton Institute.
Among other accomplishments, he obtained a ban on assault weapons, boosted funding for education, and created New Jersey’s first environmental prosecutor. But he also supported tax increases that proved unpopular and led to his re-election defeat as governor, including raising the states sales tax and taxing toilet paper as one of those taxed products.
Florio faced a hurdle when Democrats lost control of both the Assembly and the Senate for the last two years of his term. In one notable setback, the Eagleton Institute notes, GOP legislators overrode Florio’s veto of their fiscal 1992 budget.
He fell just short in a bid for a second term in 1994, losing to Republican Christine Todd Whitman by 1 percent, or 26,093 votes, the Eagleton Institute noted.
That defeat brought a return to the law for Florio, most recently a partner in the firm of Florio Perrucci Steinhardt Cappelli Tipton & Taylor LLC.
His later years also brought a recognition from Camden County, which five years ago dedicated the Waterfront Technology Center to the former governor. The building is now the Gov. James J. Florio Center for Public Service.
“Gov. Florio’s legacy reflects a lifetime of working to improve the lives of others,” Bill Moen, a former Camden County commissioner and now an assemblyman in Florio’s former district, said at the renaming ceremony for the building in Florio’s honor.
“Whether it was Superfund legislation or gun regulation, the governor always strived to improve the quality of life for the people of New Jersey.”