In January 1990, Jim Florio was sitting on top of the political world as New Jersey’s 49th governor, a prize that had long eluded him.
He swept to power months earlier with a whopping 540,000 vote plurality and coattails that brought his party back to power in the Legislature. This was a governor with a mandate.
But by July, Florio dummies hung in effigy at the State House. So did reams toilet paper on trees along West State Street, strung by protesters furious over raising the sales tax and extending it to paper products.
He was denounced as a liar. A recall campaign gathered 350,000 signatures. His Democratic allies in the Legislature fidgeted in the first signs of backlash. It didn’t seem to be going away.
Florio’s decision was to go on television and defend his historic package of tax hikes totaling $2.8 billion, and to explain himself. For 25 minutes. In the dead of a New Jersey summer. And he was hardly a made-for-TV draw — Florio often struck people as cold, combative and was accused by enemies as being dictatorial. One news news profile likened him to a cunning Cheshire cat who swallowed a canary.
Still, he made a plea for patience. Over time, he told viewers, you will come to see the wisdom of all these tough decisions.
“I’m not asking you to trust me,” he said, adding that taxpayers should wait “to see the results for yourself. You won’t see them next week or next month. … This will take a little time.”
Tough decisions merit rewards
That moment — and many of the decisions he made during his tumultuous term from 1990 to 1994 — was guided by an almost quaint, romantic notion. If people were truly engaged and informed — and maybe a little patient — that voters would, Florio thought, reward him for making the tough decisions.
In some sense, the feisty Florio, an ex-Navy boxer whose face still bore a concave scar from a debilitating bout, was the Original Disrupter. Donald Trump fashioned himself as the norm-busting outsider who dismantled government; he saw it as an impediment to business and his ability to wield power. He followed Florio’s example, as it turned out.
Florio upended the cautious, incremental style of New Jersey governance, with aggressive, almost alarming initiatives. Most memorable, of course, was the $2.8 billion package of tax hikes in the middle of a recession. That triggered a backlash that led to the effigies and the creation of a proto-Tea Party revolt that routed Florio’s party from the Legislature — a rout that still haunts the New Jersey Democrats to this day.
“Lots of Democrats in the Legislature gave up their careers for that vote,” said Micah Rasmussen, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. “It wasn’t a good thing politically for himself or the people around him … I remember Democrats saying years later, ‘I will never make anybody walk the plank like that again.’”
But unlike Trump and his MAGA followers, Florio believed in the power of government as a necessary instrument to improve the lives of its citizens. His ban on assault weapons came in 1990 in response to national outrage after a gunman killed five children and wounded 32 others with a semiautomatic weapon in Stockton, Calif.
“What was the use of accumulating political capital if you did not intend to use it?” Florio said in his autobiography, “Standing on Principle.”
Florio pushed through the tax hikes, in large part, to close a $550 million structural budget deficit he discovered upon taking office. It was also ignited the accusation that he lied to the voters because he had asserted that he saw no need to raise taxes during his campaign for governor a year earlier. He also redistributed school aid to poorer districts and away from the wealthier districts to comply with a state Supreme Court ruling that ordered additional dollars be spent on poorer urban districts.
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And he dismantled an unpopular, state-run auto insurance pool that covered “bad” drivers with a steep surcharge on almost every other driver in the state.
All of these efforts created an overnight and powerful array of enemies. The New Jersey Education Association fumed that $1 billion promised in education reforms in 1990 was short-circuited by a spending cap and the diversion of some $360 million in property tax relief. Public employee unions railed against his plan for layoffs and salary givebacks to help balance the budget. The auto insurance industry waged a bitter pushback battle over the insurance reforms.
And, most notably, the National Rifle Association and its allies waged an all-out jihad to roll back to the assault weapons ban. Florio certainly engaged the public by using government as a powerful tool, but he also created a perfect storm of backlash.
Soon he gave rise to a grassroots tax revolt, Hands Across New Jersey, that found a powerful new ally in 101.5 FM, a Trenton area radio station that remains a hotbed of antigovernment hostility. In 1991, the unions, Hands, and the gun rights groups and Republican Party formed a strange-bedfellows alliance and spearheaded a stunning backlash.
Florio’s Democratic majorities were replaced by veto-proof Republican majorities that included a bunch of inexperienced GOP newcomers who put their names on ballots as sacrificial lambs or as larks. They soon rolled back the Florio-enacted increase in the sales tax from 7% to 6% and repealed a tax on paper products. They also took the extraordinary step of voting down his fiscal year 1993 budget. And when Florio vetoed it, the Republicans overrode the veto.
In 1992, the Republicans also sought to rescind the assault weapons ban, Florio’s enduring legislative achievement. He took the battle straight to the public. It was validation of his belief — one that he championed right into his final years — that voters will support tough medicine once they are informed.
He brought in James Brady, the wounded former press secretary for President Ronald Reagan, to defend the bill. He staged an exhibition for the press where a state trooper blasted gallon jugs filled with red liquid at a rate of four or five shots a second. Actor Gregory Peck chipped in with a television commercial urging residents to oppose the repeal. Even Florio’s one-time rival, former Gov. Thomas H. Kean, publicly called the repeal “dead wrong.”
The repeal effort fizzled. Florio was later granted a “Profile in Courage” award by the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum for his efforts, a prize he cherished and touted for the rest of his life. It was proof that big public brawls can reap policy and political rewards, he thought.
Some Florio defenders argue that his grand strategy almost paid off at the ballot box in the fall of 1993. Despite all the tumult of his first term, Florio lost by only 26,000 votes to upstart Republican Christie Todd Whitman. Some observers argue that some late-campaign miscues denied him a second term. It’s also worth noting that Whitman had off-the-radar help from the NRA despite publicly distancing herself from the group.
A cautionary tale?
The loss proved to be a cautionary tale for next generations of Democrats. Tax increases would only come after much public teeth gnashing. A fight in 2006 to restore the sale tax to 7% led to a government shutdown before reached to use some of the proceeds for property tax relief. It took Gov. Phil Murphy nearly three years to boost taxes on millionaires despite widespread public support.
Few Democratic successors picked up the Florio playbook of aggressive engagement. The party is now defined by centrism, incrementalism and timidity.
And when Florio ran for the U.S. Senate in 2000, the party rallied around a newcomer and Wall Street plutocrat Jon S. Corzine and his wallet. Florio had experience and an impressive resume from Congress to Trenton. Corzine had no experience in elected office and had been recently bounced from a top post at Goldman Sachs. Florio couldn’t compete against Corzine’s $35 million that primary.
In his final State of the State speech, Florio sized up his legacy.
“When the 1990s is written it will turn out to be the story of men and women why confronted challenges and rejected easy, patchwork solutions,” he said. “Some will win and some will lose. But we will all move closer to the world we want for our children if we will be rise above the politics of the moment.”
Charlie Stile is a veteran political columnist. For unlimited access to his unique insights into New Jersey’s political power structure and his powerful watchdog work, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.