Catherine Florio Pipas recalled Monday that one of the key lessons she learned from her father, former New Jersey Gov. Jim Florio, is to “build character” — to “be tough in the face of challenges” and “reframe challenges as opportunities.”
Growing up in Camden, she remembered, the kids in the family were given a choice before driving to the local swim club on weekends: travel with their mother in an air-conditioned station wagon or with dad in his Oldsmobile, with AC off and windows up.
“Character in this case was being built by physically sweating, mentally overcoming the desire for comfort that might weaken you, and spiritually appreciating the cool pool more than you would have ever done otherwise,” said Florio Pipas, now a professor at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth University. “Making tough choices and self-sacrifice were cornerstone to his beliefs.”
Similar tales of Jim Florio’s character and courage were at the forefront as more than 200 current and former state officials, colleagues, family members, and friends gathered for a public memorial service for the former congressman and governor, who died Sept. 25 at age 85.
Sitting in the crowd was a rare contingent: Gov. Phil Murphy and all seven former New Jersey governors — Chris Christie, Jon Corzine, Richard Codey, Jim McGreevey, Donald DiFrancesco, Christie Whitman, and Tom Kean.
“I don’t believe this group has ever been together,” Murphy told the audience at a theater on the Blackwood campus of Camden County College. “That’s a statement to Jim Florio.”
Murphy said with Florio’s death, New Jersey has “lost a mentor, a leader, and a dear friend to many,” as well as “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.”
“We’ve lost an exemplary public servant,” he said of Florio, who was governor from 1990-94. “We have lost a statesman. But we have in no way lost Jim’s spirit.”
Some remarked how Florio’s story was a remarkable one. Born in Brooklyn, he dropped out of high school, joined the Navy, fought as an amateur boxer, and got his high-school equivalency before working as a janitor to put himself through law school at Rutgers University in Camden.
Later, Florio was elected to represent parts of South Jersey for 15 years in Congress, where he wrote the landmark federal Superfund law to clean up contaminated sites across the U.S.
U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross, D-1st Dist., who now occupies the seat Florio once held in the House of Representatives, called him “an environmentalist before anyone ever spoke of it.”
After two failed gubernatorial bids, Florio was elected New Jersey’s 49th governor in 1989. His tenure was tumultuous but consequential.
He signed the nation’s first statewide ban on assault weapons, fighting off fierce opposition from the National Rifle Association. He also enacted laws to overhaul auto insurance and school funding.
Most famously, he installed a $2.8 billion tax increase in response to a fiscal crisis — an increase he backed in part to help equal ensure school funding. The move sparked backlash across the Garden State and led to Republicans taking over the state Legislature for a decade. Florio himself ended up serving only one term as governor, losing his re-election bid to Whitman in 1993.
Michael Perrucci, Florio’s law partner and longtime friend, remembered begging the then-governor not to raise taxes. Florio brushed him off, warning that not doing so could lead to schools closing and telling him that “I was elected to do the right thing.”
“I always thought he wasn’t the greatest politician. He was the greatest statesman,” Perrucci said. “He wasn’t naïve about politics, but I think he always did what was right.”
Murphy, a fellow Democrat, quoted Florio’s fourth and final State of the State address, which he delivered shortly before leaving office, saying “we will all move closer to the world we want for our children if we rise above the politics of the moment.”
“These are the words which remind us of how we all should endeavor to govern,” the current governor said.
Norcross described Florio as “a fighter, a doer, a true public servant.”
“He was feisty but principled, determined to improve the lives of those whom he represented,” the congressman said. ”He left behind a legacy that acts as a roadmap for followers to follow.”
Chris Florio, the late governor’s son, said he remembers his father every time he walks past the Charles River, a former Superfund site, in Boston, the city he has lived in for years.
“It was toxic when I moved to Boston to go to college, and now they hold swimming races in it,” Chris Florio said. “That’s because of my father.”
Like his sister, he also recalled a story about his dad’s Oldsmobile — how it included an 8-track player that helped them bond. In his honor, Chris Florio, a classical music composer, picked up a guitar and performed one of his father’s favorite songs: Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline.”
“I’m playing this because every time this song came on, he would turn the volume up a little too loud and sing along a little too loud,” Chris Florio recalled. “That’s my father.”
Catherine Florio Pipas mentioned another lesson she learned from her dad: to “be prepared and ready but not looking to fight.”
“This skill was core to Dad’s arsenal of success,” she said. “It consisted of being on time, doing his homework, and knowing his opposition.”
“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,” Florio Pipas added. “He believed in the next generation. He believed in each of us.”
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