Back from the dead?

Former New Jersey Gov. Jim Florio was once the most hated man in the Garden State. Now he's running for the Senate.


Jake Tapper
September 11, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Jim Florio carries around some pretty visible scars. As a light middleweight boxing champ for the U.S. Navy, with a record of 12 wins and three losses, he had one of his cheeks permanently crushed, leaving part of his face slightly sunken.

He has scars of a more figurative nature, also -- the political kind that sting just as badly but don't necessarily end a career. For a while, his hard-charging pugilism served him fairly well as a politician, first as a state assemblyman, then a member of the U.S. House.

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But after he was elected governor in 1989, he ran into trouble.

In his aloof style, Florio moved almost immediately to raise taxes, pissing off pretty much the entire state in the process. This opened the way for Christine Todd Whitman to challenge him in 1993, and though he managed to come from way behind during the campaign, his loss to her was an especially ugly, bruising match. "Dump Florio" bumper stickers became as common throughout the state as big hair and mini-malls.

Six years later, Jim Florio wants to climb back into the ring.

He is seeking the Democratic nomination for the Senate seat about to be vacated by retiring septuagenarian Frank Lautenberg, the seat that Whitman announced this week that she would not be seeking. In an interview with Salon News before Whitman's surprising announcement, Florio said he was psyched for a rematch.

But even without Whitman in the equation, Florio faces some very troubling numbers: the $300 million fortune of Jon Corzine, 52, the former CEO of Goldman Sachs, who is also chasing the Democratic nomination.

"One is attempting to get political support," Florio explains in an interview with Salon News. "But in this new age wherein one is required to get financial support as well -- which is an obscenely disproportionate part of the process -- policy and traditional campaigning are all on the back-burner with an exclusive focus on raising, in this case, $12 million."

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When Florio, 62, first ran for the New Jersey Legislature, in 1969, it cost him "something like $1,200," he says. When he first ran for the House in 1974, he says he spent $93,000.

For this race, he projects that he'll have to raise 10,000 times what he raised for his first political foray 30 years ago.

Corzine's fat wallet makes this aggressive fund-raising necessary, Florio says, since his opponent is "committed to writing a $10 million check to his own campaign." Florio adds that "this makes him formidable notwithstanding the fact that he has no public record, he has not voted in primary elections, and he has not said what he is going to do. In this new world, one becomes a force just by having money -- which is somewhat lamentable."

In between fund-raising gigs, Florio has a lot of work to do in order to convince New Jersey voters up and down the Turnpike that he's a changed man.

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Within months of taking office as governor in 1989, Florio found that he faced a one-two punch of fiscal hits. First was a $600,000 debt left by his predecessor, the wildly popular Gov. Tom Kean. Second was a ruling from the state Supreme Court that "ordered us to bring the school funding of the lowest performing school districts to that of the highest performing school districts," which was going to cost the state's taxpayers $1.5 billion to accomplish.

"My value system is such that I believe you have to pay your bills," Florio says. "And I did pay the bills."

That's one way to put it. He had barely hung his Rutgers University School of Law diploma in the Trenton Statehouse when he announced a $2.8 billion tax increase. Soon the state was revolting -- and not just in the traditional way that New Jersey can be revolting.

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Most notably, Florio had raised the state income tax 1 percentage point -- a fact that I remember hearing about ad infinitum that summer, and the next, when drinking at Jersey bars during my weekend excursions "down the shore" from Philly. I was barely 21, and I remember thinking: When angry teenage drunks at Margate and Ventnor watering holes are talking about you, much less cursing you, things do not bode well for your gubernatorial future.

Florio never recovered from the tax backlash, but today he says he's learned his lesson. "I did not do an adequate job in explaining why it was that we had to go and take the actions that we took," he says. "Eighty-three percent of the people in the state never paid a single penny in new income tax and we only taxed those who earned over $150,000 a year."

"That's a point I would emphasize, that I've come to understand," Florio says. "I needed to better deliver the message as to why we did it. It was not an arbitrary action. There were justifications to do those things. And I learned I would have to work harder at explaining" these kinds of policies.

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"I've learned you just can't assume that everybody out there is paying attention to every policy pronouncement," he says, adding, "maybe I was naive."

So he's now setting upon a mission to remind people of what he feels are his greatest accomplishments in office.

"I was at the shore this weekend, going to coffee klatches and some small fund-raisers," Florio told Salon News. "I had to remind folks down there that before I was elected governor the shore was closed -- there were hypodermic needles and medical waste washed up on the beaches. As governor I made a commitment to fix that. We passed some tough laws. I initiated the first environmental prosecutor. And we put some people in jail. The shore has been clean for the last decade."

James Joseph Florio was born in Brooklyn, the first of three boys born to an Italian-American Brooklyn Naval Yard ship painter and his Irish-American wife.

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At 18 he dropped out of school and joined the Navy, where he became a boxing champ and earned his high school equivalency diploma. He married, graduated from Trenton State College in '62 and Rutgers law in '67, and was soon representing Camden in the state Assembly.

Florio was first elected to the House in 1974, during the Democratic Watergate landslide, but he lost in his first try for governor, in 1977, coming in fourth in the Democratic primary. In 1981, he secured the nomination, but lost the election to Kean by only 1,800 votes -- the closest gubernatorial contest in state history.

Many state political observers blamed the loss on Florio's chilly public persona -- and his conviction that it was a good idea to link Kean to then-President Ronald Reagan, at that point one of the most popular presidents in history.

Never one for small talk, Florio was routinely dissed by fellow pols for his awkwardness. In a 1981 profile, an anonymous congressional colleague complained that Florio's social graces didn't garner him many friends.

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"He never says, 'How ya doin,'" the member of Congress griped to United Press International. "I might have met him yesterday. It's his way of dealing with people."

In 1987, in what would become a pattern, Florio claimed to have remade himself. "I've learned a lot from President Reagan," he told the Bergen County Record. "I've learned a lot from Tom Kean." He blamed his loss six years before on "the pig-headedness in me."

Older and possibly wiser, Florio finally won the governor's office in 1989, against Republican Rep. Jim Courter. He did well this time, racking up the third-largest gubernatorial landslide in state history.

"When I leave here, I want to be remembered as the governor who brought new ideas to preserve old ideals," said Florio in January 1990, as he was sworn in as New Jersey's 49th governor. He pledged he would be "disciplined, tough, persistent and honest"

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He might have been all of that. But he also was perceived as rigid, arrogant, defensive and self-righteous. And, as a result, all hell broke loose.

Though the tax hike was the main reason for Florio's 1993 loss to Whitman, there were a number of other sucker punches coming Florio's way as well.

"Some of the opposition to my campaign was purely racial," Florio says. "I remember someone putting a sign on my lawn saying, 'Why do you want to educate them?'"

Additionally, Florio had passed a state ban on assault weapons, which aroused the ire of the powerful National Rifle Association.

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"The gun people didn't want to fight me on guns, so they fought me on schools," Florio says.

In the waning days of the campaign, the NRA spent $200,000 to fund a phone bank -- an expenditure that violated the state's campaign finance laws. The NRA was ultimately fined $7,000.

More Whitman campaign activities were questioned when her consultant, Ed Rollins, said that the campaign "went into black churches, and we basically said to ministers who had endorsed Florio, 'Do you have a special project?' And they said, 'We've already endorsed Florio.' We said, 'That's fine. But don't get up in the Sunday pulpit and preach it. You know, we know you've endorsed him, but you know, don't get up there and say it's your moral obligation that you go on Tuesday to vote for Jim Florio.' We played the game the way the game is played in New Jersey, or elsewhere."

Still, in addition to the whiff of political scandal, something else was in the air that year: a tangible voter resentment toward the arrogant ways of incumbent Democratic officeholders.

Florio's loss was therefore a harbinger of the momentous Republican Revolution one year later.

"I was governing during a very tough time," Florio says. "I mean, the idea that [in the next election] Mario Cuomo would lose to George Pataki, or that Newt Gingrich and 'Contract with America' would prevail -- until people found out what was in it. I mean, it tells you the stress that was out there during that traumatic time."

That's certainly true, but it also bears noting that Florio exacerbated the stress in his own special way.

Today, Florio says that having been forced into the status of a private citizen for the first time since 1969, he came to better understand the stress of being a common Joe. For the past five and a half years, Florio worked as a lawyer, a teacher at Rutgers and the host of a local radio program.

"I've come to understand the stress and strain people go through just to live," he says. "The logistics of living are very tough."

The fact that many people have tuned out the political world entirely to just go about their daily lives is his "challenge," says Florio. "I want to restructure the debate, I want to reframe the issues so as to allow people a better understanding" of the world of politics. "People say, 'Politics don't involve me.' But political policies do involve people. And the key is to reengage people, at coffee klatches and little town meetings."

By now, Florio has had more rebirths than Shirley MacLaine, more make-overs than the Gabor sisters. And he's hoping for another.

"President Clinton was 'the comeback kid,'" Florio noted at a campaign stop in 1993. "He told me I would be the resurrection kid, coming back from the dead, I guess."

With his nemesis Whitman out of the race, Florio now faces one less hurdle in his battle to come back to life -- one more time.


Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

MORE FROM Jake Tapper

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Democratic Party George W. Bush Jon Corzine New Jersey Republican Party U.s. Senate




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