James J. Florio, a respected former Governor of New Jersey and an eight-term congressman who courageously tackled tough issues, sometimes to his political detriment, died tonight. He was 85.
Florio has been a fixture in New Jersey politics since 1969, when he won a seat in the New Jersey State Assembly. He spent fifteen years as a congressman from South Jersey and was governor from 1990 to 1994. He sought to reform public school funding and the disparity in spending between wealthy and low-income school districts, and raised taxes to
As a congressman and as governor, Florio became known as an ardent protector of the environment — he championed the cleanup of toxic waste sites in New Jersey and across the U.S., and fought for stricter gun control laws, including the banning of assault weapons.
Born in Brooklyn, Florio was an amateur boxer and U.S. Navy veteran who came to New Jersey to attend college and law school. He started his political career as an assistant Camden City Solicitor – that’s what municipal attorneys are called in South Jersey – under Mayor Joseph Nardi, Jr. He also served as borough solicitor for Runnemede, Somerdale and Woodlynne.
The 32-year-old Florio ran for the State Assembly in 1969, two years after Republicans won three State Senate seats and five of six Assembly seats.
He ran in Camden County’s District 3-D, a fishhook-looking district that included the City of Camden, Audubon, Audubon Park and Haddon Township.
The district had split in 1967, when freshman Assemblyman John J. Horn (D-Camden), a regional director for the United Rubber Workers union, survived the GOP wave. The other Assembly seat was won by Republican Lee Laskin, a former Assistant U.S. Attorney who defeated Camden City Councilman Elijah Perry by1,807 votes.
(Laskin ran the U.S. Attorney’s Camden office, the same job incoming New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Fabiana Pierre-Louis held 50 years later. Perry, a local civil rights leader and World War II veteran who was well-known locally as a musician who appeared on the radio with Lionel Hampton’s Band, would have become the first Black legislator from South Jersey.)
Horn and Florio defeated one primary opponent, Phillip H. Gillespie, by a margin of nearly 5-1. Gillespie was backed by a coalition of liberal Democrats who had come on the political scene in 1968 as supporters of Eugene McCarthy’s presidential campaign.
Laskin did not seek re-election to the State Assembly and instead ran for Camden County Freeholder.
Against Florio and Horn, Republicans nominated John Mohrfeld III and Gretchen Waples. Mohrfeld had served as an Assistant U.S. Attorney during the Eisenhower administration and had worked as a legislative assistant to Rep. William T. Cahill (R-Collingswood) and as district director for Rep. John E. Hunt (R-Pitman). Waples, a Camden funeral director and local NAACP leader, was making her second run for the legislature; she ran with Laskin in 1967, but ran 2,522 votes behind Horn.
In the general election, Horn was the top vote-getter with 19,687 votes. Florio ran 1,384 votes behind Horn and beat Mohrfeld by just 381 votes to win his first bid for public office.
Florio’s victory came despite Cahill carrying Camden County in his successful gubernatorial campaign by a 2-1 margin and a 47,503-vote plurality.
After the election, Horn ran for Assembly Minority Leader and lost to David Friedland (D-Jersey City) by a vote of 11-10. Democrats had won just 21 Assembly seats in the 1969 Cahill landslide against former Gov. Robert Meyner, and Hudson had eight seats. Friedland picked up two votes from Union County and one from Essex.
After the 1970 census, legislative districts were redrawn and Florio sought re-election in a district that added Barrington, Haddon Eights, Haddonfield, Mt. Ephraim, Runnemede and Woodlynne to his current district.
Democrats were eyeing the pickup of a State Senate seat in District 3-E, where Republican Frank C. Italiano (R-Camden) was expected to seek re-election.
Horn was expected to challenge Italiano, but instead he was eyeing another run for leadership – possibly for Speaker, if Democrats won control of the Assembly.
Florio was offered the Senate nomination in 1971 by Camden County Democratic leaders, but knowing of Italiano’s local popularity – and his strong political alliance with Camden City Democratic Chairman Angelo Errichetti — he declined.
It’s not clear that Florio made the right move at the time, although he made the safest one.
Italiano defeated Thomas R. Bristow, the principal of Woodrow Wilson High School in Camden, by just 697 votes, a narrow 50.7%-49.3% margin.
In the Assembly race, Republicans ran Edward Yeager, a private investigator whose brother was Camden’s public safety director, and Haddonfield Mayor Eugene Hinski.
Horn and Florio were re-elected by around 8,000 votes.
Democrats won control of the Assembly in 1971 by one seat, 40-39, with independent Anthony Imperiale winning a seat based in Newark’s North Ward.
It looked as though Horn would be Speaker until Friedland and three other Democrats bolted their caucus and cut a deal to make Republican Thomas Kean (R-Livingston) the new Speaker.
Florio elected to Congress
Florio made his next big move in 1972, when he announced that he would run for Congress against Hunt, a three-term incumbent who represented a Camden-Gloucester district.
Hunt had served as Gloucester County Sheriff and in the State Senate before winning the newly-created 1st district seat in 1966, when a new map was drawn in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s One-Man, One-Vote decision eliminated a congressional seat in Essex County and moved it to underrepresented South Jersey.
In 1968, the 1st district gave George Wallace his largest percentage in New Jersey, 15%, allowing Hubert Humphrey to carry the district by seven points over Richard Nixon, 46%-39%. Hunt had won 58% in 1968 and 61% in 1970.
Nixon carried the 1st by 20 points over George McGovern and Hunt defeated Florio by 10,158 votes, 52.5%-47%.
Watching the Watergate scandal unfold and sensing Cahill’s vulnerability – he wound up becoming the only incumbent governor in New Jersey history to lose a primary – Italiano declined to seek a third term in the State Senate in 1973.
Horn ran for the Senate seat and Camden County Democrats picked Barrington Mayor Ernest Schuck to run for the open Assembly seat. The three Democrats coasted to massive wins a Democratic wave that left Republicans with 10 seats in the State Senate and 14 in the Assembly.
Florio quickly opted for a 1974 rematch with Hunt, who had been a strong defender of President Nixon.
The race wasn’t even close.
Florio beat Hunt by 26,699 votes, 57.5%-38.5% to become one of the Watergate Babies after Democrats won 49 congressional seats in the Watergate landslide.
He was re-elected with 70% of the vote two years later, running 12 points ahead of Democratic presidential candidate Jimmy Carter.
Campaigns for governor
A February 1977 Rutgers-Eagleton poll put Gov. Brendan Byrne’s job approvals at an upside-down 22%-71%. Florio and nine other Democrats challenged Byrne in the Democratic gubernatorial primary.
Byrne won the primary with just 30% of the vote, defeating the second-place finisher, Rep. Robert Roe (D-Wayne) by 41,332 votes (23%). Former State Sen. Ralph DeRose (D-South Orange) finished third with 17%, followed Florio with 15%, former Commissioner of Labor Joseph Hoffman with 10%, and State Sen. Raymond Garramone (D-Haworth) with 1%. Paul Jordan dropped out in May after his hand-picked replacement lost his bid for Jersey City mayor.
Florio beat Byrne in Camden County by a 70%-13% margin, and won four other South Jersey counties: Burlington (42%-35%), Gloucester (70%-13%), Salem (50%-24%), and Cumberland (31%-19%), where Hoffman finished second with 20%.
Byrne won Atlantic by a 44%-28% margin; he won 43% in Cape May, where Florio finished 10 votes behind Hoffman; each received 18% of the vote.
With a safe House seat – he never dipped below 70% — Florio immediately began eyeing the 1981 Democratic gubernatorial nomination.
Byrne was term-limited and an open gubernatorial race – organization lines in gubernatorial elections were eliminated in 1981 and it remained that way for 20 years – attracted thirteen Democratic candidates.
Most of the 1981 Democratic field were substantial candidates with a strong political base: Roe; Newark Mayor Kenneth Gibson, the first major Black contender for a statewide office in New Jersey; Senate President Joseph Merlino (D-Trenton); Attorney General John Degnan, who had Byrne’s support; Jersey City Mayor Thomas F.X. Smith; State Sen. Frank Dodd (D-West Orange), who served as Senate President from 1974 to 1976; State Sen. William Hamilton (D-New Brunswick), a former Assembly Speaker; Assemblywoman Barbara McConnell (D-Flemington); former Assemblywoman Ann Klein (D-Morris Township), who had finished second against Byrne in the 1973 gubernatorial primary and then spent seven years in Byrne’s cabinet; and former State Sen. Herbert Buehler (D-Ocean Township).
With a strong plurality out of South Jersey, Florio won the primary by 65,519 votes, 26%-16% against Roe. Gibson (15%), Merlino (11%) and Degnan (10%) were the only candidates who finished with double-digits.
In the general election, Florio faced Kean, who had scored the GOP gubernatorial nomination on his second try with 31% of the vote in an eight-candidate field.
The 1981 gubernatorial race was the closest in New Jersey history. After an extended recount that didn’t produce a winner until December, Kean beat Florio by 1,797 votes statewide, 49.46%-49.38%.
A controversial Ballot Security Task Force that recruited armed, off-duty law enforcement officials to work at polling locations in urban areas, largely led to Florio’s defeat. The Republican National Committee wound up facing a legal challenge that led to close monitoring of New Jersey elections for more than two decades.
Florio’s near election as governor put him in immediate contention for a U.S. Senate seat in 1982. The incumbent, Harrison Williams, had been convicted of bribery charges in the Abscam scandal but resisted resigning; he was facing expulsion and clearly not seeking a fifth term in the Senate.
After more than three months of mulling a U.S. Senate bid, Florio announced on March 31, 1982 that he would not run just as Democratic county chairs were looking to coalesce behind his candidacy. Florio’s exit cleared the way for first-time, self-funding candidate Frank Lautenberg score a 26%-23% win over former Rep. Andrew Maguire (D-Ridgewood) in a ten-candidate field.
Instead, Florio was looking forward to a rematch with Kean in 1985, but by the time the Republican governor was set to seek re-election, his approval ratings pushed Florio’s ambition off to 1989.
Over the next eight years, Florio concentrated on his congressional duties. He became chairman of influential House subcommittees – he served on Transportation and Energy and Commerce — that allowed him to brandish his credentials as an environmental leader and play a national role in the clean up of toxic superfund sites.
By 1989, Florio cruised to the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. He won 68% against Princeton Mayor Barbara Sigmund (17%) and former Assembly Speaker Alan Karcher (15%). He carried all 21 counties.
The general election turned out to be relatively easy.
He defeated Rep. Jim Courter (D-Allamuchy) by 541,384 votes, 61%-37%. Democrats regained control of the State Assembly on Florio’s coattails.
Florio was almost immediately unpopular as governor after pushing through a $2.8 billion tax increase to fund education in low-income school districts, pay for certain property tax relief programs, and balance the state budget.
During his first five months in office, Florio proposed what was at the time the strictest gun control law in the United States, including the ban of assault weapons. The owner of certain guns were given one year to either register them as target shooting weapons, render them inoperable, or turn them in to law enforcement.
When Second Amendment advocacy groups took him on, Florio refused to stand down.
“The state of New Jersey will not be held hostage by the lobbying efforts of the National Rifle Association,” said.
By October 1990, Florio a Star-Ledger/Eagleton-Rutgers poll had Florio’s job approval ratings at an upside-down 18%-78%.
Republicans rode an anti-Florio wave to take control of both houses of the New Jersey Legislature. The GOP picked up 10 Senate seats and 21 Assembly seats, knocking off Democratic incumbent in several solidly-Democratic districts.
Florio just barely avoided a primary after two potential candidates, Senate Minority Leader John Lynch (D-New Brunswick), who had been Senate President until 1991, and Rep. Bob Torricelli (D-Englewood) opted not to run.
John Budzash, a postal worker who had led a massive grassroots organization, Hands Across New Jersey, to protest Florio’s $2.8 billion tax increase, sought to run.
Budzash filed petitions with 1,189 signatures with the Secretary of State just minutes before the 4 PM deadline — just slightly more than the 1,000 needed. The Secretary of State, former South Jersey State Sen. Daniel Dalton, said Budzash actually filed just 1,934 signatures — a point that the activist disputed. Then Democrats challenged 246 signatures and got Budzash tossed from the ballot.
Republicans nominated Christine Todd Whitman, a former Somerset County Freeholder and Board of Public Utilities president who nearly ousted popular U.S. Senator Bill Bradley in 1990. Bradley
Bradley had a 47-point lead over Whitman, 64%-17%, in a July 29 Star-Ledger/Eagleton poll, but he was the first recognizable Democrat to face voters angry with Florio’s tax hike. He defeated Whitman by a narrow 50%-47% margin.
By 1993, Florio’s began to rebound and the most unpopular governor in state history – until Chris Christie came along – came within 26,093 votes of winning a second term. Whitman won by just one percentage point, 49%-48%.
Florio spent the next seven years in the private sector, practicing law and building some businesses.
After Lautenberg announced that he would not seek re-election in 2000, Florio mounted a comeback as a candidate for the Democratic U.S. Senate nomination.
Whitman entered the race and appeared to clear the field for the Republican nomination.
Torricelli, who was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1996 after Bradley retired, was serving as Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chairman for the 2000 cycle. He was concerned that Florio might lose to Whitman again, and began shopping for a different candidate.
One of Torricelli’s big recruits that cycle was Jon Corzine, the former chairman of Goldman Sachs and a self-funder. (The other recruit was First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton to run for an open seat in New York at a time when New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani was the front-runner.)
Corzine spent $35 million to win the Democratic U.S. Senate nomination, and defeated Florio by 69,004 votes, 58%-42%.
Florio nearly had a lifeline in 2000 when Al Gore came close to winning the presidency.
While challenging George W. Bush’s 537-vote victory in Florida, Gore also began assembling a transition team in the even that he was successful.
Florio’s spokesman at the time confirmed that Gore was considering the former New Jersey Governor to become U.S. Secretary of Labor.
With Bush’s victory – he wound up putting Whitman in his cabinet – the 63-year-old Florio’s political career came to an end.
Over the last 20 years, Florio has retained a steady presence in New Jersey politics. He’s a regular at State of the State and budget addresses delivered by his successors.
A 2021 Monmouth University poll put Florio’s statewide favorables at 22%–23%, significantly more popular than Christie (26%-64%). Florio was at 26%-29%, in 2018.