Catherine Florio Pipas on Monday recalled one of the key lessons she learned from her father, former New Jersey Gov. Jim Florio, was to always “build character” — to “be tough in the face of challenges” and “reframe challenges as opportunities.”
She remembered growing up in Camden, how she and her siblings were given a choice before driving to the local swim club: travel with their mother in an air-conditioned vehicle or in their father’s Oldsmobile, windows up, no AC. They frequently chose the latter.
“Character in this case was by physically sweating,” Florio Pipas said. “Making tough choices and self-sacrifice were cornerstone to his belief.”
Similar tales of character and courage were common as more than 200 current and former state officials, colleagues, family members, and friends gathered for a public memorial service for Jim Florio, the former congressman and governor 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.”
“We’ve lost an exemplary public servant,” he said. “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 an amateur boxer, and got 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 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, who now occupies the seat in the House of Representatives that Florio once held, 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. The 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. Florio ended up serving only one term, losing his re-election bid to Whitman.
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 in 1994, 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 left behind a legacy that acts as a roadmap for followers to follow,” the congressman said.
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 there for college, and now they hold races in it,” Chris Florio recalled. “That’s because of my father.”
Like his sister, he also remembered 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,” she said, “was core to dad’s arsenal of success.”
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