A Critical Jim Florio Legacy: The Message that Sound Science and Intellectualism can Enable Democracy to Survive

On Monday, the memorial service for former New Jersey Governor Jim Florio was held at the Camden County College in Blackwood.  The Florio passing for me has created a profound sense of non-tragic, yet deep, sense of loss.

Jim Florio had attained more personal and career goals than any person could reasonably hope to achieve.  He leaves behind a wonderful family that was always for him a source of justifiable pride.

This is the stuff of sadness, but not tragedy. Selfishly, however, I have spent a great deal of time focusing on what a personal loss his passing is to me.

I had a strong friendship and bond with Jim Florio that was based on politics, rather than mutual personal or familial experiences.  That did not decrease the significance of the relationship, since politics has been such a fundamental aspect of both our lives.

There were, however, a few interesting and somewhat humorous similarities.

Jim was a delivery boy for a kosher butcher shop in Brooklyn during his teen years.  My paternal family was prominent in the kosher meat business in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh during the 1930s and 1940s.

There were even two coincidences in our personal private lives.

Jim met the love of his life, Lucinda, at the age of 44, around midlife.  I met Garnet, the love of my life, at 70.  I call her, “my Lucinda Florio.”

Jim’s childhood and adolescent years were spent in the Kensington neighborhood of Brooklyn.  I know that neighborhood well – I had a four-year relationship with a woman from Kensington during my early forties.

Most significantly, Jim and I each had an unquenchable thirst for intellectualism.  At every monthly meeting we held over a period of years, we would begin by each telling the other what book we were currently reading.

Of all the friends I have had in my lifetime, Jim was the one who was the ideal partner with me in my drive for intellectual perfection.  I know that in my life, he will be irreplaceable, and his absence will create an everlasting lacuna for me.

Usually, upon the passing of an important political personage, I am able to immediately focus on the core significance of the person’s life and death and then without delay start writing.  I could not do that in the case of Jim Florio.

My personal and political relationship with Jim Florio was so complicated and multi-faceted that I spent confusing days after his passing just trying to determine where to begin and what I wanted my ultimate message to be.

I could have written a column so lengthy that my readers would enter into a stage of terminal ennui.  And boredom has almost never been an emotion that either friend or foe would associate with Alan Steinberg.

As in the case of every political decedent I had previously profiled, I would begin my preparation on the Florio column by first focusing on his notable political actions both as a candidate and while in office.

During my journalistic career, which began after I retired from active politics and government in 2009, Jim Florio had been the most frequent subject of my columns. I had begun my Florio related articles shortly after my departure as Bush 43 Region 2 EPA Regional Administrator, with my first such piece, “A Republican Reassesses Jim Florio” published in February, 2009.

In this initial column, I focused on how my personal relationship with Florio had begun with a meeting with him at my request in my office in Manhattan as Region 2 EPA Administrator in early 2006.  Most specifically, I lauded Florio for his enactment of Superfund, the most effective measure in the Federal environmental tool kit.  In my view, the creation of Superfund in itself would merit Jim Florio the designation of New Jersey’s most effective member of Congress during the 20th Century.

Jim was very pleased with that column, and it resulted in our scheduling subsequent meetings to discuss other political issues as well, both environmental and non-environmental.  These meetings would increase in frequency and scope all the way up until the onset of the Covid Pandemic in 2020.  In 2010, as Public Servant in Residence at Monmouth University, I invited him to address the students and faculty on the climate change issue and acted as host of the event.

I would write columns on other issues of Florio involvement as well, most notably 1) passage both in New Jersey and nationally of the landmark assault weapons bans;  and 2) the enactment of the 1990 tax hikes.  The common theme of these columns was Florio’s unsurpassed political courage.

Two of my columns, both written at Florio’s request, would actually constitute the apogee of both my personal and political relationship with him.  The first was my 2018 review of his book, Standing on Principle, written after he had his publisher provided me with an advance copy of the book.   The second was a column regarding my May, 2019  interview with him in which he announced his intention to endorse his long  time friend Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential campaign.

These two columns for me were labors of love, and I regret profoundly that with his passing, I will not have more such opportunities to author such columns.  Yet today’s column would be inadequate as my panegyric to my friend, Jim Florio if I did not discuss the essence of Jim Florio’s character as an historic figure, to wit, who he was and what he was, not just what he did.

This involves a three part discussion of 1) Florio’s years in Brooklyn and Camden, and the influence of both venues on his intellectual and character development; 2) Florio’s core belief in liberal democracy, as distinguished from democratic socialism; and 3) his ultimate political message – that liberal democracy could only survive if accompanied by strong emphasis for respect for intellectualism and adherence to sound science.

Jim grew up in Brooklyn, and while I grew up in Pittsburgh, as an adult, I lived for a year and a half in the Midwood section of Flatbush, Brooklyn, one of the major Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods in America.  The Florios moved to Midwood from the Red Hook section of Brooklyn during Jim’s childhood.

Jim was a fervent fan of the late, lamented Brooklyn Dodgers, as was I.  My first year as a baseball fan was 1955 – the year that the Dodgers won their only championship in Brooklyn.  And both his upbringing in Brooklyn and his fandom of the Dodgers are a reflection of the values that have been at Jim Florio’s core.

I love Brooklyn.  It is a borough that still has a sense of being a city separate and apart from the rest of New York City, as it was until its merger with the other boroughs on January 1, 1898.  In Brooklyn, you still have distinctive ethnic neighborhoods that, for the most part, coexist peacefully.  Indeed, such coexistence and common community aspiration of groups proud of their roots and culture is integral to the Jim Florio vision of America.

Brooklyn also has been the home of a more diverse group of intellectuals than any other locale in America.  Among such renowned intellectuals of diverse ethnic origins and occupations are the author, Norman Mailer, the actor, Woody Allen, the playwright, Arthur Miller, my favorite journalist, Pete Hamill, the incomparable sports journalist, Howard Cosell, my favorite sports author, Roger Kahn, and the famed trial attorney, Alan Dershowitz.

The Brooklyn Dodgers of the1940s and 1950s, before their departure to Los Angeles in 1958 were the subject of the American classic tome, the Boys of Summer, authored by Roger Kahn.  They were the team of Jackie Roosevelt Robinson, a man of unique goodness and greatness who displayed genuine heroism in integrating Major League Baseball.  The Dodgers played a major role in Jim Florio’s commitment to civil rights.

The most relevant contrast of that era is between the then New York Yankees and their crosstown rivals, Brooklyn Dodgers.  To be sure, the Yankees were the best baseball team of that era, winning eight of nine World Series from the Dodgers.  But the Dodgers, as Roger Kahn has stated, were by far the more interesting team. The “Brooklyn Bums” were the team of the ethnic working and middle class, while the Yankees, who were not integrated until Elston Howard arrived in 1955 were the team of the blue blood bourgeoise, in the stands and on the field.  Jim and I were very conscious of our non-blue blood heritage. The Yankees, in fact, were one of the most racist entities in all of sports, led by the colossal bigots, general manager George Weiss  and manager Casey Stengel.

Rooting for the Yankees was like rooting for U.S. Steel.  Jim Florio could never have been a Yankees fan. The Brooklyn Dodgers fit the mode of his – and my – American dream.

Suggestion: Tomorrow is the 75th Anniversary of Betty and Carl Erskine, the most beloved pitcher in Brooklyn Dodger history and the last surviving member of the Boys of Summer.  A highway in Brooklyn is named after “Oisk.”.  How about renaming Bedford Avenue, which runs in back of what was right field at the late, lamented Ebbets Field, Jim Florio Way?

The city of Camden was also a profound influence on the life and values of Jim Florio. I could appreciate his attachment to Camden City based on my own personal experience.

In early 1957, my aunt, uncle, and cousins moved from Pittsburgh to Delaware Township, New Jersey, whose name was officially changed to Cherry Hill in 1961.

What is remarkable is that my relatives, who ultimately became very successful in business, were typical of the new young Jewish arrivals who moved to Cherry Hill because it was more affordable than Camden, where the financial, intelligentsia, and social elite of the Jewish community then resided, particularly in the Parkside neighborhood.

The Camden of the late 1950s and early 1960s was a most desirable place to live in terms of racial and ethnic diversity and quality of life.  The rapid decline of Camden in the late 1960s was due to both the deindustrialization and racial conflict that led to the general deterioration of urban America.

One of my last conversations with Jim Florio was regarding his years in Camden.  He put it to me in a most moving way.  “Alan, regardless of where I have resided, I have always in my adult years regarded myself as a resident of Camden.”  Indeed, the hope for a revival of Camden City remained as an eternal Florio aspiration.

And going to the Memorial Service for Florio in Camden was reminiscent of the final services for FDR in Hyde Park, New York in April, 1945.   FDR had gone home to Dutchess County, New York in 1945 accompanied by the music of “Going Home”.  Jim had gone home to Camden County.

While Jim remained consistent throughout his career as a New Deal vintage yet Kennedyesque liberal, my inflexibly negative tax and gun control positions became much closer to those of Jim during the last decade of his career.

Most significantly, the Trump years of endangerment of democracy in America brought out the commonality between Jim and me of our embrace of liberal democracy and our advocacy of the prerequisites for its protection.

To understand the focus of Florio and me on saving liberal democracy, it is first necessary to define what liberal democracy is.  Liberal democracies, as opposed to direct democracies, have three elements in common: 1) a free market capitalist economic system, subject to reasonable regulation, 2) a constitution which establishes both the protection of the civil liberties of its citizens and separation of powers of the branches of government; and 3) a defined public sector of services and economic protections to be provided by the government.

The size and extent of the public sector is a subject of discussion and debate among policy makers.  Florio was an adherent of the “Private Affluence, Public Squalor” camp, as set forth by the famed Harvard economics professor, John Kenneth Galbraith in his book, The Affluent Society.

The philosophy of the Private Affluence, Public Squalor camp is based on the factual contention that governmental programs in transportation, education, and health care are grossly underfunded.  Adherents of this philosophy argue that full funding of these services should be the first priority of government.  They contend that this will result in both a higher quality of life and economic growth, resulting from a better educated workforce, an improved transportation system, increased construction activity, and more affordable health care.

Florio and I could, on occasion, disagree on the nature and extent of government activity.  Yet it must be said that he was definitely not a democratic socialist of the AOC type.  Instead, Jim Florio represented the very best of pragmatic progressivism.

On reflection since his passing, however, I have concluded that the most mutually beneficial aspect of our relationship was our discussions on the fragility of democracy.  We both had an academic background that made our discussions most productive.

For Jim Florio, the most rewarding and impactful of his academic experiences was his graduate studies at Columbia University.  At Columbia University, Florio studied under the tutelage of two of America’s most outstanding professors: 1) Richard Hofstadter, whom I regard as the foremost consensus historian in the past century; and 2) Richard Neustadt, who is universally recognized as the prime scholar and professor on presidential power.

In virtually every one of my meetings with Florio, he would cite something in the works of these two historic academics as being relevant to contemporary events.  That is why for me, a meeting with Florio was always a most intellectually enhancing experience.

I had similar experiences at my undergraduate alma mater, Northwestern University, where my political theory professor was Carl J. Friedrich, who, along with Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor, co-authored the classic work on the loss of democracy, Totalitarian Government & Autocracy.

There was an amazing synchronicity in comparing the works of Hofstadter with Friedrich.  Hofstadter gave the most lucid explanation for the factors giving rise to the loss of democracy: the paranoid style, the decline in respect for academia, the rise of anti-intellectualism; a massive increase in mindless irrational populism.

Similarly, Friedrich provided metrics as to how far a nation had regressed from democracy into totalitarianism.  These six factors were:  an ideology, a single party led by one man, terroristic police, a communications monopoly, a weapons monopoly, and a centrally directed economy.

It was Florio who in one of our discussions in 2020 put all together for me.  The Florio message was as follows:

There are two situations in the deterioration of critical thinking that create the conditions for the loss of democracy: 1) Disregard of sound science; and 2) declining respect for and lack of protection of intellectualism.  

The events of 2021-2022 proved how right Jim Florio was. The anti-intellectualism fomented and stimulated by Trump and his MAGA henchmen created the conditions that gave rise to the January 6, 2021 insurrection.

And the neglect and abandonment of sound science was THE major factor that vastly increased the intensity of Hurricane Ian, destroying so much of the economy, infrastructure, and indeed lives in the Southeastern United States, and creating the chaos that further endangers democracy.

Jim Florio left America a legacy of environmental protection, protection of lives from gun violence, and political courage, that will forever be a source of immense pride to New Jersey.  Now, we must heed his final message.

Alan J. Steinberg served as regional administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as executive director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission.




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One response to “A Critical Jim Florio Legacy: The Message that Sound Science and Intellectualism can Enable Democracy to Survive”

  1. As for today’s version of Sound Science and Intellectualism, Jim Florio would be appalled. He would have said the quote from the movie “Casablanca”: “I’m shocked” that this is happening. There is no Sound Science or Intellectualism. The Democrats are in charge. They are flat earthers that believe that down is up and blue is green. They believe in witchcraft, Satanism and wizardry when it comes to their GREEN RAW DEAL. And, when it comes to all issues PANDEMIC, there is no sound science or intellectualism involved. Democrat-Communists tell you that they are the “science” and we tell you what to do.

    Unfortunately, Jim Florio was a fool back when he was Governor, but he’d look like a genius in today’s Democrat Party.

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