I started my political career as a GOP Camden County political operative, vehemently opposed to then Congressman Jim Florio. Later, as a member of the Assembly Republican staff during Florio’s term as governor, my opposition to him was even more emphatic.
My strong friendship with Jim Florio first developed while I was serving as Region 2 EPA Administrator in the administration of George W. Bush. I had asked the former governor if he would meet with me to provide his advice on the entire panoply of environmental issues facing the nation and especially Region 2 at that time.
When we met, it was the most informative session I have ever had with any former or present government official. Florio is a veritable encyclopedia on environmental issues. His sponsorship and successful shepherding of the landmark Superfund legislation has earned for him the distinction of being New Jersey’s most outstanding member of the US House of Representatives in the 20th Century.
After that initial meeting, Florio and I began to have personal meetings and dinners to discuss various political and policy issues.
There are two personal qualities of Jim Florio that particularly endear him to me.
The first is that Florio is one of the two most distinguished intellectuals among New Jersey public officials in my lifetime. The other is Tom Kean, and that made their 1981 gubernatorial contest the greatest intellectual match-up in New Jersey history.
In his graduate work 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 will 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 is a most intellectually enhancing experience.
The second is what I have usually described as the “Florio communication mode.” Jim Florio is a person of commitment and passion, both as to his values, which are traditional working class and community oriented, and as to his positions on issues, which are oriented to both policy solutions and pragmatic politics. Yet in communicating his values and policy views, Florio’s passion is tempered by a strong sense of dignity, decorum, and a desire to listen and respond to the views of the person with whom he is conversing. Jim Florio engages in dialogue – he does not harangue.
In virtually every case In our friendship, I have initiated contact with Florio and requested a meeting. Last week was different, however. Florio telephoned me early in the week to discuss the presidential race. There was a tone of calm yet genuine urgency in his voice as he stated his two basic points:
“Donald Trump is an existential threat to the future of our nation. His character and corruption make him an unfit president.”
Having known and closely followed Florio for over forty years, I was immediately struck by the contrast between his criticism of Trump and his critique of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Florio was a strong advocate for Robert Kennedy, and he differed profoundly from the conservative Reaganite presidential policies. Yet I never once heard him inveigh against the character of Ronald Reagan or describe him as an unfit president. In fact, he always respected Reagan’s communication skills and his good intentions, however misguided they may be.
I have the same views on Trump, as my readers know, although Florio communicates them more elegantly and cogently than I. It was Florio’s following second point that I found most newsworthy:
“I plan to endorse Joe Biden. He is definitely the most electable Democratic candidate. I have had a long relationship with him, and he has both the experience and personal character to be a successful president. Most importantly, Donald Trump must be defeated, and Joe Biden is definitely the most electable Democrat.”
I had been unaware of how close Florio and Biden were. I responded by noting the first thing that came to my mind:
“Governor, you are the most respected Democratic former statewide official. Cory Booker’s presidential candidacy is on life support. Your endorsement of Biden may be a knockout blow to his campaign.”
Florio’s response was prompt and to the point.
“I can’t speculate as to what effect my endorsement may have on the Booker candidacy. I very much like Cory Booker. If he would be nominated, I would strongly support his candidacy. But again, electability is my major criteria, and Joe Biden is by far the most electable candidate. We cannot risk another four years of Donald Trump.”
With that, we set up our meeting that took place last Friday. It began with Florio making the most convincing case for a Biden candidacy that I have yet heard.
He noted the remarkably broad and deep experience Joe Biden has on foreign policy. In addition to his service as Barack Obama’s vice president, Biden served twelve years as either the Chair or Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. His knowledge of foreign policy issues is both broad and deep.
During President Trump’s current trip to the Far East, one can most clearly see the contrast between Trump’s calamitous foreign policy amateurism and Biden’s consummate professionalism. Biden played a key role in the enactment of the Trans Pacific Partnership, which had established a strong foundation for enhanced trade and closer cooperation between America and our Pacific allies. Trump has disastrously abandoned the Trans Pacific Partnership and has plunged our nation into a catastrophic trade war with China, which has the potential for dire consequences for America’s economic future.
It was the role that the then Senator Joe Biden played in saving Amtrak in the early 1980s, however, that first forged the Biden-Florio cooperative relationship.
Biden was then known as “Mr. Amtrak,” both for his role in saving the federally run train line and his virtually nightly commute from Washington to Wilmington. The Reagan administration had planned to privatize Amtrak and sell off its remaining assets.
For Jim Florio, then a member of the House of Representatives representing Camden and Gloucester Counties and as chair of the House Transportation and Commerce Subcommittee, saving Amtrak was both a transportation and environmental imperative. It was a transportation imperative because Amtrak constituted the gateway to New Jersey and the Northeast. And it was an environmental imperative, due to the exigency of reducing vehicular traffic, a major source of air pollution both in New Jersey and the entire Northeast.
The Biden – Florio partnership was successful. Amtrak was saved. And the partnership between Joe and Jim continued to be one of mutual admiration.
Both Biden and Florio continue to be center-left Democrats. Florio is not dismissive of the constructive role that Progressive Democrats can play in the party’s future.
As Florio put it to me, the Progressive Democrats “constitute the parameters of public debate within the Democratic Party. The Progressive Democrats serve to define the outer edges of the party, which is a function they could not serve if they were leading the executive branch.” Again, for Florio, electability in 2020 is the key.
There is something even more basic that continues to forge the Biden-Florio partnership, namely a strong commonality of values.
Both Biden and Florio grew up with working class values they still cherish. Their values are a reflection of their respective upbringings in Scranton and Brooklyn.
Florio praises Biden as a man who will preserve and further these values. Jim Florio describes the former Vice President as a man with “new ideas to support the old (working class) ideals.” They both understand the fears middle class voters have of falling back into the working class within a generation.
Jim Florio sees Donald Trump and his authoritarian orientation and ways as threatening the continuation of working class values and the economic survival of the middle class. Trump is hardly a traditional small government conservative with whom Florio may disagree but respect.
Unlike traditional mainstream conservatives, Trump is a man without substance who will do whatever he sees as being in his private personal interest. This president has no commitment whatsoever to basic foundation norms and institutions, He will work to deprive Americans of environmental protection, basic justice, and health care.
Jim Florio regards Donald Trump’s demagoguery as a frightening force, reminiscent of the bigoted appeal of Charles Coughlin in the 1930s. Florio notes the bigoted hate-filled atmosphere of the Trump rallies, comparable to Hitler’s Nazi Nuremberg rallies of the 1930s.
Trump’s sociopathic nature genuinely alarms Florio. As he put it to me, “who calls himself a remarkably stable genius?” It is this Trump personality and character disorder that accounts for his infliction of damage on America’s social fabric snd the coarsening of rhetoric between fellow Americans.
Yet what literally frightens Florio even more is the damage an unharnessed sociopathic Trump may do to the environment in a second term.
Trump’s outright rejection of science on the climate change issue is nightmarish in itself. The Trumpian anti-science nature qualifies him for the designation of our nation’s modern day Millard Fillmore, America’s ineffectual presidential Know-Nothing of the nineteenth century. It is a virtual certainty that in a second term, Trump will enable asbestos, with all its toxic properties, to make a major commercial comeback.
There is something in the environmental area that Florio sees as even more threatened by Trump in a second term: the future of the New Jersey Pinelands, which constitutes a landmark accomplishment in Florio’s environmental legacy.
Florio’s initial involvement in the Pinelands in the late 1970s was largely prompted by discussion then of offshore oil drilling, with a pipeline running through the Pinelands. He was successful in enacting legislation to prevent this.
Talk has now become rife that In a second term, the unleashed sociopathic Trump will join with his friends in the oil industry to permit offshore oil drilling, with a pipeline running through the Pinelands to Philadelphia. A leak from this pipeline would be a catastrophe for water quality in the Pinelands.
All this means that for Jim Florio, the stakes in a presidential election have never been higher. His endorsement of Joe Biden is a well thought out measure with an objective of both preserving American policy and progress.
Various critics of Joe Biden in both the media and political arena have asserted that Biden needs a more aggressive and uplifting message. Jim Florio understands something more basic in this political climate.
What America needs more than a call to political arms is a message of calm healing. Joe Biden constitutes both the deliverer and personification of this message.
Jim Florio’s endorsement of Joe Biden will constitute a major milestone in Joe Biden’s road to the White House. He will doubtless be a major asset to Joe Biden in the conveyance of his message. And hopefully, Joe Biden will seek Jim Florio’s wise advice and counsel once he becomes America’s 46th president.
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 under former New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman.