What If Jim Florio Had Defeated Tom Kean In 1981?


My major journalistic endeavors have been in the fields of politics and sports. Politics has been my vocation, while sports has been my passionate avocation.

There is a phenomenon common to aficionados of both politics and sports. Both focus on the “what ifs” of their respective fields of avid interest.

As a sports fan, my ultimate “what if” concerns the baseball National League 1951 deciding playoff Game Three between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants in the late, lamented Polo Grounds.  This historic game was won by the Giants 5-4 on “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World,” Bobby Thomson’s three run home run in the bottom of the ninth inning off Dodger reliever Ralph Branca.  What if Dodger manager Charlie Dressen had brought in Carl Erskine to relieve Don Newcombe instead of Branca?  Thomson had hit a home run off Branca in Game One two days earlier in Ebbets Field; however, Dressen chose to bring in Branca after Dodger pitching coach Clyde Sukeforth told him that during warm-ups, Erskine had just thrown a pitch in the dirt.  My view on this “what if:” Erskine would have turned back the Giants threat, and the Dodgers, with the best team in their history, would have gone on to defeat the Yankees in the World Series.

Now for my leading political “what if:” What if Democrat Jim Florio had defeated Republican Tom Kean in the 1981 New Jersey Gubernatorial race?

My answer:  Florio would have been reelected in 1985, and he would have been nominated for president by the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta in 1988.  The explanation follows:

Anybody who was involved in the 1981 New Jersey gubernatorial campaign between Tom Kean and Jim Florio will always remember one number: 1,797.  This was Tom Kean’s final margin of victory after the recount.  Simply put, a switch of 899 votes from Kean to Florio would have resulted in Florio’s election to the governorship.

The 1981 New Jersey gubernatorial race was the finest New Jersey gubernatorial candidate matchup of my lifetime.  Both Kean and Florio were candidates with outstanding records of public service, top flight intellectualism, and a strong sense of history.  And unlike in any other New Jersey statewide race, both nominees were truly of presidential caliber.

I was a volunteer for Tom Kean in that campaign and the subsequent recount.   My faith in him was affirmed, as he went on to become the finest governor of New Jersey over the past century, a governor of unsurpassed administrative acumen and policy insight.  And his unquestionable moral and ethical leadership presents a unique contrast to the moral and ethical decadence of Donald Trump.

Over the past 15 years, Jim Florio and I have likewise become friends, in spite of our differing policy views.  Kean and Florio each have both a unique federal and state legacy.  Kean’s New Jersey was  his revamping of public education in the Garden State, and his federal legacy was his acclaimed leadership of the National 9-11 Commission.  Florio’s New Jersey legacy was his  assault weapons ban, a national model, and his federal legacy was his sponsorship and Congressional leadership in the enactment of Superfund, which qualifies Florio as the leading national federal governmental environmental figure since the establishment of the EPA in 1970.

Florio has never told me this, but he doubtless wishes he would have been elected in 1981 rather than his election year of 1989.  Like Tom Kean, he would have faced a deficit in the recession ending year of 1982, which Kean was able to resolve with relatively minimal increases in income, sales, and business taxes.  Florio likewise would have enacted similar increases as well.
Florio faced fiscally a more difficult administration inaugural year in 1990 than Kean faced in his inaugural year of 1982.   Kean’s inaugural year marked the end of a national recession, while Florio’s inaugural year marked the beginning of one.  In the face of what promised to be a severe recession,  Florio felt he had to substantially increase income and sales taxes in order to sufficiently fund state operations, grants, and property tax relief.  He could never fund his budgets to the extent he wanted because of the impact of the recession, which lasted until the second half of 1992.  All this led to Florio’s strong disapproval rating in the polls.
In 1983, the nation embarked on a significant national economic recovery, which lasted until Florio’s inauguration in 1990.  As my friend and Kean press secretary Carl Golden once related to me, the state Treasury Department was figuratively receiving truckloads of cash every day during this period of national economic resurgence.
So Tom Kean was able to fully fund existing and new state programs beginning in 1984 until the last year of his administration, 1989 and maintain surpluses in excess of a billion dollars per year.  This was a major factor in Kean’s landslide reelection in 1985 and unsurpassed approval ratings, which endure to this day.
Had Florio been elected in 1981, he  would have likewise benefitted from  the avalanche of revenues flooding into the state coffers.  He  would have funded state programs to a greater extent than Kean by maintaining lesser surpluses.  He also would have avoided any further increases in taxes.
Like Kean in 1985, this would have made Florio very popular and resulted in his landslide reelection.  He would have been extremely popular with Democrats nationally and with liberal media for any new programs on the liberal agenda he established and funded substantially.
While both Tom Kean and Jim Florio were of presidential caliber, Florio would have had a much more realistic chance of being nominated by his party.  There was no sector of the Democratic Party to whom Florio was unacceptable.  By contrast, Tom Kean, who I think would have been an outstanding president, could never be nominated because of his unacceptability to Republican fundamentalist conservatives, due to his moderate views on social issues, such as school prayer and abortion.
So I believe that a Jim Florio elected governor in a cliffhanger in 1981 and a landslide reelection in 1985 would have won the Democratic nomination for president in 1988, defeating the nominee, Michael Dukakis, Jesse Jackson, and Al Gore.   He also would have presented a much more serious challenge than Dukakis to the victorious Republican candidate, George H.W. Bush.  Florio had the ability to be significantly more competitive with Bush 41 in significant electoral vote states won by him over Dukakis, such as New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, Florida, and California.
So that’s my “what if” 1981 Kean- Florio analysis.
Some of my readers may find it plausible and others may find it ludicrous.  But that’s the fun of “what-if” analysis in politics and sports – you never can determine who’s right or wrong!

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.


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