As tributes continue to pour in honoring former Congressman and Governor Jim Florio who died earlier this week, nearly all focused on his authorship of the Superfund law and a ban on the sale of assault rifles— two career-defining accomplishments with significant and lasting impact.
While offering sincere condolences as well as praise for his lifelong service, others recalled the political firestorm that erupted in 1990 after Florio signed into law a $2.8 billion tax increase package, an act that arguably led to his becoming the first New Jersey governor to lose a bid for re-election three years later.
For me, though, recognizing his triumphs and defeats exemplified his resilience and personal inner strength, traits all too absent in today’s supercharged partisan political environment.
In two attempts to win the governorship, Florio lost by a cumulative total of 27,890 votes — the first in 1981 by 1,797 votes, the narrowest margin in history, and the second in 1993 by 26,093 votes.
Political defeat — while always a possibility — is nonetheless often difficult to accept. It represents a public rejection of one’s attributes, principles, experience and qualifications. It is deeply personal.
For Florio, the exceedingly slender margins of his defeats — one percent in 1993 and a fraction of that in 1981 — were devastating. They couldn’t have been otherwise.
Second-guessing becomes a frustrating obsession. Missed opportunities continue to haunt; the “if I had only…” syndrome is ever present, and the dull ache of what might have been never vanishes completely.
Questions are asked again and again: Should I have spent more time in one county or another? Should I have directed greater fiscal support to a particular region? Should I have softened or hardened my position on specific issues? Should I shaken more hands, smiled more often, patted more backs, posed for more photographs, purchased more television time, sent another mass mailing, taken greater care to avoid misstatements? What did I fail to do or say?
I recall a long-time political operative once telling me better to lose in a landslide than in a cliffhanger. In the former, you can always shrug it off with a “I just got walloped” rationale while the latter will eat away at you, weigh ceaselessly on your mind and produce a soul-searching that, in truth, is futile.
I experienced both of Florio’s losses; first as campaign press secretary for Tom Kean in 1981 and in a similar capacity for Christine Whitman in 1993.
Election night in 1981 lasted a month after a recount requested by the Florio campaign produced no appreciable tabulation changes and Kean was certified as the winner.
Twelve years later, election night in 1993 appeared headed in the same direction until shortly after midnight, Florio placed a call to Whitman to concede and her one percentage point victory held up.
In both cases, Florio accepted his losses with grace and dignity, congratulating Kean and Whitman and pledging a smooth transition of power.
The contrast between those elections and the aftermath of the 2020 presidential contest cannot be any more stark.
There were no allegations of fraud or impropriety, no strident demands for overturning the results and no accusations that the Kean or Whitman administrations were illegitimate.
If there were recriminations, they were private — likely because Florio insisted that public blame setting would be needlessly harmful.
There were controversies, however, in both elections.
To this day, there are some who believe the 1981 election outcome was influenced by voter suppression tactics employed by the Republican National Committee which deployed poll watchers in reliably Democratic urban areas to warn of fraudulent voting.
The entire effort remains to this day one of the dumbest strategic moves in New Jersey’s colorful and frequently dodgy political history, but — aside from creating a public relations nightmare for the Kean campaign team — did not impact the outcome. Indeed, voter turnout statistics demonstrate that participation in 1981 was greater than 10 of the 11 gubernatorial contests that preceded it.
In 1993, the suppression issue was raised again as a result of post-election comments by Whitman’s campaign consultant that African-American ministers were paid to advise their congregations to remain at home on election day.
An investigation by the U. S. Attorney — complete with grand jury testimony — fully exonerated the campaign and attributed the entire episode to a consultant caught up in the euphoria of victory and bragging about it with a fabricated tale of corruption.
For me, Florio’s behavior in the aftermath of his defeats was exemplary, free of rancor and anger and marked by a dignity in the face of heartbreaking losses. His faith that the electoral system was honest and administered by equally honest individuals stood out brilliantly.
His record during his eight terms in Congress and his four years in the governor’s office reflected his values and beliefs and, for me at least, his demeanor in 1981 and 1993 will stick with me.
The Superfund law and ban on assault weapons will stand as monuments to his service, but his resilience, strength, dignity and unshakeable resolve will last even longer.
There’s an ex-office holder living in Palm Beach, Florida, who should take notice.
Carl Golden is a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University.