Jim Florio – Dignity in Triumph, and in Defeat

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.

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5 responses to “Jim Florio – Dignity in Triumph, and in Defeat”

  1. Mr. Golden: Perhaps an equally important accomplishment in Rep. Florio’s career (when he was in Congress) was the enactment in 1984 of the massive overhaul of RCRA, the stature governing the management and disposal of hazardous waste. It established very stringent standards thereby preventing the creation of more Superfund sites.
    The 1984 RCRA Amendments and EPA’s implementing regulations have completely transformed the way waste in handled in this country.

  2. Come on, Carl. How does the fact that overall voter turnout was high in 1981 lead to the conclusion that voter intimidation efforts in Black areas had no impact in NJ’s closest gubernatorial election ever?

  3. Carl Golden’s rendition of the facts is pure left-wing propaganda trying to bolster a failed Governor. Florio blew his chance at 2 terms. Why? Because of toilet paper. He wanted to tax it. Well he got his proverbial arse wiped for it. He wasn’t gracious and dignified with his losses. He demanded a recount against Kean in his Congressional battle because he was a sore loser. He lost anyway. He demanded Christine Todd Whitmand to concede when she won the Governorship. He was rotten to the core. His legacy of banning assault weapons was another example of Democrat-Socialists violating their constitutional oaths of office and committing official misconduct (an impeachable offense) in violating everyone’s SECOND AMENDMENT RIGHTS that aren’t to be infringed.

    No, Florio was just another pig politician who fed at the trough and believed he was entitled. It showed in his record. He failed in the “Big Ring” twice, and was a sore loser about it.

  4. Carl ,
    I worked in the State Assembly when I received a job from Tom Kean.
    Jim Florio was newly elected. I Long story short I was delivering some hand outs and the new member put his hand up my skirt when I was doing my job. Being a lady I was horrified. Thank God I had panties and stockings on .This didn’t make it any better or less tramatic.
    The Sargent at Arms saw what happened and asked me if I was okay .
    No I wasn’t I had been violated in the State House. I just let it slide because I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it .I was told to never delivered anything to his seat again.I had to get this off my chest after all these years.I was 20 years old at the time .There was no ME TOO back then.I wish there had been.I have carried that day around for a long time. I told my children and grand children about it .Especially my little girls. Telling them it was wrong and making sure that the boys understood too. That you don’t touch anyone like that ever .No matter who you are.
    It is just not right . Tell some that cares. IT is against the law.
    Thank you Carl for your time. I have known you for a long time.
    Best regards,
    Kristina Wright Viviano

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