Message, Triumph, and Legacy: A Review of Jim Florio’s Autobiography, Standing on Principle

Former EPA Regional Administrator Alan J. Steinberg shares conversations with former Governor Jim Florio, who says that Donald Trump is unfit to be president and he plans to endorse Joe Biden, as he is the most electable Democratic candidate.

On the night of Tuesday, November 2, 1993, New Jersey’s Governor Jim Florio conceded the election to the Republican challenger, Christie Whitman.  In his remarks, he used a phrase from former President Harry Truman: “In the long run, if you do right, it will turn out alright.”  

That Trumanesque phrase was, in the case of Jim Florio, truly autobiographical.  Throughout his career, Jim Florio has been a political figure of passionate message.  Certainly, one can disagree with him, as I often have.  Nobody, however, could doubt that Florio had virtually always come to believe in his messages, after careful deliberation and thought, and that he would adhere to the message, regardless of the political cost.   

Indeed, Florio’s career as a political candidate was one of message articulation, followed by defeat the first time, but ending in eventual triumph.  He lost in his first attempt in 1972 to win the House of Representatives seat from New Jersey’s First Congressional District.  This was followed, however, by his successful campaign for the seat as a “Watergate baby” in 1974 and reelection landslide triumphs in every biennial election after that through 1988.  He lost in his bid for the Democratic nomination for New Jersey governor to incumbent Brendan Byrne in 1977, won the nomination in 1981, lost the election to Tom Kean, but finally was elected governor in 1989.  Jim Florio and his message had finally triumphed. 

On Election Night, 1993, I thought that the triumphs of Jim Florio were finally over.  I could not have been more wrong. 

His Trumanesque quote of 1993 has now become reality.  At the age of 80, Jim Florio is more relevant than ever.  

Jim Florio has a powerful two-fold legacy, both at the national and state levels.  His assault weapons ban, enacted in 1990 during his first year as New Jersey governor is a model for both the federal and all state governments to follow after the Parkland, Florida catastrophe. In this era of Trumpian environmental devastation, spearheaded by the polluters’ puppet, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, Jim Florio is an ultimate American hero and the leading environmental figure of American politics over the last fifty years.  His role as the sponsor and leading political player as a Congressman in the enactment of Superfund has earned him an indelible place in American environmental history. 

This two-fold Florio legacy is one that conservatives, as well as liberals can embrace. As a traditional Edmund Burkean conservative, I cherish the John Locke concept that protection of life, liberty, health, and property is the most essential function of government.  In his success in enacting the assault weapons ban and Superfund, Jim Florio has met this Lockean mandate as successfully as any American governmental official over the past century. 

The current affirmation of the Florio legacy constitutes most fortuitous timing for his new book, Standing on Principle, to be released on May 7.  The book is much more than a narrative of events in the life and career of Jim Florio.  It is indeed a trenchant analysis of the issues affecting the quality of life in America today.   

The book is written in a most compelling style, with virtually no wasted words.  It was to be expected that this book would take its rightful place in must-read works on New Jersey politics and history.  This book also qualifies as one of the most significant works of 2018 on national political issues as well. 

In addition to articulating his views on issues faced by both his administration and those that followed in New Jersey, Florio emphasizes above all in Standing on Principle two qualities that are appallingly lacking in today’s politics at both the state and federal level: Civility and courage. 

There is a quote from Florio near the end of the book that says it all with regard to civility: 

Americans take their cues from their leaders. When the political leader- ship of this country behaves badly, citizens behave badly. When it becomes commonplace for public figures to demean those with whom they disagree, it becomes acceptable for citizens to degrade and humiliate those who hold a different view, or speak a different language, or practice a different religion. 

Florio does not mention Donald Trump in this context; however, it is abundantly clear that the lack of civility described in the paragraph is a completely accurate description of Trump’s behavior and the corrosive impact he is having on political discourse in our nation.  The former governor is justifiably proud of the fact that during his most contentious battles as governor with GOP legislative leaders and their respective caucuses, disagreement on policy never degenerated into personal rancor. 

Florio’s political courage is undeniable and was demonstrated most graphically by his victory over the National Rifle Association (NRA) in enacting the New Jersey assault weapons ban and in defeating business interests who sought to block the Congressional passage of Superfund and his various Pinelands Protection measures.  Yet that was far from the entirety of his profile-in-courage. 

Florio also can be proud of the political principle he displayed in taking on as governor established entrenched Trenton special interests, most notably the major New Jersey teachers’ union, the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA).  He was willing to increase aid to the school districts, but in order to control costs, he proposed transferring to these same districts the responsibility for funding the increases in pension burdens necessitated by excessive teachers  salary hikes.  Because of this proposal, the NJEA refused to support him for reelection.   

The NJEA also succeeded in using its legislative clout to delay the implementation of the Florio pension proposal.  Still, one must credit Florio for courage on the continuing vexing problem of education funding.  When you contrast his firmness, principle, and resolve on this issue with the political pusillanimity and shameful obsequiousness of our present Governor, Phil Murphy towards the NJEA, Jim Florio looks all the more impressive. 

There is another example of Florio political courage which surprisingly he does not mention in his book, namely, his efforts in Election Year 1993 to begin the process of state takeover of the Newark school system, against the opposition of the then mayor of Newark, Sharpe James and the political machine he led.  I have always felt that this resulted in the Newark Democratic organization giving less than a full effort in getting out the vote in that election, resulting in a disappointing vote total for Florio in Newark, a major factor in his defeat.  Florio knew the political risk of school takeover of Newark.  Yet he did what he felt was right and in the interests of the students of Newark, the state’s largest municipality. 

The major continuing controversy concerning the administration of Jim Florio is his tax increase measure, namely, his income tax increase on incomes over $70,000, amounting to approximately $2.2 billion, and his one percent sales tax increase, amounting to approximately $600 million.  Debate will continue for the foreseeable future on the effect these increases had on the state economy and whether the spending increases they funded were necessary. 

This controversy is part of a continuing debate between two schools of thought regarding what should be the nature and extent of governmental fiscal activity:  1) The “Private Affluence, Public Squalor” school, named after the theme of John Kenneth Galbraith’s book, The Affluent Society; and 2) the Sacrosanct Markets school, which draws its inspiration from the works of Milton Friedman, Adam Smith, and Friedrich Hayek.  

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. 

The Sacrosanct Markets school proceeds from a directly opposite assumption, namely, that high rates of taxation depress economic activity, resulting in inadequate investment and job growth.   This also has the effect of reduced tax collections, decreasing revenues available for the funding of governmental programs.  Keep tax rates and regulations low, so the theory goes, and the result will be an enhanced economy and augmented funding for public services. 

I have never heard or read of Florio referencing either Galbraith or his “Private Affluence, Public Squalor” thesis.  Yet in reading Standing on Principle and his past positions, I can say that Florio’s philosophy on governmental fiscal activity is very similar, if not identical to that of Galbraith, although stopping short of Galbraith’s arguments for nationalization. 

Florio does make a cogent argument for his fiscal policy, and down through the years, I have heard various Republicans make persuasive arguments for the Sacrosanct Markets theory, most notably, Jack Kemp.  My purpose here is not to make a judgment as to who has the better of the argument. 

I do have a criticism of Florio on the sales tax increase, but it is more a matter of politics than policy.  The Assembly Republican Majority campaign did extensive polling regarding the tax increases in the course of the 1991 legislative campaign.  The finding, unsurprisingly was that the sales tax, particularly its extension to products such as toilet paper, was provoking far more and intense anger against Florio than his income tax increases. 

The Republicans won veto-proof majorities in both the New Jersey Senate and Assembly in the 1991 elections, and they fulfilled their pledge of rescinding the Florio sales tax increase and reducing his proposed budget by over a billion dollars in June, 1992.  At that time, I was serving on the Assembly Republican Staff of the then Speaker Garabed “Chuck” Haytaian.  I remember vividly Chuck saying, “If Florio signs the legislation we passed rescinding his sales tax increase and reducing his proposed budget, he will be reelected.” 

Haytaian was a superb, street smart politician, and he was exactly right.  Florio vetoed this the legislation, and the Assembly and Senate overrode his veto on June 30, 1992. Had Florio signed the legislation, he would have been reelected with his income tax increases intact, enabling him to increase funding for state programs in his second term.  

Politics is the art of the possible, and Florio had to foresee after the 1991 elections the inevitably of rescission of his sales tax increase.  He was normally a governmental player with excellent political instincts, but not in the case of his 1992 budget battle with the Republican controlled legislature. 

After the budget battle, as he describes in Standing on Principle, Florio, Haytaian, and Senate President Don DiFrancesco began to meet regularly and actively cooperate on key issues, most notably, economic development, education funding, and health care.  There were substantial accomplishments in this regard.  Indeed, one of the unexpected legacies of the Florio administration, something he obviously did not foresee at the time of his 1989 election, was that divided government could be made to work. 

The final significant feature of Standing on Principle is the view it gives the reader on the personal life and character of Jim Florio.  Florio is a private person, not given to major revelations about his personal life.  In Standing on Principle, however, we learn that the life of Jim Florio is the ultimate Horatio Alger story and that he is a person of solid American values. 

I actually share two experiences with Florio that he describes in his book.  First, he 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.   

Second, 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. 

The Dodgers 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 had to play a major role in Jim Florio’s commitment to civil rights.  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 bourgeoise.  Rooting for the Yankees was like rooting for U.S. Steel.  Jim Florio could never have been a Yankees fan. 

Florio’s parents, Vincenzo and Lillian Florio, emphasized the importance of family, honesty, hard work, patriotism and self-reliance.   He dropped out of high school and joined the Navy.  After fulfilling his commitment as an enlisted person, he served in the reserves, rising to the rank of lieutenant commander. 

He also boxed until he suffered a severe loss in the Navy.  His physical courage in the ring augured the courage and principle he would display in his political career. 

He earned a GED and worked his way through college and law school.  The life of Jim Florio is truly a personification of the American dream. 

It has not been an easy life.  His father and one of his younger brothers passed away under tragic circumstances.  He is close to his children and grandchildren, and his divorce from his first wife could not have been easy for him. 

Yet he has been fortunate in his second marriage to his wife, Lucinda, who has been a genuine partner in the true sense of the word.  She was also a magnificent First Lady during his administration and a true source of pride to the Garden State. 

I first became aware of Jim Florio when I moved to Camden County, New Jersey in 1975.  He was my Congressman.  For most of my political career, I worked in opposition to him, both in campaigns and in government. 

During my tenure as Bush 43 Region 2 EPA Administrator, I was most fortunate to form a genuine friendship with him.  I highly valued his advice and input.  I would meet with him from time to time, and I cherished these occasions. 

After reading Standing on Principle, I feel as if I know and understand both the public and private Jim Florio better than ever.  Reading this book will be a most rewarding experience for New Jersey citizens of all political persuasions and levels of political interest.    In this era of political cynicism and alienation, New Jersey can be most proud of Jim Florio.   

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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