In 1993, Republican Christie Whitman defeated incumbent Democratic Governor Jim Florio and became the first woman governor of New Jersey. The most highly publicized feature of her campaign was her promise to cut income taxes across the board, substantially rolling back Florio’s 1990 income tax increase, which doubled the top rate. His one percent sales tax increase had been repealed by the Republican-controlled legislature in 1992 after overriding his veto, an effort spearheaded by the then Assembly Speaker Garabed “Chuck” Haytaian. Whitman fulfilled her tax cut campaign promise in 1994, her first year as governor, and became an instant national political star. Ever since then, New Jersey Republican gubernatorial and legislative candidates have, for the most part, reflexively opposed every state tax increase. All these candidates blindly ignore the historical fact that Tom Kean, who increased the income tax, sales tax, and gas tax in his first term, won in 1985 the largest gubernatorial reelection landslide in modern New Jersey political history.
The Whitman tax cut success also accounts for the opposition of Kim Guadagno and many 2017 GOP legislative candidates to the gas tax increase signed into law by Governor Chris Christie, despite the fact that it largely solved the Transportation Trust Fund deficit and generated minimal intense grassroots opposition. This is a strategy that will get these candidates nowhere, especially since the gas tax increase was part of a package that included the elimination of the estate tax, which will largely stop the outflow of wealth from the Garden State, and the increase in the pension exemption, which constitutes an historic senior citizen tax relief measure. Now full disclosure. I served in the Whitman administration and played a major role in both of her gubernatorial campaigns. I remain both a friend of hers and a very strong advocate of her administration. In my view, her tax cuts constituted good policy, and I also believe that she was a very good and very underrated governor, particularly in the area of economic development.
Having said that, I think it is a mistake to view her victory over Florio as simply due to her income tax cut proposals, although they certainly were a powerful factor on her behalf. There were four other major factors, four negative as to Florio and one positive as to her, each hereinafter discussed separately.
- The sales tax increase, particularly its extension to products like toilet paper, generated far more anger against Florio than his income tax hike, which had its greatest impact on wealthy taxpayers. This was demonstrated by focus groups and polling of the successful Republican legislative campaigns of 1991, which won the GOP veto-proof majorities in both houses.
In 1992, I was serving as an Assembly Republican Senior Policy Advisor at the time of the legislative enactment of the sales tax rollback. I still remember Chuck Haytaian saying after initial passage of the rollback, “If Florio signs this bill instead of vetoing it, he will increase his reelection chances.” Chuck was right. Florio could have mitigated much of the anger against him by signing the sales tax rollback, thereby demonstrating his responsiveness to the electorate. Instead, the anger against him on the sales tax hike remained right through Election Day 1993, in spite of the rollback.
- The National Rifle Association (NRA) constituted the core infrastructure of the anti-Florio resistance and was highly successful in staging rallies and maintaining the high degree of public anger against the then incumbent governor.
Remember the bumper stickers that said “Florio Free in ’93?” Those bumper stickers were designed and produced at the behest of the NRA. Due to Florio’s successful enactment of the assault weapons ban during the first two years of his administration, when he had Democratic majorities in both legislative houses, the NRA viewed him as an existential mortal threat, both with regard to Second Amendment and property rights concerns. The assault weapons ban was actually a popular measure with the electorate. The NRA realized this, so they used the tax issue as a cover for their anti-gun control agenda. Whenever you would see an anti-tax rally in those days, you could be sure that the NRA was playing a major, if not the sole role in organizing it. Indeed, the NRA was the warp and woof of the anti-Florio resistance throughout his term. They were in the forefront of the 1991 GOP legislative campaigns. In 1993, as an organization, the NRA was not in the inner circle of the Whitman campaign, but its members individually were playing an active role with Republican State Committee get-out-the-vote efforts throughout the state.
3. The New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) broke with Florio in 1990 over his pension reforms, supported the GOP in the 1991 legislative campaigns, and never returned to support him until the final days of the campaign.
No Democrat over the past four decades has been elected without the support of the NJEA, the teachers’ union. Traditionally, Democratic gubernatorial candidates are careful to do the NJEA’s bidding on three critical issues: 1) Protection of teacher tenure; 2) Opposition to school vouchers; and 3) Full and sole funding of teachers pensions at the state level. Whether one agrees or disagrees with him, nobody can doubt that Jim Florio is a man of rare political courage. His proposal to shift the responsibility of teacher pension funding from the state to local school districts was both sound policy and the height of political valor. There were two postulates underlying the Florio pension proposal. The first was that state funding of teachers pensions disproportionately benefitted the wealthy districts, since their teachers received higher pension benefits due to their higher salaries.
The second was the belief that if you increased per pupil state aid simultaneously with the shift to the local districts of pension funding responsibility, the local districts would drive a harder bargain in negotiations with the teachers’ unions. Thus, the pension shift would be an excellent cost control measure. There is no doubt in my mind that Florio was right in both these respects. The Democratic-controlled legislature enacted his pension proposal as part of the Quality Education Act in 1990 but postponed its implementation in 1991. I believe that the Florio pension shift proposal was perhaps the most sound education funding proposal made over the past four decades. In order to succeed in implementing this proposal, however, Florio needed bipartisan support. Otherwise, the NJEA would go to the Republicans, gain their support for defeat of the pension shift, and support them in the 1991 legislative election.
This is exactly what happened. New Jersey experienced a rarity in 1991 – volunteers from the NJEA and the NRA sitting together and working for the same legislative candidates in GOP headquarters throughout the state. This is something that most certainly will never happen again!
The sad fact is that had Florio reached out to the Republican legislative leadership on this issue at the beginning of his administration, he may well have obtained their support. Instead, due to either hubris or partisanship, Florio pronounced the Republicans as “irrelevant” to the process and lost the opportunity to win their concurrence. The NJEA was very concerned with Whitman as well, due to her support for vouchers. Accordingly, they remained neutral at the beginning of the 1993 gubernatorial general election campaign, dealing Florio a serious blow. During the last week of the campaign, the NJEA leadership started moving towards open support of Florio. But it was too late.
- The Newark school district takeover issue devastated Florio in Essex County, resulting in a low margin that was fatal to his campaign.
Again, this is an example of political courage on the part of Jim Florio that cost him dearly. He was absolutely right in initiating state takeover of the Newark school district. This initiative, however, was emphatically opposed by the then Democratic Mayor Sharpe James and most African-American political leaders in the city.
This resulted in Florio carrying Essex County by an abysmally low margin of 38,000. Had he carried Essex County in 1993 by the 72,000 vote margin by which Jon Corzine won the county over Chris Christie in his losing reelection campaign of 2009, Jim Florio would have been reelected governor.
- Whitman performed excellently in the debates, totally depriving the Florio negative campaign television commercials of any credibility.
These commercials attempted to portray Whitman as an out-of-touch, superficial dilettante. In fact, one of these commercials used the phrase “out to lunch” in describing her.
Obviously, the producers of these commercials never watched the tapes of Christie Whitman against former U.S. Senator Bill Bradley in the 1990 U.S. Senate campaign. She displayed excellent issues competency and communication skills against the heavily favored incumbent.
Anybody who has worked closely with Christie Whitman, as I have, knows that she is a remarkably quick study with excellent ability to fully comprehend issues. The television audience had been led by the Florio commercials to believe that Whitman would be demolished in the debates. To be sure, Florio performed very well in the three debates, as expected. But Whitman performed equally as well, persuading voters who disliked Florio that in Christie Whitman, they had a viable and competent alternative.
I began my lawyer career as an associate in the Woodbury law firm headed by Marty Herman, an excellent lawyer and Democratic Assemblyman. While we were members of different political parties, we had a good relationship, and I learned much from him about politics as well as the practice of law.
In 1981, I asked Marty before the Kean-Florio debates how many people did he think really watched and followed the debates. I will never forget his answer: “More than you think.” I know this was true in 1993, as I met numerous voters throughout the state who told me how pleasantly surprised they were by Christie Whitman’s debate performance.
In retrospect, the 1993 New Jersey gubernatorial campaign was between two historic figures, Christie Whitman for becoming the first New Jersey woman governor and Jim Florio for his authorship of Superfund, landmark legislation the earned him a place in the history of environmental protection in America. This campaign will merit study by political scientists for generations to come.
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.