Jim Florio: Lessons from a life in politics and a fight over N.J.'s assault weapon ban

Former New Jersey Gov. Jim Florio, at 80, reflects on his tenure and talks politics in his new book.

Shortly after Jim Florio was sworn in as governor of New Jersey in 1990, he enacted a ban on assault weapons that remains one of the strongest in the nation.

“I’m proof it can be done,” Florio said in an interview last week after the release of his first book, Standing on Principle.  Florio, now 80, said he wrote it partly to encourage the activists who are working to get gun-control laws passed in the aftermath of the school massacre in Parkland, Fla.

Florio, a Democrat who served as an elected official for 24 years, says there are lessons to be learned from his experience — even though he paid a price.

The National Rifle Association was instrumental in defeating him when he sought reelection, he said.

Camera icon MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Former New Jersey Gov. Jim Florio, at 80, reflects on his tenure and talks politics in his new book, on May 9, 2018.

Florio had been a rising star in the Democratic Party and was viewed by some as a possible future presidential candidate.  He lost to Christie Whitman in 1993, with a 1 percent margin of votes.

Before he was governor, he served in Congress for 15 years and was the architect of the federal Superfund program, which would be used to clean up thousands of toxic sites across the country.  He also had the vast, ecologically sensitive Pinelands designated a national preserve.

Sitting in his Cherry Hill law office, Florio said he has no regrets about the razor-thin loss that abruptly ended his career in politics.

“I’m at peace with it,” he said. The former amateur boxer from Brooklyn won’t concede absolute defeat, saying his gun law “is still the toughest assault weapon ban in the country.”

The NRA had opposed the ban, saying it erodes a citizen’s Second Amendment rights.  The gun lobby poured thousands into a campaign to get the law rescinded and to beat him.

One year before Florio enacted the ban, America had witnessed a school massacre in Stockton, Calif.  In 1989, a shooter who hated immigrants sprayed a schoolyard with an AK-47 and killed five children who were Southeast Asian refugees.

Florio said another reason he wrote the book was to encourage people to become more involved in politics and to learn about their elected officials.  Are the candidates laying out “long-term policies, or short term?” he asked.  Do voters just want their taxes reduced, or do they want their roads improved?

When Florio, as governor, raised taxes and imposed a new one on paper goods, he faced harsh criticism.  Protesters tossed toilet-paper rolls at the statehouse and called for his ouster.

The toilet-paper rolls were “a clever public relations device — I have to give the devil its due,” he said, smiling.  But the protesters were shortsighted and didn’t understand the issues, he said.

He raised taxes by a record $2.8 billion, but he said it was necessary because a recession had unexpectedly punched a $600 million hole in the budget.  At the same time, the high court ordered the state to pay $1 billion to help struggling school districts.

“The problems I faced came as a surprise to everyone,” he said.  His predecessor, Tom Kean Sr., had reported a $300 million surplus in the budget as his term was ending.

As a child, Florio did not dream of becoming a public servant.  He grew up in a working-class family, dropped out of high school to join the Navy, and then went to college on the GI Bill to become a teacher.  He was drawn to politics because of his “drive to combat unfairness.”

After graduating from Rutgers Law School in Camden, he volunteered to work for the Democratic Party and was  mentored by former Camden Mayor Angelo Errichetti.  The two men parted ways over a disagreement before Errichetti was arrested and convicted in the FBI Abscam sting in 1981.

Later, Errichetti was caught on the FBI’s surveillance tape derisively calling Florio “a Boy Scout” who would refuse the cash that FBI agents posing as Arab sheikhs were offering.

Intensely private while in office, Florio divulged in his book that his brother, Bill, was gay and died of AIDS.  “We never talked about it,” he said, quietly.  They never even discussed the law that Florio signed banning discrimination based on sexual orientation.

In the book, Florio said that his brother “had to live in the shadows for so much of his life.”

Florio also wrote that after his marriage to his first wife ended, he met his second wife, Lucinda.  She was an elementary schoolteacher and lived in an apartment above his when he was a congressman.

He was serious and guarded, and she taught him how to enjoy life and loosen up, he said.

Florio also divulged that his father, Vincenzo, committed suicide while Florio was governor.  His father was terminally ill and was worried his medicines “would leave my mother penniless,” Florio wrote.

In the interview, Florio said that his family tragedies and life experiences influenced his political career and that he had worked hard for the underdog.

Donald DiFrancesco, a Republican who became Senate president during Florio’s tenure, said Florio’s gun law had earned him “a lot of credit … and a lot of heartache.”  He said that Florio had tried to do too many things, too soon, and that likely hurt him politically.

“I have a lot of respect for him. … He dedicated his whole life to public service,” DiFrancesco said.

Camera icon MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Former New Jersey Gov. Jim Florio, at 80, reflects on his tenure and talks politics in his new book, on May 9, 2018.

Trim from his daily four-mile walks, Florio said that “life is good” and that he enjoyed serving the public.  He still practices law and lives in Moorestown.

He worries that politics has become a nasty word and that apathy will undermine the democracy.

Florio praised New Jersey’s new governor, Phil Murphy, for his progressive agenda and said that he will bring change.

Murphy, like Florio, has taken a stand “against the special-interest groups” in the fight for gun control, said Dan Ryan, Murphy’s spokesman.

Ryan also said Florio “will be remembered fondly by history.”

Florio said that writing the book helped him see patterns in his life.  He hopes his 10 grandchildren will better understand what their “Pop-Pop” accomplished and will appreciate the importance of being informed and involved in government.

When they were small, Florio said, he took them to the Jersey Shore and told them how he had worked to make the oceans cleaner.   “As far as they were concerned,” he said, “Pop-Pop’s major claim to fame is bringing the dolphins back.”