NJ Governor Jim Florio was the first political troublemaker

In January 1990, Jim Florio sat atop the political world as New Jersey’s 49th governor, an award that had long eluded him.

He swept to power months earlier with a whopping 540,000 vote plurality and tails that brought his ruling party back to the Legislative Assembly. He was a governor with a mandate.

But in July, Florio’s models hung in effigy at the State House. So did the reams of toilet paper on the trees along West State Street, strung up by protesters furious at raising the sales tax and extending it to paper products.

He was denounced as a liar. A recall campaign garnered 350,000 signatures. His Democratic allies in the Legislative Assembly stirred at the first signs of backlash. He didn’t seem to be going away.

Florio’s decision was to go on TV and defend his historic package of tax hikes totaling $2.8 billion, and explain himself. For 25 minutes. In the heart of a New Jersey summer. And he was hardly a TV draw – Florio often struck people as cold, combative and was accused by his enemies of being dictatorial. A news profile compared him to a wily Cheshire cat who swallowed a canary.

Still, he appealed for patience. Over time, he told viewers, you’ll learn the wisdom behind all those tough decisions.

File: Tuesday, December 30, 2008 --- Trenton --- Former NJ Governor Jim Florio attended a meeting of the Obama-Biden Transition Project on Health Care.  A group of 75 New Jersey health care leaders meet to discuss the most important elements of health care reform that the Obama/Biden administration should address.

“I’m not asking you to trust me,” he said, adding that taxpayers should wait “to see the results for yourself. You won’t see them next week or next month. … This will take some time.”

Tough decisions deserve rewards

That moment — and many of the decisions he made during his tumultuous tenure from 1990 to 1994 — was driven by an almost quaint, romantic notion. If people were truly engaged and informed — and perhaps a little patient — voters, Florio believed, would reward him for making the tough decisions.

In a way, the fiery Florio, a former Navy boxer whose face still bore a concave scar from a debilitating fight, was the Original Disrupter. Donald Trump posed as the norm-breaking outsider who dismantled the government; he saw it as an obstacle to business and his ability to exercise power. He followed Florio’s lead, as it turned out.

Florio upended New Jersey’s cautious and progressive style of governance with aggressive, almost alarming moves. Most memorable, of course, was the $2.8 billion tax hike package in the midst of the recession. This sparked a backlash that led to effigies and the creation of a proto-Tea Party revolt that ousted Florio’s party from the Legislature — a rout that still haunts New Jersey Democrats to this day.

“A lot of Democrats in the Legislature gave up their careers for this vote,” said Micah Rasmussen, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. “It wasn’t a good thing politically for himself or for the people around him… I remember Democrats saying years later, ‘I’m never going to walk anyone on the plank like that again.’ “”

But unlike Trump and his MAGA supporters, Florio believed in the power of government as a necessary instrument to improve the lives of its citizens. Its ban on assault weapons came in 1990 in response to national outrage after a gunman killed five children and injured 32 others with a semi-automatic weapon in Stockton, California.

“What was the point of accumulating political capital if you had no intention of using it? Florio said in his autobiography, “Standing on Principle”.

Florio pushed through the tax hikes, largely, to make up for a $550 million structural budget shortfall he discovered when he took office. He was also inflamed with the accusation that he lied to voters because he claimed he saw no need to raise taxes when campaigning for governor a year earlier. It also redistributed school aid to poorer districts and away from wealthier districts to comply with a state Supreme Court ruling that ordered additional dollars to be spent in poorer urban districts.

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And he dismantled an unpopular state-run auto insurance pool that covered “bad” drivers at a high premium over nearly every other driver in the state.

All of these efforts created a powerful array of enemies overnight. The New Jersey Education Association has fumed that $1 billion promised in education reforms in 1990 were short-circuited by a spending cap and the diversion of some $360 million in property tax relief. . Civil service unions have opposed his plan of layoffs and pay cuts to help balance the budget. The auto insurance industry has fought a tough battle against insurance reforms.

And, most notably, the National Rifle Association and its allies waged an all-out jihad to revert the ban on assault weapons. Florio certainly engaged the public by using the government as a powerful tool, but he also created the perfect storm of backlash.

Soon it gave rise to a grassroots tax revolt, Hands Across New Jersey, which found a powerful new ally in 101.5 FM, a Trenton-area radio station that remains a hotbed of anti-government hostility. In 1991, the unions, Hands, gun rights groups and the Republican Party formed a strange alliance and spearheaded an astonishing backlash.

Florio’s Democratic majorities were replaced by veto-proof Republican majorities that included a group of inexperienced GOP newcomers who put their names on the ballots like sacrificial lambs or like larks. They quickly reversed Florio’s enacted sales tax increase from 7% to 6% and repealed a tax on paper products. They also took the extraordinary step of rejecting his budget for fiscal year 1993. And when Florio vetoed the Republicans overruled the veto.

In 1992, Republicans also sought to overturn the assault weapons ban, Florio’s enduring legislative achievement. He took the battle directly to the public. It was validation of his belief — one he held into his later years — that voters will support tough medicine once they know about it.

He brought in James Brady, President Ronald Reagan’s injured former press secretary, to defend the bill. He held an exhibit for the press where a state trooper blew up gallon jugs filled with red liquid at the rate of four or five blasts per second. Actor Gregory Peck took part in a TV ad urging residents to oppose the repeal. Even Florio’s former rival, former Governor Thomas H. Kean, publicly called the repeal “totally wrong.”

The repeal effort failed. Florio went on to receive a “Profile in Courage” award from the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum for his efforts, an award he treasured and boasted for the rest of his life. It was proof that big public brawls can reap political and political rewards, he thought.

Some Florio defenders say his grand strategy almost paid off at the polls in the fall of 1993. Despite all the tumult of his first term, Florio lost just 26,000 votes to upstart Republican Christie Todd Whitman. Some observers say late-campaign errors denied him a second term. It should also be noted that Whitman received quiet help from the NRA despite his public distance from the group.

A cautionary tale?

The loss proved to be a cautionary tale for future generations of Democrats. Tax increases would only come after much public gnashing of teeth. A struggle in 2006 to restore the sales tax to 7% led to a government shutdown before it managed to use some of the proceeds for property tax relief. It took Governor Phil Murphy nearly three years to raise taxes on millionaires despite widespread public support.

Few Democratic successors have taken up Florio’s playbook of aggressive engagement. The party is now defined by centrism, incrementalism and timidity.

And when Florio ran for the US Senate in 2000, the party rallied around newcomer and Wall Street plutocrat Jon S. Corzine and his portfolio. Florio had experience and an impressive resume from Congress in Trenton. Corzine had no experience in elected office and had recently been fired from a senior position at Goldman Sachs. Florio couldn’t match Corzine’s $35 million in that primary.

In his final state of the state address, Florio assessed his legacy.

“When the 1990s are written, they will prove to be the story of men and women who faced challenges and rejected simple, disparate solutions,” he said. “Some will win and some will lose. But we will all get closer to the world we want for our children if we rise above the politics of the moment.”

Charlie Stile is a seasoned political columnist. For unlimited access to his unique insights into New Jersey’s political power structure and powerful surveillance work, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

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