By Annabel Lau
James Florio can be seen as a man with high hopes and grand visions, whose idealistic, “go-it-alone” attitude ultimately led to his fall from popularity as NJ governor from 1990 to 1994.
Still, Florio, a Trenton State alumnus and resident of Metuchen, NJ, has been recognized as an integral part of the state’s history. As of August, he has been selected to join the New Jersey Hall of Fame, alongside lauded New Jerseyans, like “Sopranos” actor James Gandolfini, NBC anchor Brian Williams and basketball star Patrick Ewing. Florio, along with 11 other inductees, was selected by online voters out of a pool of 50 nominees and will be formally inducted in a ceremony set to take place in Asbury Park on Thursday, Nov. 13.
Florio graduated magna cum laude with a degree in social studies from Trenton State College in 1962 and had a close mentor relationship with one of his professors, according to Stuart Koch, associate professor of political science at the College.
“From talking to one former professor, John Karras in history, Florio the student proved a mature, determined, hardworking, no-nonsense student,” Koch said. “I witnessed that he had a close relationship with Karras, as he attended alumni functions here.”
As a Democratic congressman from 1975 to 1990, Florio was known for his authorship of the Superfund legislation, which sought to clean up sites polluted with hazardous substances nationwide.
“He proved a strong advocate for the environment in Congress at a time when the environmental movement in the US was just gaining a foothold,” Koch said.
Florio also helped to establish the New Jersey Pinelands National Reserve, officially preserving the New Jersey Pine Barrens for future generations to enjoy.
“Everyone benefits from environmental protection, whether it is directly or indirectly,” said Jason Hammer, senior sociology major and president of WaterWatch, an environmental club at the College. “Natural sites like the Pine Barrens that are left largely undisturbed, positively influence the air and water quality of its area, while also providing recreation.”
Florio later became chairman of the New Jersey Pinelands Commission from 2002 to 2005.
As congressman, Florio also cosponsored the Exon-Florio Amendment, which reviews foreign investment in the US and allows the president to block the investment if there is a suspected threat to national security.
During his term as governor, Florio was best known for a $2.8 billion tax increase — a response to the recession of the late 1980s and a projected $3 billion deficit — which made him unpopular among suburban voters and conservative New Jerseyans.
The governor took a major blow to his political career for the tax increase. Florio was a man of “great personal courage,” Koch said, but his idealism and lack of experience in appealing to a wide constituency ultimately led to his political downfall.
“His most harsh critics argue he was too liberal, too arrogant and inclined to go it alone,” Koch said. “I think a more balanced assessment is that he lacked executive experience, especially in dealing as governor with the legislature in developing a broad consensus. He misjudged or was not prepared for the adverse public reaction to his efforts, the strength of some adversaries … and the reality that in New Jersey, suburban politics dominates.”
Although many New Jerseyans disapproved of the tax hike, others benefitted from it. Florio’s Quality Education Act redistributed hundreds of millions of dollars from suburban areas to public schools in overlooked urban and rural districts.
According to Koch, Florio’s unpopularity stemmed from the governor’s attempt to balance state revenue and expenditures.
“He did so by raising taxes,” Koch said. “He did the same to overcome the state’s dreadful neglect of urban schools.”