James Florio
Politician, attorney
Born: August 29, 1937, in Brooklyn, New York
Died: September 25, 2022, in Voorhees, New Jersey
New Jersey Hall of Fame, Class of 2014: Public Service

As the 49th governor of New Jersey, Jim Florio quickly learned that you can’t please everybody. In fact, on some days, he once said, “you can’t please anybody.”

That fairly well summed up, Florio’s political life. Noted for his environmental record, his fight for tougher gun laws, and his support for school-funding and auto-insurance reforms, Florio’s political career was done in by the tax hikes he could not avoid as governor.

Florio was one of three children in a working-class family. His father was a shipyard painter; his mother a homemaker. Florio dropped out of high school to join the U.S. Navy; he later served in the Navy Reserve for 17 years, rising to lieutenant commander.

After earning a high-school equivalency degree in the Navy, Florio received his B.A. degree at Trenton State College (now the College of New Jersey). He studied public law and government at Columbia University before earning a law degree in 1967 from Rutgers Law School in Camden.

Florio entered public service as assistant attorney for the city of Camden. In 1969, running as a Democrat, he won the first of three terms in the State Assembly. In 1974, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served for the next 15 years.

As a congressman, Florio authored the Superfund legislation to cleanup the nation’s most polluted sites, including toxic waste dumps and chemical spills. He also led the way on railroad deregulation, helping save the nation’s freight railroads.

In 1981, Florio won the Democratic nomination for governor, but lost the general election to Republican Tom Kean. In 1989, Florio ran again, this time defeating the Republican candidate, James Courter. Although the state was in dire financial straits at the time, Florio vowed during the campaign that he would hold the line on taxes.

Once in office, Florio found he could not keep his promise and, despite statewide criticism, pushed through income and sales tax increases aimed at balancing the state budget. During his tenure, Florio also enacted auto-insurance reforms that significantly cut premiums; instituted property tax relief; cracked down on the state’s worst polluters; and pushed through a ban on semiautomatic assault weapons, overcoming a challenge by the National Rifle Association. He also won controversial legislation that shifted a substantial amount of state aid to lower- and moderate-income school districts.

Despite these achievements, Florio was doomed by his tax increases. In 1993, he lost the governorship to the Republican Christine Todd Whitman. In 2000, Florio made a bid for the U.S. Senate, but lost the Democratic nomination to Jon Corzine.

Twice defeated, Florio returned to private law practice, but his years in public life were not over. From 2002-2005, he served as chairman of the New Jersey Pinelands Commission, continuing his commitment to protecting the environment for all New Jersey residents.

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