Jim Florio, New Jersey's 49th governor, has died.
Florio, a Brooklyn-born Democrat, served a single term from 1990 through 1993, succeeded in January of 1994 by Republican Christine Todd Whitman. He served South Jersey’s 1st Congressional District for 15 years in the House of Representatives before becoming governor, and was a member of the state's Assembly from 1970 to 1975.
His law partner, Douglas J. Steinhardt — a fellow New Jersey politician, and a Republican — confirmed Florio's death on Twitter Monday morning.
"Governor Florio passed away last night comforted by family & friends," Steinhardt wrote. "Our partnership was a constant reminder to me that [people] can disagree on fundamental tenets of [government] & politics, but still be civil & still be friends. I will miss him."
Gov. Phil Murphy, in a statement released Monday morning, described Florio as a "fighter who never backed down."
"He was a leader who cared more about the future of New Jersey than his own political fortunes," Murphy wrote — an allusion to Florio's administration's $2.8 billion tax hikes, which included an increase in the state sales tax from 6 to 7% and which drew frequent protests. Florio’s approval ratings fell into the teens in aftermath of the tax increases. Despite a partial political recovery, the hikes played a major role in his re-election campaign, which ended in a loss to Whitman of just 26,000 votes out of 2.5 million cast.
Murphy also credited Florio for environmental initiatives, and his defense of New Jersey's assault weapons ban.
"More than anything, Governor Florio showed that legacies are built by doing the right things," he said.
Murphy said he would sign an executive order directing flags to be flown at half-staff in Florio's honor.
Florio had been an amateur boxer in his youth, and served in the U.S. Navy from 1955 to 1958, then as a reservist until 1975, according to multiple biographies published over his political career.
His first job as lawyer was as the assistant city attorney for Camden, and he went on to be solicitor for several other New Jersey municipalities, according to the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. Florio also later taught at the Institute later in his career.
In the House, Florio piloted the federal Superfund law, aimed at cleaning the nation’s most polluted sites. In an interview with New Jersey Spotlight in 2020, he described New Jersey as at the center of the issue.
“We had about 100 years of industrialization. There were no laws, people were just randomly disposing of stuff,” Florio, who also signed New Jersey’s Clean Water Enforcement Act in 1990, said.
Ed Potosnak, executive director of the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters, said in a statement that the state's environmental movement had lost a "titan."
“Governor Florio never stopped working to conserve our beautiful state for future generations, and we will miss his wise advice and advocacy,” Potosnak Executive Director, New Jersey League of Conservation Voters. “We were proud to work with him on legislative initiatives to demand clean air, safe drinking water, and to protect open space in New Jersey."
In 1993, Florio was awarded the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award, celebrating his role in passing what are largely regarded as the strictest gun control measures in the nation.
The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum wrote of Florio’s efforts: “Despite legislative attempts to override his vetoes and tireless efforts by gun lobbyists, who spent nearly one million dollars to defeat the assault weapon ban, Governor Florio succeeded in mobilizing the people of New Jersey into an unprecedented counter force against the National Rifle Association and in support of the ban, demonstrating, as Florio said, that ‘the state of New Jersey will not be held hostage by the lobbying efforts of the National Rifle Association.’”
The JFK Library also credited Florio for his work that “swiftly and boldly restructured the state's income tax system that previously had millionaires paying the same top rate as the middle-class, and reformed an unconstitutional school finance system that relied heavily on unjust property tax assessments which had increased 12-14% every year in the 1980s.”
The tax restructuring, focused on increasing taxes for individuals who made more than $100,000 per year, helped finance $1 billion in additional funds for public education under the Quality Education Act of 1990.
U.S. Rep Bill Pascrell Jr., on Twitter Monday, described Florio as “a good man, an inspiring leader, and a picture of perseverance.”
“He had a lot of big wins, some tough losses, and always bounced back always to help New Jersey be even better,” Pascrell wrote. “Jim was my good friend. The whole state is poorer without him today.”
Florio lived in Metuchen for the last quarter-century of his life. That community’s mayor, Jonathan B. Busch, said he studied Florio’s decisions for years, “struck by the boldness of his character.”
He quoted Florio: “The first thing I learned as governor is that you can’t please everybody. The second thing I learned is, some days, you can’t please anybody.”
Former Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, said on Twitter that he spoke often to Florio, and frequently found his advice helpful. They disagreed philosophically on the role of government, Christie wrote, but their conversations were always respectful.
Whitman, the Republican who defeated Florio in the 1993 race, praised her former opponent for holding to his convictions.
"Jim Florio was a patriot who put principles first," she wrote on Twitter.
After his governorship, Florio unsuccessfully ran in the Democratic primary for a U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Frank Lautenberg, ultimately beaten by future Gov. Jon Corzine. Florio was chairman of the New Jersey Pinelands Commission from 2002 to 2005.
He was a founding partner of Florio, Perrucci, Steinhardt, Cappelli, Tipton & Taylor, and he taught at Rutgers University's Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy.
Florio was a 2014 inductee into the New Jersey Hall of Fame.
In an appearance on the Brian Lehrer show in 2018, he defended his tax hikes, saying they were necessary to see New Jersey through a recession and massive budget shortfall.
"When I came into office, I was left with a horrendous budgetary problem that we had to deal with," he said. "The question was: Do you deal with it or do you walk away from it? I dealt with it, and I'm comfortable with that."