James Joseph "Jim" Florio (born August 29, 1937) is a Democratic politician who served as the 49th Governor of New Jersey from 1990 to 1994, the first Italian American to hold the position (he is of half Italian ancestry). He also served as a member of the United States House of Representatives for 15 years between 1975 and 1990.
Florio was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. His father was of Italian descent and his mother was a Protestant of Scottish, Irish, and German descent. In Brooklyn, he attended Erasmus Hall High School.
He attended Trenton State College (now The College of New Jersey) and received a law degree from Rutgers School of Law–Camden (1967). He was an amateur boxer. He served as an enlisted man in the United States Navy from 1955 to 1958, and afterwards was a reservist until 1975 eventually achieving the rank of Lieutenant Commander. After being admitted to the bar, Florio became the assistant city attorney for the City of Camden, a position he would hold until 1971. He was the borough solicitor for the New Jersey towns of Runnemede, Woodlynne, and Somerdale from 1969 until 1974.
In both 1969 and 1971, Florio was elected to represent Legislative District 3D in the New Jersey General Assembly, covering portions of Camden County, each time with Democratic running mate John J. Horn, whom Florio had served as a legislative aide while he was still in law school. He was elected in 1973, together with Ernest F. Schuck, to represent the 5th Legislative District in the General Assembly, which covered portions of Camden Couny and Gloucester County; Florio resigned in 1975 to take a seat in Congress.
In November 1974, Florio was elected to the United States House of Representatives from New Jersey's 1st congressional district, and served from January 3, 1975, until January 16, 1990.
In Congress, he was best known as the author of the Superfund legislation to clean up the most polluted sites in the country. He was the author of the Railroad Deregulation Law which saved the nation's freight railroads, including Conrail. He was also cosponsor of the Exon-Florio Amendment, which created the Treasury Department's Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States and effectively removed Congress from the approval process on foreign takeovers of US industrial concerns. This legislation was a factor in the Dubai Ports World controversy in 2006.
While in Congress, he would make three attempts to be elected Governor of New Jersey, in 1977, 1981 and 1989. While Florio's first attempt was unsuccessful (due to the fact that he was running against an incumbent in Brendan Byrne), he did manage to win the Democratic nomination in 1981. He lost in a controversial election to Tom Kean, Sr.; the election involvement of the Republican National Committee received significant subsequent attention; the RNC allegedly appointed a Ballot Security Task Force, made up of off-duty police officers.
Florio's loss in the 1981 general election was the closest in New Jersey history, and was not decided with certainty until several weeks after Election Day. He declined to run against Kean in 1985, and in 1989 he finally won both the nomination. During his campaign, Florio said "You can write this statement down: 'Florio feels there is no need for new taxes.'" Florio won the election over Republican Jim Courter with 61% of the vote.
The Florio administration started during the late 1980s recession and thus faced a budget deficit, and Florio had his own desires to increase education aid to New Jersey's low-wealth school districts. Faced with a projected 1991 deficit of $3 billion, Florio asked for a $2.8 billion tax increase. It was the largest increase of any state in U.S. history. The money generated would balance the budget, increase property tax relief programs, and increase education spending in the Abbott districts. Governor Florio also eliminated 1,500 government jobs and cut perks for state officials.
Florio also redistributed hundreds of millions of dollars of school aid to urban (see the Abbott case) and rural districts away from suburban districts. Under Florio's plan, known as the Quality Education Act, 151 suburban districts would lose almost all of their education funding and have to assume pension costs, Social Security payments, and retiree health costs; another 71 districts would have large reductions in aid and have to assume smaller portions of retiree benefits; and about 350 districts would see increases in aid. The aid cuts fell the most heavily in northern NJ, especially Bergen County, West Essex, East Morris, Union counties and on the Jersey Shore.
A grassroots taxpayer revolt sprouted in 1990, spearheaded by a citizens' group named "Hands Across New Jersey" founded by John Budzash, a postal worker from Howell Township. Budzash was a frequent guest on radio and television shows throughout New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania speaking out against the new taxes. Florio was a regular topic on active anti-tax broadcasting from talk radio stations New Jersey 101.5 to Curtis Sliwa's AM radio talk show and Bob Grant's AM radio talk show, both based in New York City. Sliwa, Grant and John and Ken from New Jersey 101.5, along with Alan Keyes (who in later years was a presidential candidate in the Republican primary), were guest speakers at two rallies held by Hands Across New Jersey protesting both George H. W. Bush and Florio's tax increases. Bumper stickers with "Impeach Florio" and "Florio Free in '93" were seen around the state.
After the Republican takeover of the state legislature Florio faced increased pressure to reduce taxes and preserve aid for suburban school districts. In order to pay for the increased aid in rural and urban districts and maintain suburban school aid, Florio and the legislature passed the "Pension Reevaluation Act." The Pension Reevaluation Act changed the actuarial calculations used to calculate the State's pension contributions, from using the book value of pension assets, a more conservative approach, to a market-related value, and increased the assumed rate of return for investments from 7 percent to 8.75 percent. The Pension Reevaluation Act reduced New Jersey's pension contributions by $1.5 billion in 1992 and 1993 alone.
Florio also signed a 20% reduction of auto insurance premiums. In May 1990, he enacted the stiffest laws in the U.S. on owning or selling semi-automatic firearms. However, in 1993, Florio vetoed a bill the Republican-led legislature introduced to repeal most of the law. The National Rifle Association lobbied hard to override the governor's veto, but the Republicans backed down.
In 1991, the Democrats lost their majority in the state legislature, for the first time in 20 years. The governor's approval ratings were as low as 18% but stabilized to roughly 50% by 1993. He made an effort for conservative support by making tighter restrictions on welfare payments to mothers and enjoyed the strong support of President Bill Clinton. Clinton advisers James Carville and Paul Begala worked on the campaign.
Due in large part to the tax hikes, Florio lost his bid for re-election to Republican Somerset County freeholder Christine Todd Whitman and became the first governor since the adoption of the state's current constitution in 1947 to lose a re-election vote (although William T. Cahill, elected in 1969, was defeated in the Republican primary in 1973). Whitman won by a narrow margin of 26,093 votes out of 2,505,964 votes cast.
In 2000, Florio ran for the Democratic nomination for the United States Senate seat that was being vacated by Frank Lautenberg. His opponent was businessman Jon Corzine, former chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs. In the most expensive Senate primary in history, Corzine won with 246,472 votes, or 58%, while Florio had 179,059 votes, or 42%.
Florio served as the Chairman of the New Jersey Pinelands Commission from November 2002 to June 2005. As a congressman in the late 1970s, he was instrumental in shaping the legislation that established the New Jersey Pinelands National Reserve. He was a critic of the Bush administration and the Iraq war. In a letter to the editor of The New York Times, he made a connection between the war and Bush's energy policy saying, "the nation's right to know has never been more important".
He and his wife, Lucinda, have been residents of Metuchen, New Jersey.
During the 2008 Democratic primary campaign, Florio supported Hillary Clinton to be the Democratic nominee for President.
Florio served on the board of directors of Trump Entertainment Resorts until he and other board members were forced to resign following the company's entry into its third bankruptcy. He also serves on the board of Plymouth Financial Company, Inc. He is a founding partner and of counsel to the law firm of Florio, Perrucci, Steinhardt & Fader.
Florio teaches a course each semester at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University.
In 2014, Florio was inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame.