A Republican Reassesses Jim Florio

During the 1960s, the late conservative polemicist, William F. Buckley once referred to his relationship with Harvard liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith as one of his significant “transideological relationships”. In the course of my tenure as Regional Administrator of Region 2 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) during the Bush administration from September, 2005 until January 20, 2009, I was fortunate to develop a similar transideological and transparty friendship with former New Jersey Governor Jim Florio. It was certainly never as intimate as the Buckley – Galbraith relationship, but a warm friendship nevertheless, one I am proud to have.

This relationship developed from an initial meeting in my office at Region 2 EPA in the summer of 2006. Throughout my tenure, I felt that it was essential for me to reach out to both leading Republican and Democrat players on environmental issues, together with stakeholders in the nongovernmental environmental organizations, business associations, and academic community as well. I viewed my meeting with Jim Florio as an opportunity to receive input on regional matters from the leading political player on environmental issues in the Region during the last three decades.

The meeting was scheduled for one hour, but it lasted, at my request, for nearly two hours. Talking with Florio was like having a conversation with an environmental and energy encyclopedia. I know of nobody on the current American political scene who has the breadth and depth of Jim Florio on these two clusters of issues.

His advice was valuable, and even when we disagreed on issues, we still found plenty of common ground. The initial meeting led to subsequent dinners, where we discussed the entire gamut of American and New Jersey political issues. Florio is an authentic intellectual. We share a common pursuit of voracious reading of new books on American history and current events. If I were to name the ten Americans, outside of family members, with whom I would most like to have dinner, Jim Florio would definitely make my list.

All that I have said heretofore will shock Republicans and Democrats alike who have known me through three decades of political and governmental activity. For a Republican like me who grew up in my early adult years in the rough-and-tumble of Camden County politics, Jim Florio was the ultimate Democrat archenemy. In 1981, I was an active volunteer in the gubernatorial campaign of Tom Kean, and when the contest with Florio led to a recount, I was involved there as well. I served on the Assembly Republican staff in 1992 and 1993, and much of my service there involved political combat with the Florio administration. In the 1993 gubernatorial campaign of Christie Whitman, once again Jim Florio was the adversary. So a number of my Republican friends will read this article with a total sense of disbelief.

When one gets to know Jim Florio as I have, however, you can no longer regard him as New Jersey’s Darth Vader. My career in public service is at an end, and I now am in the postpartisan era of my life. I certainly retain my loyalty to the Republican Party and a conservative economic and social philosophy. But partisanship is not paramount at this stage in my life, and now that I know Florio from a different vantage point, it is incumbent upon me to reassess him.

As an EPA Regional Administrator, I was able to achieve my most significant accomplishments in both New York and New Jersey due to the federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, passed in 1980 and known in common parlance as Superfund. The person who authored this legislation and achieved its passage was a member of the United States House of Representatives from New Jersey, Congressman Jim Florio. This legislation made it possible for EPA and its state delegatees as well to compel polluters to clean up and restore to beneficial use contaminated land and bodies of water throughout our nation. In cases where no solvent polluter existed with regard to the specific contaminated property, Superfund provided the financing forgovernment to accomplish the remediation.

New York and New Jersey, since the enactment of Superfund, have normally been at or near the top of the Superfund National Priority List (NPL) in terms of numbers of Superfund sites. Accordingly, there are few federal statutes that have benefitted Region 2 EPA and the Garden State in particular more than Superfund.

I found Superfund to be the most effective item in my environmental tool kit as Regional Administrator, and I am sure my predecessors felt the same way. If Jim Florio accomplished nothing else in his career other than the authorship and passage of Superfund, I would say, in my Hebrew vernacular, Dayenu – meaning “it would have been sufficient.” Indeed, Superfund was sufficient in itself to entitle Jim Florio to a position of greatness, not only in New Jersey history but in American history as well. Every time EPA or any state in our nation accomplishes a successful Superfund cleanup, a debt of gratitude is owed to Jim Florio.

This was not, however the only legacy Jim Florio has given New Jersey.

During his gubernatorial administration, my major criticisms of Florio were 1) the 1990 enactment of his income and sales tax increases; and 2) the passage in that same year of the assault weapons ban. As a free market, low tax conservative, and as a strong defender of Second Amendment rights, I still disagree with the former governor on both these measures. Our disagreement, however, is ideological, and only history can determine in such matters who was right or wrong.

There were, however, two laudatory precedents that Jim Florio did set in his administration for future governors to follow.

The first was undeniable: Florio was a political figure of rare courage. Regardless of my disagreement with him on taxes and Second Amendment rights as mentioned above, Jim Florio displayed admirable adherence to principle and values in knowingly risking defeat at the polls on both issues. In short, unlike many other governors, Florio was not afraid to make the tough calls. This former boxer was a tenacious and worthy opponent for his political adversaries.

The other was a legacy of bipartisan cooperation with the post-1991 Republican majorities in the Assembly, led by the then Assembly Speaker Garabed “Chuck” Haytaian, and in the Senate, led by the then Senate President Don DiFrancesco. This statehouse Era of Good Feeling lasted from after the budget wars of June, 1992 until the end of the legislative session in June, 1993. After the Republican-controlled legislature overrode Florio’s veto of the sales tax cut and the Republican sponsored Fiscal Year 1993 budget in June, 1992, the governor set aside the intense partisanship that had characterized his administration up to that point and through cooperation with the Republican legislative majorities achieved success in a sound education funding structure and state budget for Fiscal Year 1994, together with reforms in health insurance and charity care. Given Florio’s history of partisanship, this surprised many people who closely followed his political career, me included.

In fact, it was his partisanship that cost Jim Florio what would have been a landmark accomplishment in education funding cost control. As part of his Quality Education Act, in 1990, Florio proposed simultaneously increasing education aid to most school districts while shifting from the state to the school districts the responsibility for funding pensions. This pension shift would have caused local school districts to be much tougher in bargaining with their respective local unions. Combined with the increase in aid to the districts, the pension shift would have at long last controlled the upward spiral in public education cost in New Jersey and thereby contained property tax increases in the Garden State as well. Florio would have been recorded in New Jersey history as the governor who at long last resolved the property tax issue.

Such a measure as the pension shift, however, could only be enacted and maintained through bipartisan cooperation with the then Republican minorities in the legislature. Governor Florio had to know that the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) would fight this tooth and nail, and he would only be able to overcome their resistance if he had the support of Republicans as well. Instead, Florio ignored the Republicans, and while he achieved passage of the pension shift in 1990, it was set aside by the Democratic-controlled legislature in 1991 as a result of enormous NJEA pressure. The NJEA gave their support to the Republicans in the legislative elections of 1991 in which the Republicans won veto-proof majorities. That was an election in which the two major interest groups propelling Republican victory were the NJEA and the National Rifle Association (NRA). Talk about an unlikely combination.

I regard the pension shift as one of two major mistakes Florio made in his political career. The other was his anti-Ronald Reagan rhetoric in the final weeks of his 1981 gubernatorial campaign against Tom Kean. Reagan was then a popular President in New Jersey, and Florio’s ideological beliefs overcame his normally excellent political instincts, thereby costing him the governorship in an election campaign in which he led up until the very last week.

It must be said, however, that the 1981 campaign is another positive Florio legacy. Both Tom Kean and Jim Florio are individuals of superb intellect, and the 1981 campaign stands out as the last time in New Jersey in which both gubernatorial candidates discussed issues at the highest level of insight and creativity. As Al Felzenberg stated in his book, Governor Tom Kean: From the New Jersey Statehouse to the 9-11 Commission, both Kean and Florio “would refer to their momentous and fateful square-off as New Jersey’s last ‘high-minded campaign'”.

Tom Kean would win the 1981 gubernatorial campaign and become the most successful governor of New Jersey in the 20th century and a superb chair of the 9-11 Commission. He remains one of the people I most admire in public life, a rare combination of greatness and goodness. My reassessment of Florio has resulting in my recognizing his place of greatness in New Jersey history. Through our friendship, I now know Jim Florio to be a person of goodness as well.

Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush. Region 2 EPA consists of the states of New York and New Jersey, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and seven federally recognized Indian nations.

A Republican Reassesses Jim Florio