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James Florio, former New Jersey governor and U.S. House member, dies at 85

Florio was a longtime public servant who held numerous posts at the local, county, state and federal levels.
Rep. James Florio, D-N.J., in 1980.
Rep. James Florio, D-N.J., in 1980.CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images file
/ Source: Associated Press

TRENTON, N.J. — Former New Jersey Gov. James Florio, who championed a plan that substantially raised the state’s sales and income taxes leading to his re-election defeat in 1993, died Sunday.

He was 85.

His law partner Doug Steinhardt and New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy confirmed Florio died in statements Monday.

“Governor Florio was 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, a fellow Democrat, said in a statement.

Florio was a longtime public servant who held numerous posts on the local, county, state and federal levels.

New Jersey Democratic gubernatorial candidate James Florio, right, debates his Republican challenger Thomas Dean at The New York Times building in New York on Oct. 13, 1981.
New Jersey Democratic gubernatorial candidate James Florio, right, debates his Republican challenger, Tom Kean, at The New York Times building in New York on Oct. 13, 1981.AP file

A Democrat, he made three unsuccessful runs for governor before finally succeeding in 1989, when he defeated Republican Jim Courter and became the first Italian American to serve as the state’s chief executive.

Florio drew sharp criticism in 1990 when he pushed a $2.8 billion tax increase through the state Legislature that extended a sales tax to, among other things, toilet paper. It spawned massive voter resentment and spurred the formation of Hands Across New Jersey, an anti-tax grassroots group that used rolls of toilet paper as its symbol.

Florio was ousted after one term by Republican Christie Whitman, who tapped into voter anger over the tax hike and won the race by about 26,000 votes.

Before becoming governor, Florio served four years in the state Assembly and 15 years in the House of Representatives. In 2000, he unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate, losing to investment banker Jon Corzine in one of the most expensive Senate primaries in history.

Former New Jersey Gov. James Florio, right, attends a New Jersey Transportation conference, on March 2, 2011, in Trenton.
Former New Jersey Gov. James Florio, right, attends a New Jersey transportation conference in Trenton on March 2, 2011.Julio Cortez / AP file

Corzine went on to win the Senate seat that year and held it until he won the governor’s office in 2005.

Long after he left office, Florio continued to be an active voice and weighed in on several issues. He was a regular in the halls of the Statehouse during legislative sessions.

In February 2015, Florio and three other former New Jersey governors urged the state Senate to delay a vote on Gov. Chris Christie’s nominee for a southern New Jersey panel that oversees a million-acre pine reserve. They claimed the nomination would “undermine the independence” of the commission, but the Senate eventually approved the nominee for the job.

Born in Brooklyn, New York, Florio attended Trenton State College (now known as The College of New Jersey) and graduated from the Rutgers School of Law in 1967. He also served as an officer in the Navy from 1955 to 1958 and continued as a reservist until 1975, eventually achieving the rank of lieutenant commander.

CORRECTION (Sept. 26, 2022, 4 p.m. ET): A photo caption in a previous version of this article misstated the last name of the Republican gubernatorial candidate in 1981. He is Thomas Kean, not Dean.