Political science professors tell us that the governor of New Jersey is one of the most powerful in the nation, with line-item vetoes, strong appointment powers and other perks that consolidate state functions. Until the office of lieutenant governor was established three years ago, the only other statewide offices were the two U.S. senators.
But New Jersey voters are fickle, and the crown of state rarely sits easily on the heads of our governors. The last two elected to office have been one-term executives. The last time a sitting governor had an easy re-election campaign was Tom Kean — back in 1985. During bicentennial celebrations in 1976, Gov. Brendan Byrne was famously asked what he thought of the fact that New Jersey's governor in 1776 was Benjamin Franklin's illegitimate son.
"I think it was much easier being governor," Byrne replied, "if you started out as a bastard from the very beginning."
At Regional Plan Association, we have long admired one particular governor of New Jersey who has demonstrated extraordinary leadership in public service. That's why RPA's Lifetime Leadership Award will be presented at the Regional Assembly on April 27 to James Florio, who has served New Jersey and the region as governor, congressman, environmentalist, advocate, attorney and statesman.
Living in New Jersey in the 1970s and 1980s, you knew who Jim Florio was. A Brooklyn native, boxer and naval officer from South Jersey, he became the state's champion in Congress. Problems that other Washington politicians shied away from — cleaning up contaminated sites or protecting the Pinelands against rampant development — became his signature issues. His colleagues in Congress say that without him, there never would have been a Superfund law, which has identified 209 severely contaminated sites in New Jersey, New York and Connecticut and created a path to cleaning them up.
As a politician, Florio has always been persistent and bold. Elected governor on his third try in 1989, he then took the difficult step of raising taxes to close an enormous budget gap. This probably cost him a second term, but it also addressed the difficult issue of providing adequate education to the state's urban residents. He also signed an executive order creating the Highlands Trust Advisory Board, which together with his leadership on the Pinelands has helped protect almost one million acres of land and water.
After leaving Trenton, he continued to serve. He chaired the Pinelands Commission from 2002 to 2005, and he teaches public policy to students at Rutgers University's Bloustein School. Since 1998, Gov. Florio has served as vice chairman and co-chair of RPA's New Jersey Committee, leading our efforts to redevelop our cities and communities, build sensible mass transit, address the threat of climate change and preserve our natural landscapes.
As the late Sen. Ted Kennedy said when awarding him the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage award in 1993, "Jim Florio's career in public life is a textbook example of the saying that one person with courage makes a majority."
No one has ever doubted Jim Florio's courage. Please join us on April 27 at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City to thank Gov. Florio for a lifetime of achievements in public service.