Florio Reflects in New Memoir

An ex-governor shares lessons about tough choices, big-picture thinking and respect for your foes.

Photo courtesy of Allan Tannenbaum/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

After a long career in public life as a state assemblyman, U.S. congressman and governor of New Jersey, James J. Florio has much to share. That’s just what he does in a new memoir, Standing on Principle: Lessons Learned in Public Life.

Florio, who turned 80 last August, is revered as a passionate advocate for the environment. An eight-term member of the U.S. House of Representatives, he played a key role in passage of the Superfund legislation that helped clean up toxic waste sites in New Jersey and throughout the nation. Yet as governor from 1990 to 1994, he took the unpopular step of raising the state sales tax and income taxes as a means of balancing the budget and increasing state aid to schools.

His memoir, as explained in a forward by Senator Bill Bradley, is often about overcoming adversity and challenges while making tough, yet necessary decisions that may make you unpopular.

As a politician, Florio became comfortable with being unpopular, especially if it was for a good cause. “For example,” he says, “raising the income tax, but then devoting the money to dealing with the funding of educational opportunities for all students, was for a good cause. More people, particularly in politics, have to be willing to make that trade-off. You have to make hard decisions—and even making no decision is making a decision.”

Florio hopes readers will realize that you can learn as much from your defeats as you can from your victories, since you can correct deficiencies and prevail in the long term. Thinking long-term and big picture is another key to success for Florio, an enthusiastic planner. “Short-term goals don’t endure,” he says. “If you want to prevail and move forward making the right decisions, you are better off thinking long-term.” In other words, he asserts, if you are thinking about next-quarter budgets instead of looking a few years down the line, you are unlikely to get the best outcome.

Whether his focus was on economic development, protecting the environment or taking a firm stand against semiautomatic weapons, which led gun lobbyists to rally against him, Florio says he always tried to inject some civility into the discourse. “The successes I’ve had have been as a result of treating people with respect, even my adversaries,” he says. “I am troubled in what I see in the world today, especially in politics, with people no longer being civil and collegial. It is all about working together.”

But it’s not all about our political leaders. Florio says citizens must also be engaged and informed. If they are, he says, “there is nothing that we can’t do.”

Since leaving office, Florio has remained active as an attorney, teacher and public speaker. His new book, published by Rutgers University Press in cooperation with the Center on the American Governor, Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, is just his latest contribution. As Senator Bradley suggests in his forward, the book will help readers understand the full dimension of Florio’s leadership. I believe they will also recognize the way discipline, preparation and focus connect with overall success at work, at home and in life.

Read more Steve Adubato: Only in NJ articles.

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