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Jim Florio, former N.J. governor and author of landmark Superfund legislation, has died at 85

“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,” Gov. Phil Murphy said in a statement.

Former New Jersey Gov. Jim Florio, shown in March 2018.
Former New Jersey Gov. Jim Florio, shown in March 2018.Read moreMel Evans / AP

TRENTON — Former New Jersey Gov. Jim Florio, 85, of Moorestown, a longtime South Jersey congressman who sponsored the nation’s landmark Superfund law and went on to serve one term as governor, died Sunday, Sept. 25.

His law partner Doug Steinhardt and current New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy confirmed the death in statements on 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.

Gov. Florio, a former amateur boxer, for more than two decades held numerous posts on the local, county, state, and federal levels. His political legacy is most often associated with the unpopular tax hikes that led to statewide protests — critics threw rolls of toilet paper at the Statehouse because of a tax on paper goods — and that consigned him to a single term as governor.

But he also helped drive the creation of the sweeping Pinelands National Reserve in South Jersey, and as governor in 1990 signed what was hailed as the country’s strictest assault weapons ban.

Born in Brooklyn, Gov. Florio is the last South Jerseyan to hold statewide office.

His support for the assault weapons ban, and his fight against Republican attempts to repeal it even after the GOP took control of the state Legislature, earned him a Profile in Courage Award from the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation.

“He fought the NRA before it was fashionable,” said Bill Castner, a longtime South Jersey Democratic operative who also had Florio as an instructor at Rutgers University. “Jim Florio was fighting these guys and doing it at a time when he was politically flammable, which makes his acts even more courageous.”

People who knew him said Gov. Florio remained intensely interested in environmental policy and gun safety until his final days. He could sometimes be found at the Moorestown Library, reading hard copies of the day’s newspapers or recent magazines. He would have his assistant type emails to other public officials, sharing insights or articles he found interesting, Castner said.

“Jim was a constant presence at public and political events until very recently,” said a statement from former Assembly Speaker Joe Roberts, a Camden County Democrat. “He very much enjoyed working with and mentoring younger people in public policy, much as he did for me many years ago. I was fortunate to have lunch with him about 10 days ago. It was a beautiful visit. Although physically frail, he was literally as sharp as ever.”

As a member of the House in the 1970s, Gov. Florio was the prime sponsor of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, which was enacted in 1980 and became known more commonly as the Superfund law. At the time, Gov. Florio was concerned with the growing number of abandoned toxic dump sites across the nation — particularly in New Jersey, where the problem was especially acute because of its proximity to petroleum and chemical industrial sites.

New Jersey has the most Superfund sites in the nation. Pennsylvania ranks second.

Gov. Florio 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.

But in his first year in office he ignited a political firestorm 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.

In a 2018 interview with The Inquirer a smiling Gov. Florio conceded that the toilet paper rolls were “a clever public relations device — I have to give the devil its due.”

But he defended the tax hike, saying it was needed because a recession had unexpectedly put a $600 million hole in the budget. At the same time, the state Supreme Court had ordered New Jersey to pay $1 billion to help struggling school districts.

Gov. 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.

“Jim Florio was an American patriot who put principles first,” Whitman tweeted Monday. “He stood by his convictions no matter what the cost, and I am glad we got to know one another better after he left office. I will always respect the service and dedication he showed to the people of New Jersey.”

Gov. Florio was instrumental in crafting legislation that eventually helped fuel creation of the Pinelands National Reserve — the country’s first. The 1.1 million-acre protected area spills across seven counties and all or part of 56 municipalities, occupying more than a fifth of New Jersey’s land mass. He served as chairman of the New Jersey Pinelands Commission from 2002 to 2005.

Roberts, in his statement, said the Pinelands remained Gov. Florio’s “proudest achievement.”

Gov. Florio dropped out of high school to join the Navy in the 1950s before using the GI Bill to go to Trenton State College. He earned his law degree from Rutgers and then began volunteering for the Democratic Party.

He began his work in public service as a Camden assistant city attorney in 1967.

He was mentored by former Camden Mayor Angelo Errichetti, though they parted ways before Errichetti was arrested and convicted in the FBI Abscam sting. Errichetti was caught on the FBI’s surveillance tape derisively calling Florio “a Boy Scout” who would refuse the cash that FBI agents posing as Arab sheikhs were offering.

He went on to serve four years in the state Assembly and 15 in the U.S. 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.

» READ MORE: Jim Florio: Lessons from a life in politics and a fight over N.J.'s assault weapon ban

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, Gov. Florio was a regular in the halls of the Statehouse during legislative sessions.

In his 2018 book Standing on Principle, Gov. Florio revealed that his father, Vincenzo, committed suicide while his son was governor. His father was terminally ill and worried his treatment “would leave my mother penniless,” he wrote.

He told The Inquirer that year that family tragedies and life experiences influenced his political career and that he had worked hard for the underdog.

In a statement, Shawn LaTourette, commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, called Gov. Florio, “an incredible public servant” and an “environmental hero.”

Ed Potosnak, executive director of New Jersey League of Conservation Voters, said that “New Jersey lost a titan in the environmental movement ... who never stopped working to conserve our beautiful state for future generations.”

The Associated Press contributed to this article.