April 22, 2019 | 56° F

Former New Jersey governor stops by Rutgers, talks gun control, the cost of higher education and time in office

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James Florio served as New Jersey’s governor between 1990-1994, a time during which he noticed greater civic engagement than what is seen today.

Last night, former New Jersey Gov. James Florio sat down and reflected with MSNBC political reporter Steve Kornacki about his time as a politician, the role of a governor and his thoughts on politics today. 

At the event, Florio, who served the Garden State from 1990-1994, launched his new book, "Standing on Principle: Lessons Learned in Public Life," that discussed his time in local, state and national government and the unique experiences he encountered while serving. 

Kornacki kicked off the night by asking Florio what inspired him to write his novel, which will be publicly released in a week. Florio responded that his time teaching at Rutgers—Camden School of Law contributed to his desire to write the book. 

He said that he taught administrative law in Camden and that administrative law was something he did not understand until he worked in Washington, D.C. When he taught his class, he said he often found himself recounting his time in the capital and teaching his students about the lessons he learned there.

He shared that the key to being a successful negotiator in politics, or even in other environments like business and law, is connecting with people on a humanistic level — something that is not happening in today’s polarizing political climate, he said.

“Find compatibility,” he said. “Find that even in your worst enemy. There’s something there. Strive to touch that. Bipartisanship used to exist. I’ve been successful with getting things done with the idea of congeniality, civility ...”

Florio said one critical theme from his book and a concept that he wanted people to remember is that “the government isn’t inherently good or bad. It’s a tool (that) when used by people of good faith, can achieve the public interest.”

An example of “people of good faith” coming together for a greater cause was during his successful motion to limit gun possession in the 90s that was spearheaded by the people, for the people, he said. It was the coming together of ordinary people united to support children that he felt was special about the movement. 

After a school shooting in 1989, Florio explained that he took on a campaign that mobilized educators and started conversations about the impact of gun violence on students, which is still very relevant today. The campaign included law enforcement officials, police officers, ministers, teachers and regular New Jersey citizens to host events and spark discourse about the harm of liberal accessibility to guns. 

“To make the long story short, in about a month and a half, we turned the whole process around so that in the final vote in the Senate, not one single senator, Democratic or Republican, was voting to overrun my veto. It was really in some respects, in my opinion, Jersey’s finest hour,” Florio said. 

He said that it highlighted the fact that when real citizens become engaged, it does not make any difference how powerful a special interest group like the National Rifle Association (NRA) is.

“People can overwhelm that sort of power,” he said.

In 1992, Florio successfully vetoed a bill that would repeal the state’s ban on the sale and possession of semi-automatic assault firearms. The governor said he would support the parts of the Republican bill that called for gun-free school zones but would not accept the portion of the bill that allowed 60 types of semiautomatic rifles to be purchased in the same manner as handguns and rifles, according to an article from The New York Times

Florio applauded Gov. Phil Murphy’s (D-N.J.) initiatives to limit weapon accessibility. He said that he was proud that the incumbent governor highlighted his stance on the issue from the start of his campaign, since most candidates usually steer away from the highly controversial subject while running.

“He is in the process of (working on gun control). That’s telling me that things are changing,” he said. 

Florio talked about his highly controversial tax reform movement in the 90s. At the time, he upped sales and income taxes to support New Jersey’s fiscal and educational future, which resulted in backlash from the public. 

In the interview with Kornacki, Florio said that he had just stepped into his position at that point and was advised to follow other politician’s leads on the subject — to do nothing at all. 

He went on to explain that he could not take the backseat while knowing that the children of New Jersey could be getting a better education. He knew that being silent about something that mattered was a step away from what he stood for. 

“Not making a decision is a decision,” he said. “In some respects, when the pain of not working exceeds the pain of doing something, then it will get done ... I felt it was time to do something.”

Florio has always been involved with education and has a seasoned history with Rutgers. After he attended Rutgers—Camden Law School, he went on to teach at Rutgers Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy for more than 20 years. He explained that he has had an amazing relationship with the University throughout his whole life and encourages more students to get involved in politics. 

“I have a great relationship (with Rutgers). I really feel very closely aligned with the developments of the school over the last number of years,” he said. “All citizens, but particularly young people, because they have an investment in the future, have to become engaged in the political process and informed about the issues. It’s absolutely essential for the working of democracy, to have real people, average people, engaged in the political process.”

As an individual with an extensive relationship with Rutgers and higher education in New Jersey, he said that the major issue in higher education today that needs to be tackled is affordability. 

“Education is really just another word for opportunity. If you want to have people be able to be publicly mobile, you have to make sure that education is affordable. That’s the biggest problem,” he said. 

Erica D'Costa

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