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Florio's Liberal Reforms Put New Jersey in Spotlight

July 23, 1990|KAREN TUMULTY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TRENTON, N.J. — James J. Florio, a cocky young seaman who had learned to use his fists at the Brooklyn Boys Club, was a promising amateur light-middleweight fighter--until the day he agreed to take on a Seabee from Louisiana who outweighed him by 16 pounds. As best Florio can recall of that bout, Sherman White hit him six times--and managed to break something different with each blow.

More than 30 years later, Florio's left cheekbone is still flattened from the reckless match that ended his career in the ring. But those days as a boxer also left him, he often tells people, with the philosophy he now applies to governing New Jersey.

"You don't win every fight that you get involved with, but you don't get any points for being chicken," says Florio, whose boldness in his first seven months as governor has stunned both his supporters and his critics.

Florio has turned the state's taxation system on its head, signing into law earlier this month the most crucial piece of a package that will raise billions from wealthier New Jerseyans and pour the money into poor school districts, social services and property tax rebates for those who are not so well off. The 52-year-old governor's program has been described as nothing short of class warfare; some of his detractors are calling him "Robin Hood."

Such unabashed liberalism seems all the more radical after a decade in which the conservative movement has dominated the economic agenda in New Jersey as it has throughout the nation.

But at a time when many perceive the right to be adrift without Ronald Reagan at its helm, Florio's success or failure will be watched closely across the country. Will the New Jersey governor prove to be one of the first politicians to recognize a sea change that has people wanting a bigger, stronger government--one that uses its power to remedy social ills and redistribute wealth by forcing the rich to take care of the poor? Or will he simply be seen as the latest in a long line of failed, left-leaning Democrats whose solution to every problem is spending money?

"If it works, he'll lead the Democrats out of a 10-year wilderness," says George Sternlieb, founder of Rutgers Unversity's Center for Urban Policy Research. "If it doesn't, he'll be seen as a Xerox copy of Mr. (Michael) Dukakis," the embattled Massachusetts governor and defeated presidential candidate who has become a national symbol of Democratic failure.

Over the howls of New Jersey's powerful gun lobby, Florio also muscled into law the nation's stiffest ban on assault rifles, going well beyond the statute passed in California last year. He moved ahead of the state's supreme court in ordering that unequal funding for rich and poor school districts be evened out.

Only days after his inauguration, he announced that he would straighten out the state's messed-up automobile insurance system by forcing big insurance companies to cough up money to pay half of a $3-billion debt racked up by high-risk drivers. The Legislature quickly passed his insurance program, but the companies have challenged it in court.

And that is just the beginning. Florio has promised that government will clean up New Jersey's environment, solve its health care crisis, unclog its highways and revive its devastated inner cities.

New Jersey has never seen anything like it, even in the early part of the century when Woodrow Wilson, the legendary reformer, controlled the Statehouse.

From across the Hudson River, New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo has called Florio "an instant national hero." Time magazine says Florio is "giving lessons to politicians across the country--and in Washington--not only about smart government but about leadership."

At home, however, thousands of angry protesters came out earlier this month to show what they think of Florio's agenda. One hastily formed citizens group, Hands Across New Jersey, claims to have gathered almost 400,000 signatures on petitions that demand, among other things, the right to hold elections to recall public officials. The move is clearly meant as a threat to oust Florio from the office that he won in a landslide last November. Only 23% of the citizens say he is doing a good job, the lowest approval rating of any New Jersey governor in more than a dozen years, according to a poll released a week ago by the Newark Star-Ledger newspaper and Rutgers University's Eagleton Institute of Politics.

The governor, a former congressman who worked his way up in politics through the local Democratic organization in Camden, maintains that all he is doing is facing up to difficult problems that had been ignored by his enormously popular GOP predecessor, Thomas H. Kean.

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