A Governor’s Life in Politics Took Root in Camden

James J. Florio

James J. Florio’s political memoir tells of a memorable meeting with the only other Rutgers Law School in Camden alumnus to serve as governor

By Sam Starnes

James J. Florio, who served as the governor of New Jersey from 1990 through 1994, as well as a member of the U.S. Congress and the New Jersey General Assembly, is a native of Brooklyn, but Rutgers University and Camden have played key roles in his life. In his new political memoir, Standing on Principle: Lessons Learned in Public Life, published by Rutgers University Press in May, he tells the story of his life in and out of politics.

Florio arrived in Camden in the early 1960s where he attended Rutgers Law School, the same time he ventured into politics, serving as chair of the Camden County Young Democrats during his second year as a law student. He earned his law degree in 1967 and later represented the area in the New Jersey General Assembly from 1970 until 1975 and Congress from 1975 until 1990. Florio was instrumental in supporting Camden projects, such as construction of the aquarium and the amphitheater on the Camden waterfront. He now lives in Moorestown, New Jersey, and works out of his law office in Cherry Hill, but he keeps a close eye on the growth in the city. “The things that are happening in Camden are phenomenal,” he said. “Rutgers is playing a big part of it.”

Florio, who taught at Rutgers Law in Camden and later at the Eagleton Institute of Politics and the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers–New Brunswick, shares details in his book on his key initiatives, including the state’s assault weapons ban and groundbreaking environmental protection laws that benefitted the Jersey Shore and Pinelands.

A story of particular interest to the Rutgers–Camden community is the time Florio, a Democrat, met with William Thomas Cahill, a Republican, and the only other New Jersey governor to hold a degree from Rutgers Law School in Camden. Cahill, who earned his law degree from the South Jersey Law School—as Rutgers Law School in Camden was known in 1937—served as governor from 1970 to 1974.

Standing on Principle Book

The following excerpt from Standing on Principle tells the story of when Florio was a new state legislator in Trenton.

Bill Cahill and I did not exactly get off on the right foot. As a young Democratic assemblyman, I wrote a letter to the editor of one of the papers, I think it was the Philadelphia Inquirer, criticizing Cahill’s tax proposal as unfair to the City of Camden. (The irony of this position on taxes, one of my earliest as a fledgling legislator, was not lost on me, nor was it ignored by my political opponents, a couple of decades later.) I got a call the next day from the governor’s office, asking me to meet with Cahill the following Monday, when the assembly would be in session.

No sooner had I walked in Cahill’s office than he was waving the newspaper clipping at me and demanding, “Why did you write that letter? What, do you want to start fights?” I said, “No, no, these are just my thoughts.” He started to get all red in the face and yelled, “Are you an agitator or are you just somebody that wants to pick political fights all the time?” I replied, “No, no, no.” I was really taken aback, but he kept going on and on. “Governor, don’t be paranoid,” I finally said. He went ballistic.

Governor Cahill

Governor Cahill

Years later, when I was a congressman and he was a former governor, we actually became very friendly. When I ran for governor, Cahill, along with many of the people who had been involved in his administration, most of them Republicans, supported me. After I was elected governor, I appointed his son Bill Jr. to a seat on the State Commission of Investigation, and our relationship grew stronger. Like the so-called Presidents Club about which so much has been written, current and former
governors of New Jersey usually share a bond, regardless of party, that is forged by our common experience.

Excerpt reprinted with permission from Rutgers University Press.

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