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James J. Florio: Standing on Principle

Former U.S. Congressman and New Jersey Governor James J. Florio's fascinating new book, "Standing on Principle -- Lessons Learned in Public Life," recounts his experiences, public policy achievements and challenges that he faced and met over a long and effective career.

It also is a book that those in power today should read as Florio emphasizes the importance of working together to get tough things accomplished.

The book is especially meaningful to me as I served as Congressman Florio's Washington chief of staff from 1976-1978, a period of my life of which I am exceedingly proud -- although it was a tumultuous time as our staff worked our tails off to help this ambitious, energetic and demanding young politician achieve his ambitious policy and political objectives.

I will never forget the time when the phone rang at 1 a.m. and my then wife, Mary Ann, answered.

"Is Bob there?" the man's voice asked.

"Who's this? It's 1 in the morning," my wife snapped in a way that only she could manage.

"It's Jim," the voice responded.

"Jim who?" Mary Ann asked.

"It's Jim Florio," the Congressman said tersely.

She handed me the phone.

"Hi Congressman," I said. "What's up?"

"Well, I've got an idea and I'd like your thoughts about it. What if we..." And he went on to explain his idea and that he'd like my advice.

"Great, I'll give it some thought," I said. "I'll be in the office at 8. We can talk about it then."

I always wondered why he didn't just wait until I got into the office the next morning to talk to me about what he had in mind. But that was Jim Florio. There was no time to wait. There was only time to get things done.

The first chapter of his book is a microcosm of that philosophy, which no doubt was with him for his entire political career -- and may still be. It's the story about how Florio managed to push an assault weapons ban through the state legislature and despite ferocious opposition from gun advocates and the National Rifle Association defeated efforts by a veto-proof Republican legislature to overturn it.

The achievement earned Florio the fourth annual Profile in Courage award from the trustees of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.

"It was one of the proudest moments of my life," he writes.

Jim Florio was a high school dropout who joined the Navy as a teenager. He became an attorney, state assemblyman, congressmen, then governor.

During the time I worked for him, Florio championed environmental causes and as a member of the Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee, which he would later chair, was a driving force behind the Superfund laws that helped clean up toxic waste sites around the country.

In his prologue, Florio writes that his "philosophy of achieving political success can be summed up in a single phrase...'engage and inform' on the issues--to make sure that combatants and constituencies, the voters and the public, are engaged and informed in the decision-making process and that they are provided with the information they need to make sound, rational decisions."

That philosophy expresses the wisdom drawn from many years of experience. But the Jim Florio I knew was young, aggressive, ambitious, and was not that patient. When he wanted something done, he wanted it done. No excuses.

One day I walked into his office and told him the legislative staff was swamped with work trying to get everything accomplished that he had requested.

He looked at me with a slight smile and said,

"You'll make it happen. I have every confidence." With that he returned to the work on his desk. The conversation was over.

If you have a few minutes, watch the interview posted above with NBC's Steve Kornacki. It's a reflective Jim Florio and holds some lessons for the divisive and rancorous politics of today.

And Congressman, if you should read this, thanks for the opportunity of working with you. It was one of the highlights of my career.

Standing on Principle -- Lessons Learned for Public Life by James. J. Florio.

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