July 26, 1993 12:00 PM

ONE MORNING THIS PAST MAY, NEW JERSEY governor James Florio stood at a lectern accepting the Profile in Courage Award at the Kennedy Library in Boston while a horde of photographers crouched near his feet furiously taking pictures—of the Kennedys. There they all were, seated in a tableau to Florio’s left, like some sort of historical frieze: Senator Ted, John Jr., Caroline and, most intriguing of all, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, as silent as Chaplin for 30 years.

In this contest for media attention, Florio came in second. Still, the praise the liberal Democratic governor received that day—the award is given for political courage and leadership—was a heartening improvement over the almost nonstop abuse he has endured since being elected in 1989. Within his first six months in office, he rammed through a $2.8 billion tax increase (the Republican administration that had preceded him, he said, had forced his hand by concealing huge budget deficits); channeled half of that into the state’s school aid system to benefit poorer districts, and took on the National Rifle Association with a bill to ban assault weapons. Suddenly New Jersey radio talk shows exploded with vitriol and car bumpers erupted with stickers: IMPEACH FLORIO, DUMP FLORIO, FLORIO-FREE IN ’93. At a South Jersey town meeting, one social studies teacher denounced Florio as “the worst governor since Pontius Pilate.”

This spring, though, the travails of ’89 were fast receding. The Kennedys were honoring Florio principally for pushing through the statewide ban on assault weapons—the toughest in the nation—-after a three-year fight that, like everything else he seemed to be doing, threatened his chances of reelection. As Caroline Kennedy presented him with a Tiffany silver mariner’s lantern designed by her husband, Edwin Schlossberg, a New Jersey tourist who happened to be visiting the library that day looked in to see what was going on. “He’s getting an award for what?” cried Marilyn Kohn, bitterly recalling the tax hike. “It’s sickening! He’s just the ultimate liar!”

Florio, 55, is resigned to such rude treatment. He even sees the calumny as bracing. “I’ve run into a number of other governors who are troubled and some who have curled up in the fetal position with their thumbs in their mouths,” he says. “You have to have some moral and mental toughness.” For her part, Caroline Kennedy. 35, sees protests over Florio’s selection as a sign “we’re doing something right. I mean, if the award’s a big snore, what’s the point?”

Right now, Florio’s focus is aimed at getting himself reelected in November, when he will be facing Christine Todd Whitman, 46, the patrician Republican who, as an unknown former county official, nearly unseated Sen. Bill Bradley in 1990 in a vote widely seen as a repudiation of Florio. But the governor, whose approval rating once plummeted to a mere 17 percent in mid-1990, has been climbing remarkably in the polls. He is now given about a 50-50 chance of staying in office, because at least some of those who felt I betrayed by the tax hike now believe it was necessary. President Clinton, not surprisingly drawing inspiration from a politician who bottomed out early in his first term, calls Florio the Resurrection Kid.

That may be premature, but certainly the man who was judged dead and buried a year ago is now hammering on the coffin lid. Should he survive, he would be making a point that other political figures might not fail to note: that doing the unpopular thing is not necessarily suicidal—provided one does it quickly and unflinchingly and leaves plenty of time for voters to forgive, if not forget.

Florio’s intensely combative nature goes back to his gritty childhood in Brooklyn, N.Y., when he knew the despair of nearly being shut out. “My lather was a shipyard worker, except for a period of time after the Second World War when he couldn’t get work,” he says. “I can relate to the trauma of a breadwinner being willing but not able to provide. I remember what they called the shape-up. with the foreman walking down the line choosing guys. It was like a slave market.” There were times, he adds, when the family ate oatmeal for breakfast and dinner.

After Vincenzo Florio moved the family to New Jersey and began working the Hoboken dockyards—-the Brooklyn shipyard had closed down——James dropped out of high school to spend four years in the Navy, much of it in Alaska. “The Navy and the GI Bill were so important to Jim,” says Democrat Wayne Bryant, 41, deputy minority leader of the New Jersey Assembly and a longtime friend. “He sees himself as a kid who would’ve been written off without help from the government. That’s why education and keeping tuition down are so important to him.”

Florio left the Navy in 1958 with a couple of visible legacies: an American flag tattooed on his upper right arm and a rearranged face. As a kid he had learned to box at the Flatbush Boys club and had turned into a good light middleweight. In the Navy he was 12-2 going into his last fight, against a tall Seabee from Louisiana named Sherman White. “We weren’t supposed to fight each other, but my guy didn’t show up and his guy didn’t show up,” Florio says. “I was 160, he was about 172. I fought him. Not particularly smart. Pretty much every time he hit me, something broke.” Florio’s jaw was wired shut for six weeks, and to this day he has a concave left cheekbone, which only adds to his air of pugnacity.

While attending Trenton Stale College in the early ’60s, he decided on a career in politics after being elected senior class president. He also married a classmate, Maryanne Spaeth, and started a family (Christopher, now 32, Gregory, 30, and Catherine, 28), later graduating from Rutgers University Law School and then entering the mucky waters of New Jersey polities. Florio didn’t care for some of the local pols he had to deal with—he once said many of them belonged “on a post office wall”—but he was savvy enough to rise to a U.S. Congressional seat in 1974 as part of the post-Watergate class of new-broom Democrats.

Florio quickly established his reputation as a committed populist. “He was great at making government relate to people, getting them through the government maze,” says Bryant. “His belief that government ought to touch people endeared him to a lot of his constituents. They called him the Cong”—as in Congressman. It was all part of what Florio calls “seeing that the underdog gets a little bit of a fair shake.” But the personal toll was severe. Living alone for years in a one-room apartment over a liquor store in a shabby Capitol Hill neighborhood, Florio would go home to his Camden, N.J., district with a suitcase of dirty laundry for hurried weekends with his family. Eventually he worked himself out of a marriage: He and his wife were legally separated in 1981 and divorced in 1984.

In 1981 he ran for governor, losing to Republican Tom Kean by an eyelash—1,797 votes statewide. By that time, even Florio realized he was punishing himself too much. “I looked like an emaciated cadaver,” he says. “That’s when I learned you’ve got to pace yourself.”

Still, he kept tunneling along in Congress, to the exclusion of practically everything else, until 1984, when he met a divorced third-grade teacher (and mother of one) named Lucinda Coleman. She lived in the apartment above his in Pine Hill, N.J. “I had one knife and fork and cup and plate,” he says. “My couch didn’t have a fourth leg, and I had it propped up with newspapers. Lucinda threw that away quickly. She threw a number of things away, including my clothes. She cleaned up my act.”

They married in 1988. Since then, Lucinda Florio, 46, is credited by many, including the governor himself, with making him—well, happy. Aides claim they can tell in photographs of Florio whether Lucinda was anywhere near by a new, relaxed look on his face. On the night Florio was elected governor and appeared before reporters tightly cinched as usual, Lucinda broke in. “Come on, James!” she cried, flinging out her arms at the crowd. “Tell them how great it feels! This is something you’ve worked for so long! Tell them it feels GREAT!” Florio says she’s “on me all the time to lighten up. And she’s right. She has a way of bringing it home to me.”

Still, Florio rebuffs most attempts by outsiders to gel to know him. “As public a person as he is,” says Bryant, “he’s an introvert in many ways. When his brother was dying a couple of years ago, Jim had to cancel some events, but he didn’t want to put out the reason. I said, ‘You’ve got to tell people. It’s all right to have a personal tragedy. It’s all right for you to be human.’ ”

As governor he has needed all the lightness he can muster. During the brutal gun-control fight, Florio and Lucinda arrived at the governor’s mansion in Princeton to find some 200 demonstrators shouting obscenities and comparing him to Hitler by holding up swastikas. Florio says he’s not against hunting guns but against weapons “specifically designed for the military purpose of killing.”

For Florio, bathed in the Kennedy moon glow, the task now is to get elected again. He has made a good case that he is a man of rock-hard principle. The question for New Jersey voters is whether they like that kind of rock. Florio claims more and more do, and the polls suggest he may be right. “People,” he says, “are waving at me with all five fingers now.”

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