The fall of Jim Florio and the rise of New Jersey 101.5
A couple of weeks ago, I was sitting in traffic on Route 1 when I saw a faded bumper sticker on the back of a rusty pick-up truck.
The color had been bleached out, but you could just make out the words: "Florio Free in '93."
As I sat in traffic, a started thinking about how those simple words helped propel New Jersey 101.5 into the biggest and most-listened-to radio station in the Garden State and, in turn, gave me the amazing career I have enjoyed for over three decades.
I was saddened to hear of Jim Florio's death this weekend at the age of 85.
Florio and New Jersey 101.5 forever linked
It was 1990, and popular South Jersey Congressman James Florio had just been elected governor.
A new radio station had also just been launched. New Jersey 101.5 proudly proclaimed we were "Not New York, Not Philadelphia."
The two were headed on a collision course that would change the landscape of New Jersey forever.
Florio came into office believing the state budget had a surplus. It was actually running a huge deficit.
To fix this, Florio and the Democratically controlled Legislature passed a massive $2.8 billion dollars tax hike in the middle of the night as part of the fiscal 1991 budget.
The plan taxed just about everything from tires to toilet paper.
Up to that point, the talk on New Jersey 101.5 was focusing on things like your favorite boardwalk, who had the best pizza and the worst traffic spots. It was watercooler fluff that one host derisively called "What's your favorite cheese?"
That changed when postal worker John Budzash called the station to express outrage over the tax hikes. More calls followed, and soon that was just about all everyone in the state was talking about.
Budzash went on to form the group "Hands Across New Jersey," and launch one of the largest protest movements the state has ever seen.
I was a 21-year-old newsman who had arrived at New Jersey 101.5 after a stint at the United Nations for the now-defunct NBC/Mutual Radio Network. I was paired in the morning with former host Jim Gearhart. We ended up working side-by-side for a quarter century.
As the number of calls about the tax hikes started increasing, I remember Gearhart saying this was the "spark" needed to put the station on the map.
While our news department looked into the details of the tax hike, our hosts continued to allow angry residents to vent.
It culminated in a massive rally on the steps of the State House in Trenton, and birthed the rally cry of "Florio Free in '93."
New Jersey 101.5 gained not only massive amounts of listeners during the Florio administration, but national media attention for helping to oust a sitting governor.
By the end of 1990, Florio's approval rating was below 20%. Florio was a one-term governor.
Building blocks for the future
In retrospect, this was the true birth of New Jersey 101.5.
The tax protests spawned our DNA: Speaking truth to power, pulling the veil away from government secrecy and giving New Jersey residents a loud voice to push back on oppressive taxes and government policies.
It began with the legendary Jim Gearhart, John and Ken and Jay Sorenson. It continues today with Bill Spadea, Deminski and Doyle, Dennis and Judi and Steve Trevelise.
It continues with all of you, raising your voices to hold government to account.
Florio never forgot New Jersey 101.5
After leaving office, Florio frequently blamed New Jersey 101.5 for sinking his political career. In a 2014 interview, he likened "Hands Across New Jersey" to the Republican Tea Party movement.
In the time following his term as governor, Florio focused on his legal practice but was still a frequent visitor to the State House. He would sit with other former governors during the annual state of the state message.
Over the years, I'd run into him from time to time. We chat about politics, the current administration, children and grandchildren or whatever the issue of the day happened to be. All conversations eventually led back to the tax revolt.
He wasn't bitter or angry, and we even shared a few laughs about it.
How about a drink?
About 10 years ago, Florio and I were at an event with a cash bar. We chatted as we waited for a drink. "You know," he said with a smile. "You kind of owe your career to me."
"You might be right about that, governor," I laughingly said back to him.
As our drinks arrived, he grabbed his and started to walk away. Turning back, he told the bartender, "This round is on him. He owes me."
Thank you, Gov. Florio. Rest in peace.