Florio Comes Off the Floor Against the NRA Over Assault Rifles

RICHARD REEVES

September 02, 1992|By RICHARD REEVES

NEWARK, N.J. — Newark, N.J.--I began in this business on a weekly paper 60 miles from here, the Phillipsburg Free Press. A guy in town named Red Mascari was a running story: Every year he tried to get the legislature to proclaim a ditty he wrote as the official state song. This was how it began:

''I'm from New Jersey and I'm here to shout it,

''I'm from New Jersey and I'm proud about it!''

Well, I am from New Jersey, and I'm mighty proud about it these days. The incumbent governor, Jim Florio, and his predecessor, Thomas H. Kean, are giving the state and the rest of the country a little demonstration of what democratic politics, with a small d, should and could be.

The issue is the legalization of semi-automatic assault weapons.

Although one of the most unpopular governors in Jersey history -- he raised taxes across the board in his first days in office -- Mr. Florio, a Democrat, persuaded a Democratic legislature in 1990 to ban AK-47 clones and other military weapons. That was just before voters, angry about the taxes, elected an overwhelmingly Republican Senate and Assembly last year.

A month ago, the Republicans voted to repeal the ban by votes of 28-9 in the Senate and 47-16 in the Assembly, far more than the two-thirds' majority needed to override a promised Florio veto.

They assured voters that the $364,000 the Republican legislators got from the National Rifle Association had nothing to do with their votes. Of course not; who would ever think such a thing?

Well, the NRA did. Its man in Washington, Richard Manning, traveled up to Princeton for a National Governors Association meeting and was quoted as saying: ''We killed Florio. We beat him here. And more important than what we did to him, every governor in this room knows we killed him.''

With faint pulse, Mr. Florio repeated that he would veto the bill, a meaningless bit of bravado against those margins. Meaningless, that is, until a Newark Star-Ledger reporter asked Mr. Kean, a Republican, what he thought of what his friends in the legislature were doing.

''It's dead wrong,'' said Mr. Kean, now the president of Drew University in Madison. ''I don't know what the lawful purpose could be in owning an assault weapon.''

Oh! Oh! Suddenly, Republican legislators are having second thoughts about paying back the NRA, which is effectively the lobbying arm of the country's gun manufacturers.

Having the guts or common sense to say things like that is why Tom Kean left the governor's office three years ago with positive job approval ratings above 70 percent.

Mr. Florio's approval ratings after two years were below 15 percent, and the conventional wisdom is that he has less chance to be elected again than Saddam Hussein.

Mr. Kean is some piece of work. Here is what this Republican says about the Democratic presidential nominee: ''I like Bill Clinton tremendously. I know him from the governors' conferences. The Democrats nominated their best person, a very able fellow. The country is well-served by that choice.'' Did I mention that Mr. Kean is the national chairman of President Bush's re-election campaign?

It appears now that the Republicans may not try to override Mr. Florio's veto, at least in the Senate. Part of the reason is that they would like to avoid a non-binding statewide referendum on the assault-gun ban -- which polls indicate three out of four voters favor -- during next year's gubernatorial race.

Suddenly, they are afraid of Jim Florio. He is still not very popular, but his taxes have improved the state's financial position and more money is going where Jersey people want it, into their schools.

Under other circumstances, Mr. Florio's latest poll ratings might seem dismal, but considering where he's been, they are a real improvement: 2 percent ''excellent''; 22 percent ''good''; 42 percent ''only fair.'' Maybe if he could get Tom Kean to endorse him . . .

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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