Florio in N.J. and Dinkins in N.Y. present a picture of two opposites

November 03, 1993|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,New York Bureau

NEW YORK -- Think of it as a tale of two pols.

For the best of times, we have New Jersey Gov. James J. Florio, the returned-from-the-dead tax raiser who rode a comfortable lead in the opinion polls into yesterday's election. For the worst of times, we have New York Mayor David N. Dinkins, the Democrat who may buck all the odds and lose re-election.

The setting was the vote for governor of New Jersey and, across the Hudson River, for mayor of New York City. The two races have attracted attention in an off-election year for what they say about national politics -- taxes in New Jersey and race in New York. But they may also say as much about Mr. Florio and Mr. Dinkins, two contrasting personalities grappling with similar issues and similar problems.

When both came to power in 1989, they were not seen as opposites but as twin harbingers of change.

Mr. Florio had been a longtime member of the House of Representatives and had narrowly lost an election for governor in 1981. Now that he was finally governor after having been shut out for eight years, what would he do with the overwhelming mandate that 60 percent of the voters had given him?

Mr. Dinkins won with a much slimmer majority but was the first black mayor of the nation's largest city, a man often described as a healer in a metropolis rent by racial animosity.

After years of Edward I. Koch's shrill rule over the city, what would Mr. Dinkins do to mend fences?

But when both were faced with immense challenges, they reacted in radically different ways.

Mr. Florio's problem was money. New Jersey was facing a multi-billion-dollar deficit left by his predecessor. He disregarded the voters' distaste for taxes and rammed a $2.8 billion tax increase through the Legislature, earning him the undying hatred of many voters, who felt betrayed.

Later, he displayed the same grim determination while fighting for gun control against the wishes of the National Rifle Association and while trying to get the eastern New Jersey shoreline cleaned up.

Many voters still dislike him -- his disapproval rating is about 32 percent -- but over and over again they say they know what he stands for. Helped by a poor campaign by Republican challenger Christine Todd Whitman, Mr. Florio enjoyed a comfortable 7 percent to 10 percent lead in most opinion polls going into Election Day.

Mr. Dinkins' challenges were also financial, but especially racial. On two major occasions his ability to solve racial problems was put to the test and, according to opinion polls, voters found him wanting.

One time, he waited months before moving against a black-led boycott of Korean grocery stores. Later, he hesitated two days before ordering strong police measures against a mob that was attacking Jewish homes in the Crown Heights district of Brooklyn.

The two incidents have helped boost Mr. Dinkins' unpopularity rate to 35 percent. While this is about as high as Mr. Florio's, Mr. Dinkins and Republican challenger Rudolph W. Giuliani were neck and neck in the mayoral race as of Election Day, even though the city is heavily Democratic.

"There's a sense that Mr. Dinkins has not fulfilled his promise, while Mr. Florio at least stands for forceful leadership. Dinkins has not stood out as a strong leader," said Michael Delli Carpini, a political analyst at Columbia University.

Besides their politics, the men's personalities and background make them opposites. Mr. Florio, who was born in Brooklyn, was a boxer in the Navy.

Mr. Dinkins, who hails from Trenton in Mr. Florio's state, is a genteel tennis player, a man so obsessed by his appearance that his bodyguards often carry spare jackets for him.

But while their demeanors and track record are in stark contrast, many political analysts warn against hasty generalizations.

Mr. Florio, for example, has benefited from having a weaker opponent than Mr. Dinkins' challenger, said Cliff Zukin of the Eagleton Institute in New Jersey. In addition, Mr. Florio took his hits early on, giving voters time to forget and Mr. Florio time to rebuild his image.

Mr. Dinkins, by contrast, suffers from a series of nagging problems that has given the appearance that his fortunes are eroding rather than recovering. Although the Crown Heights riots ended two years ago, one report that criticized the mayor was released just six weeks ago.

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