When Bill Higgins was a kid growing up in bucolic Haddon Heights, NJ, one of his teachers at Sacred Heart School told him he wasn’t using his time very wisely.
Those words must have stuck with him, because he’s packed quite a lot into his life, both personally with his wife and five sons and professionally after a long career with the New Jersey State Police.
Higgins, 57, was a personal driver for former New Jersey Governor James J. Florio, whom he considers a friend and mentor (and he’s met just about every other high-ranking elected official who’s ever done business in the Garden State).
Some of them, like President Bill Clinton and Jon Corzine, had bigger aspirations.
“I’ve been a lucky guy,” Higgins said. “I’ve always been in the right place at the right time.”
Higgins graduated from Haddon Heights High School in 1976 and after a few years of college, he attended his brother Mark’s graduation ceremony from the New Jersey State Police Academy in Sea Girt and found his inspiration.
Soon after, Higgins decided he wanted to be a part of the “Honor, Duty, Fidelity” and get his own yellow and blue uniform. He graduated in 1981.
Like all new troopers, Higgins was first assigned to road duty, patrolling the highways. Higgins said he worked out of barracks in Bridgeton, Mays Landing and the Atlantic City Expressway and was promoted, quite quickly, he noted, to the state police’s casino investigation bureau.
It was a time when Atlantic City’s casinos were cashing in, the only gambling action for hundreds of miles in every direction.
“I was there in the heyday definitely. It was a booming town back then with lots of construction going on,” Higgins said. “I saw all the major events there, even the Tyson/Spinks fight. I did executive protections details with Jay Leno, Fats Domino, Paul Anka, Don Rickles. Lots of celebrities.”
Higgins had settled in Brooklawn, along the Delaware River in Camden County, with his wife, Beth, and his growing family, and it was on a Saturday afternoon outside his home there that he caught another break. Higgins said he was cutting his lawn when a police officer from Washington Township stopped by and asked if he could do him a favor.
“He was Jim Florio’s congressional driver and he asked if I would mind pinch hitting for him in New York City. The rest was history,” Higgins said.
“I drove him and his wife Lucinda up to Secaucus and after that I drove him quite a lot, much to the chagrin of the state police,” he said. “The day he was elected governor, he had me transferred to his detail.”
A Democrat first elected out to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1975, Florio was elected as New Jersey’s 49th governor in 1989 after several unsuccessful attempts.
Florio reduced auto insurance premiums and enacted stiff gun control measures as governor, but served only one term, his fate sealed with a request for a $2.8 billion tax increase, the largest ever in the U.S. at the time.
In 1993, he lost his re-election bid to Somerset County freeholder Christine Todd Whitman.
Higgins, looking back on those years, said Florio inherited a mess in Trenton, a massive budget deficit that needed to be addressed. Florio was punished, he said, for making difficult decisions.
“He really got a terrible rap,” Higgins said. “It wasn’t fair.”
Florio, however, was more than just the governor or a boss to Higgins, he said.
“I don’t think he’ll ever have any idea what a profound impact he had on my life. He was just a class guy,” Higgins said. “He didn’t say much, but he was just a genteel guy, a nice, nice man.”
Driving throughout New Jersey and beyond with Florio, Higgins said he soaked up advice and learned a little more about how to treat people, particularly those opposed to your own beliefs.
“He liked to use the word ‘gubernatorial.’ He was not bombastic. He respected other peoples’ opinion,” Higgins said.
Florio would wade right into hostile crowds, Higgins said, and take on every question until his opponents ran out of them. Higgins was often there in background, always amazed at how calm and collected his boss remained.
“I don’t have a poker face. I would get pissed at people who wouldn’t respect him as a governor,” Higgins said. “He really engaged the people, though. He’d say, ‘I respect your opinion but I have a different one.’”
If his elementary school teacher’s time management critique hadn’t fully sunken in for Higgins, Florio drove it home.
“Jim Florio was the most punctual person I’ve ever met,” he said. “I’ve prepared my whole life to be early and I’ve never been late to anything since 1990.”
One of the more memorable moments for Higgins in the Florio years came in 1991 during a trip to Seattle for the National Governors Association conference.
“We got invited to a party at the Lincoln Hotel. Governor Florio wasn’t much of a social butterfly so he told us to go ahead without him,” Higgins said.
At the party, Higgins and the rest of the security detail met an affable guy with an easy-going Southern accent and together, they all swapped stories over cocktails, Higgins said.
When Higgins eventually asked the guy his name, he was in for quite a surprise.
“He said, ‘I’m Bill Clinton. I’m governor of Arkansas,’” Higgins said. “I said, ‘Geez, I’m sorry governor. I never put two and two together.’ He had a hell of a time that night.”
Clinton even played Kenny G’s saxophone that night, Higgins said.
Higgins and Clinton met on other occasions, after he won the presidential election in 1992 and they both remembered that night in Seattle.
“I’ve almost led the life of Forrest Gump,” he said.
Before Florio left office in 1993, he promoted Higgins to sergeant. Higgins continued his career with the state police, working again in Atlantic City and for the state’s division of alcoholic beverage control.
In 2002, Higgins took on what was arguably his most difficult detail when he was asked to represent the state police’s contingency in an anti-crime partnership in Camden, NJ, one of the nation’s most dangerous and poorest cities per capita.
At any given time, more than 100 troopers were assigned to Camden to bolster law enforcement efforts, and it wasn’t easy. Troopers were new faces to both the community and the local officers in Camden.
“We were fair, consistent and we did the right thing. We weren’t afraid to do the right thing,” Higgins said.
During one operation to round up people with outstanding warrants, a raid Higgins admits was conceived on the fly, his troopers found $240,000 in cash stuffed inside a television.
“Nobody in the building takes claim for it so it becomes civil forfeiture,” Higgins said. “That’s one lucky Irishman right there.”
Higgins, who retired as a captain with the state police in 2006, said he’s remained hopeful for the city and is pleased to see reports that crime numbers have fallen markedly in 2014.
“I wish everybody well there,” he said. “I think there’s promise there for the future.”
Though retired, Higgins combined his love for law enforcement and politics by running for sheriff on the Democratic ticket in Salem County, where he’s lived for two decades.
“I always loved politics, even as a kid,” he said.
Higgins lost the race and later wound up back in Camden, getting a job as director of port facilities security for the South Jersey Port Corporation on the Delaware River. In 2012, he was named deputy chief of detectives at the Salem County Prosecutor’s Office.
And lately, instead of retiring, Higgins has resigned from the prosecutor’s office and started his own security firm, Abatis Security, based out of a familiar place, Atlantic City. In less than a year it has become the largest security provider in Atlantic City.
The firm provides staffing for events and private businesses and Higgins is expecting big things.
“We’re doing extremely well,” he said. “Every day I get up and I get to walk on the boardwalk. Life is good.”
Higgins also has more time to be with his family—his five sons and two granddaughters.
That’s time well managed.