WEST ORANGE, NJ — Former Gov. Brendan Byrne, a West Orange native, died Thursday, Jan. 4, at the age of 93. The Democrat was a two-term governor of New Jersey, from 1974 to 1982. While in office, Byrne enacted the state’s first income tax, legalized casino gambling and led to the development of the Meadowlands sports complex, among other achievements. Byrne was considered so ethical that crime boss Angelo “Gyp” DeCarlo was recorded on an FBI wiretap saying that “in a state where everything seemed to be for sale, Byrne couldn’t be bought.”
Gov. Chris Christie announced Byrne’s death, saying that he considered the former governor a mentor and friend who had “integrity, honesty, wit and flair.”
“He was the proud father of seven children and was a treasure to his home state, where, in 2011, he was inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame,” Christie said in a Jan. 4 statement. “My life is richer for having known him as I am sure are the lives of every person who had the privilege to meet him.”
Gov.-elect Phil Murphy also called Byrne a friend and mentor in his own statement, and said he was one of New Jersey’s most beloved people.
“Gov. Byrne was a man of incredible decency, inscrutable honesty, admirable humility, tremendous humility and tremendous humor,” Murphy said on Jan. 4. “He restored New Jersey’s faith that good people do go into politics to do the right things for the right reasons.”
Born and raised in West Orange, Byrne graduated from West Orange High School in 1942 and spent a short amount of time enrolled at Seton Hall University before leaving to join the Army. He served in the Army Air Corps during World War II and was discharged in 1945 with the rank of lieutenant. When Byrne returned home, he graduated from Princeton University with a degree in public and international affairs, then earned his law degree from Harvard Law School in 1951.
Byrne’s political career began in 1955 when he became an assistant counsel to Gov. Robert Meyner, who later appointed him as an Essex County prosecutor. He served as a prosecutor until 1970; in 1968, he was named the president of the New Jersey Public Utilities Commission.
In 1970, Byrne was appointed by Gov. William Cahill to the New Jersey Superior Court. As an assignment judge, he served Morris, Sussex and Warren counties. He left the position in 1973 to run for office for the first time in a N.J. gubernatorial election that he won.
In his first term, Byrne fought to push legislation enacting an income tax through the state Senate, viewing the state income tax as the sole stable and long-term revenue source for New Jersey. He fought for this legislation through two years of disagreement in the Legislature, which ultimately resulted in a July 1976 N.J. government shutdown. But he persisted and the legislation was passed.
Byrne went on to beat Republican state Sen. Raymond Bateman and was re-elected in 1977, with 57 percent of the vote. In his second term, he focused on environmental protection, passing the Pinelands Protection Act in 1979. The legislation continues to protect the natural resources in the Pine Barrens region, and the Pinelands Commission preserves the area and oversees land development.
“In the midst of what many optimists considered a bleak situation, we have pulled through with legislation which will provide for a comprehensive planning and management system for the Pinelands,” Byrne said before he signed the bill June 28, 1979. He added that this legislation “is testimony to our civilization and future generations that amid rapid progress we have enough foresight to protect beauty.”
In addition to all he did on the state level, Byrne remained concerned with Essex County and his hometown of West Orange. In light of this, there is a statue of him in Newark’s Hall of Records Complex.
“Gov. Brendan Byrne was a statesman to whom we could all look up to and a regular guy who was quick with a joke. As a prosecutor and a governor, he was ahead of his time in how well he understood the issues affecting our state, and his integrity and honesty could never be questioned,” Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo Jr. said in a Jan. 5 statement. “To honor this great man and make sure future generations learn about his impact on Essex County and New Jersey, we dedicated a statue and plaza in his honor at our Hall of Records Complex. He was a great friend who will be missed. Our condolences go out to his family.”
Byrne is survived by his wife Ruth, six children and nine grandchildren. In 2012, referring to dead voters left on election rolls and used to manipulate election results in Hudson County, Byrne joked to the Star-Ledger that he wanted to be “buried in Jersey City so I can remain active in politics.” According to his son, Tom Byrne, however, Brendan Byrne’s body will be cremated and the ashes spread in the Pinelands, though he said that some may make their way to Hudson County.
Tom Byrne spoke of his father’s legacy at a memorial service held for Byrne at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn on Jan. 8.
“He wanted every kid to have that hope that comes from having a good education. He expressed hopes for New Jersey’s urban areas,” Tom Byrne said at the memorial service. “He advanced the hope that politics could be good and decent.”
In addition to Tom Byrne, the former governor was eulogized at the Paper Mill Playhouse memorial service by Christie, former Gov. Thomas Kean and the archbishop of Newark Cardinal Joseph Tobin, among others.
“New Jersey loved him — most of the time,” Tobin said. “New Jersey loved him for his authenticity and honesty.”
Photos Courtesy of Joseph Fagan