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NY Politics
Brendan Byrne, 90 Years Old and Still in the Mix
From the Wall Street Journal of Fri, 19 Dec 2014 20:50:13 EST
Former New Jersey Gov. Brendan Byrne at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University in December.
Former New Jersey Gov. Brendan Byrne at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University in December. John Taggart for The Wall Street Journal

He was feted at a roast earlier this year by Gov. Chris Christie , has a statue in his likeness in Newark and is appearing at New Jersey book signings for a new biography on his life.

At 90 years old, former New Jersey Gov. Brendan Byrne is having something of a moment.

The state’s oldest-living governor has had an outsize impact on the state, paving the way for legalized gambling in Atlantic City, preserving more than one-fifth of New Jersey’s land and imposing the state’s first income tax.

Given the often dim views citizens have of government these days, Mr. Byrne deserves to be highlighted as someone who accomplished a great deal, said John Weingart, director of the Center on the American Governor at Rutgers University.

“Byrne’s attitude was, you’re elected to do stuff,” Mr. Weingart said. “It was an era when government was expected to help people and he believed that fully.”

New Jersey’s 47th governor served from 1974 to 1982 and is the state’s last Democratic state executive to be elected for two terms. His administration was largely free of the scandals that plagued other state politicians, as reflected in the title of the biography, penned by Donald Linky : “New Jersey Governor Brendan Byrne: The Man Who Couldn’t Be Bought.”

Mr. Bryne hails from the Irish-American Democratic establishment that was once a driving force of New Jersey politics. His father, Francis, spent 50 years in local politics in West Orange, a suburb 20 miles from New York City.

Growing up, Mr. Byrne was a shy, gangly child who loved sports. As a young man, he was drafted during World War II and flew combat missions on B-17s across Europe. The book chronicles his division being engaged in repeated heavy combat.

“When I look back on it…statistically I shouldn’t have survived that war,” said Mr. Byrne.

Mr. Byrne returned home a decorated veteran to study at Princeton University and Harvard Law School. He quickly moved into the public sphere and was Essex County’s prosecutor by the age of 34.

As a prosecutor during the Newark riots in 1967, Mr. Byrne oversaw the processing of nearly 1,500 arrests. He recalled walking the city’s streets with a shotgun.

After serving as a Superior Court judge, the father of seven children entered a crowded Democratic field for governor in 1973. He won, in part, on a reputation for strong ethics; FBI surveillance from the 1960s tapped reputed mobsters discussing politicians they could buy off and one they couldn’t: prosecutor Byrne.

After taking office in 1974, Mr. Byrne immediately was confronted by gas lines, an unemployment rate of more than 10% and the need to generate new taxes. He muscled through an unpopular state income tax in 1976, earning the put-down “One-Term Byrne.”

But he managed to return to office in 1977, and during his two terms, oversaw the legalization and regulation of gambling in Atlantic City. He viewed legalization as a means to revitalize the seaside resort and tell mobsters to get their “filthy hands” off the city, Mr. Byrne said. But now, he wishes he had created an agency to better manage the city’s development, he said.

“It was my biggest mistake,” Mr. Bryne said about Atlantic City’s subsequent difficulties.

Mr. Byrne succeeded in bringing the New York Giants across the Hudson River with the building of the Meadowlands Sports Complex. (He didn’t manage to persuade the football team to put New Jersey in its name.)

New Jersey Gov. Brendan T. Byrne, in a March 1977 photo.
New Jersey Gov. Brendan T. Byrne, in a March 1977 photo. Associated Press

In his most defining move, Mr. Byrne is credited with saving the New Jersey Pinelands, a region of forests, cranberry bogs and hamlets spreading across the southern flank of the state. He wrote an executive order to protect more than a million acres and helped establish the pinelands as a national park.

The move met heavy opposition from landowners and legislators alike—along with a legal challenge, which Mr. Bryne sent his own state attorney general, John Degnan, to defend.

“I thought we would lose,” said Mr. Degnan, now chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, whose argument paved the way for the pinelands’ protection. “He was an incredibly courageous governor.”

After his service as governor, Mr. Byrne returned to private legal practice, but he never abandoned New Jersey’s political scene. He has attended 51 of the annual New Jersey Chamber of Commerce train trips to Washington, D.C., holding court in an Amtrak car as well-wishers stop by. He still pens a column in the Star-Ledger with former Republican Gov. Tom Kean.

Though he doesn’t support all of Gov. Chris Christie’s policies, Mr. Byrne said New Jersey’s current state executive should run for president in 2016.

“I think he’s the best candidate that the Republicans have,” Mr. Byrne said. “He’s got charm.”

Mr. Bryne has difficulty hearing and gets around slowly these days. Seeing the biography come out in print this fall was one of his last top goals, he said.

“I’m reading the footnotes,” Mr. Byrne said. “I think it’s a great history of the era.”

Write to Heather Haddon at heather.haddon@wsj.com



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