Brendan Byrne: 1924-2018

Former New Jersey Governor Brendan Byrne, who earned a reputation as the “man who couldn’t be bought” in his professional career as the Essex County Prosecutor, who made saving the Pinelands a priority for his home state, who bucked the naysayers in securing a second term as governor, and who served his country in WWII, one of the last of the Greatest Generation, died tonight.

Governor Byrne was 93 years old.

The proud Democrat with ironclad integrity served as governor of New Jersey from 1974 to 1982, giving New Jersey its first state income tax and, in the aftermath, refusing to wear the “One Term Byrne” tag his rivals sought for him.

As an elder statesman he was one of New Jersey’s most beloved figures, who dutifully maintained a vigorous public presence throughout the state, annually traveling to Washington, D.C. to participate in the Chamber of Commerce’s Walk to Washington until only a few years ago. The West Orange native – a former track champion and avid tennis player – also routinely delighted crowds with his sparkling Irish wit.

“New Jersey has lost one of its most beloved and distinguished favorite sons,” said Governor-elect Phil Murphy in a statement. “Governor Byrne was a man of incredible decency, inscrutable honesty, admirable humility, and tremendous humor. He restored New Jersey’s faith that good people do go into politics to do the right things for the right reasons.

“Brendan was a dear friend and mentor, and Tammy and I wished nothing more than to have him share in my inauguration,” Murphy added. “Our thoughts and deepest condolences go to his wife Ruthie and their entire family.”

A decorated combat veteran of the Second World War, Governor Byrne served in the U.S. Army Air Corps. He was also the only governor of New Jersey to get in a boxing ring in Jersey City with then-heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali. InsiderNJ spoke to Governor Byrne about that exhibition match a year ago and the Governor enjoyed recounting how Jersey City Mayor Tommie Smith actually trained for a shot at having a competitive bout with the heavyweight titleholder. As for Governor Byrne’s time in the ring with the champ, the Governor remembered that Ali said to hit him, Mr. Byrne complied, and Ali hit the canvas.

“I am deeply, deeply saddened to hear of the passing of one of our great governors, Brendan T. Byrne,” said Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-32) in a statement.  “Gov. Byrne was a man who always – always – put doing the right thing ahead of politics, no matter how the difficult the issue. His intelligence, honor, wit and courage combined with his dedication to his country and public service made him a model for all of us in elected office to emulate.

“But besides his political skills and successes as governor and in the many other roles that he served with integrity, Gov. Byrne was above all a good and decent man, with a wonderful sense of humor,” Prieto added. “If you measure a man by his character, then Gov. Byrne was immeasurable. On behalf of the New Jersey General Assembly, I offer my prayers and condolences to his wife Ruthie and his entire family at this difficult time.”

The tributes to one of New Jersey’s favorite sons poured forth.

Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) issued the following statement on the passing of former Governor Brendan Byrne:

“We have lost one of New Jersey’s most politically courageous public leaders in the passing of Brendan Byrne. He provided strong and determined leadership at a pivotal time in the state’s history, shaping policies on a wide range of issues that continue to have an influence on the quality of life to this day.

“Among his accomplishments were bringing casino gambling to Atlantic City, the creation of NJ Transit, the preservation of the Pinelands, public financing of gubernatorial campaigns, and passage of the state income tax to fund public schools and reduce property taxes.

“He served our country in war and served the State of New Jersey and its people in so many ways, as a prosecutor, judge and two-term governor,” Sweeney added. “He was a remarkable man who distinguished himself with his service to others, his selfless honesty and his incisive wit.”

“My sincere condolences to his wife Ruthie who was a devoted partner to Brendan, to his son Tom [A former Democratic State Party Chairman], and his entire family. We share in their loss.”

Senate Minority Leader Kean said that “few people have worked harder to make the Garden State a better place for all of its residents than Brendan Byrne.”

In recent years, Essex County Democrats led by County Executive Joe DiVincenzo honored the late Governor with a statue outside the Essex County Courthouse, in recognition of that foundational place where Mr. Byrne earned his professional spurs as a no-nonsense prosecutor, a job he turned into his 1973 run for governor and subsequent enduring statewide service.




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