Michael Aron: A great governor has died

BY Michael Aron, Chief Political Correspondent |

Brendan Byrne was one of the most consequential governors New Jersey has ever known. His accomplishments are lengthy. His persona was loved, especially by those who knew him well and those who heard his legendary jokes and stories.

It was just New Year’s Day that I was explaining to a fellow journalist that Byrne ranks up there with Tom Kean and Chris Christie as consequential. Byrne saved the Pinelands, created New Jersey Transit, overhauled the criminal code and parole systems, fought a 3-year battle with the Legislature to institute an income tax in order to try to offset property taxes, got the Meadowlands Sports Complex off the ground and ushered in gambling in Atlantic City. He was an environmentalist, a champion of social justice, a wily politician and a pillar of integrity.

Before running for governor, he was Essex County prosecutor and then a Superior Court judge. His father had been active in West Orange politics; the Byrnes were well known. When he ran for governor in 1973, other Democrats were vying for the seat. Two of them were named Ann Klein and Ralph DaRose. Two things propelled Byrne. An FBI wiretap picked up a mobster saying to another mobster that Judge Byrne “couldn’t be bought.” That became a campaign slogan–“the man who couldn’t be bought.” Then in April or so of ’73, Byrne made a deal with the Hudson County chairman, who I believe at the time was Jim Dugan, who is still around. I can’t remember the particulars, but the support of Hudson was critical in Byrne’s winning the primary.

In the general election, Byrne ran against Republican Charlie Sandman. It was the year of Watergate. Congressman Sandman was a big Nixon supporter. Byrne cruised to victory, as Congressman Sandman came to take on the aura of a villain in the Nixon drama.

The income tax was the big item in Byrne’s first term. He and his top lieutenants — Dick Leone, John Degnan, and Cliff Goldman — fought like hell for years to get a bill through both houses of the Legislature. With the help of the state Supreme Court, which ordered a shutdown of the schools in Robinson v. Cahill, which would morph into Abbott v. Burke, the Byrne administration got its tax in 1976, and the public got upset in 1977, when Byrne was up for re-election.

He didn’t know whether to run. The newspapers took to calling him “one-term Byrne.” It was John Degnan who persuaded him early in the year that he had to run. Byrne dispatched a number of primary opponents — Democrats had thought he was vulnerable. He would have lost if so many hadn’t run. But with ten Democrats trying to replace him, some from his own cabinet, he was able to win with something like 30 percent of the vote.

In the general election, Byrne ran up against Senate President Ray Bateman, father of today’s Sen. Kip Bateman. The elder Bateman had beaten Tom Kean in the 1977 Republican primary. Byrne was running on the income tax and the courage it took to pass it. Bateman felt as a Republican that he needed an economic plan that rolled back the tax. With the help of soon-to-be U.S. Treasury Secretary Bill Simon of Morris County, Bateman unveiled an economic plan amid much fanfare. The State House press asked Byrne what he thought of the Bateman-Simon plan. “I call it the BS Plan,” he said. The line caught on, and Bateman never recovered. Or so the story goes.

In his second term, the press began to tweak Byrne for taking vacations. There was a famous photo of him in bathing trunks sunning himself somewhere out of state. They reported on the trials and mishaps of several of his seven kids. But none of it was serious, and Byrne brushed it off. Meanwhile, he became good friends with President Jimmy Carter and various luminaries.

In 1982 Byrne yielded the governorship to his good friend and tennis partner Tom Kean, who had beaten Jim Florio in 1981 by the record-slim margin of 1,797 votes. That launched a second career in public life: Byrne the after-dinner speaker. He was the funniest man in the state. His one-liners cracked up audiences from High Point to Cape May. When did he know that he was no longer governor? “When they started waving at me again with all five fingers.” When else? “When I’d get in the back seat of a car, and it wouldn’t move.” There were many others.

He honed these jokes. He collected them. He invented them. And his delivery was half the humor. He kind of mumbled them. Especially the punch lines. You had to hang on every word in oder to get the joke. His timing was perfect. Audiences roared and he’d get thin “aw-shucks” kind of look.

I collected bits from four or five of these speeches and put them into a half-hour On The Record special entitled “The Wit and Wisdom of Brendan Byrne” that aired in 2005. NJTV will air an hour-long version of that special, with added commentary from some of the people who knew him best, on Friday, Jan. 5 at 9 p.m. and Monday, Jan. 8 at 8 p.m.

Brendan and his wife of 40 years Jean and their seven children lived at Morven, the old governor’s mansion before Drumthwacket. They were the last to live there. Brendan and Jean divorced, and Brendan met Ruthi Zinn, a public relations specialist. They married in 1994, and Ruthi travelled everywhere with Brendan on the Former Governors Circuit. In later years, as his health declined, she often stood in for him at large public events or speeches or swearings-in. She is regarded as a member of the Former Governors Club.

Brendan died today — Thursday — around 5:30. Ruthi says he died “basically of old age”. He was 93.

A funeral service will be held Monday, Jan. 8, at 11 a.m. at Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn.

Michael Aron has been covering the New Jersey State House since 1978. He covered Byrne’s administration and post-administrative years, remaining long-time friends.