Brendan Byrne, the two-term Democratic governor of New Jersey who implemented the state's first income tax, established Atlantic City as a gaming town and was responsible for turning the Meadowlands into a mecca for local sports activity, was remembered Friday for his tenacity and willingness to confront tough issues.
Byrne died Thursday at 93. The announcement of his death was made by Gov. Chris Christie in a statement released later in the evening.
“I considered Gov. Byrne a mentor and a friend. 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,” Christie said in the statement.
Christie’s remarks are shared by many colleagues and friends of who noted Byrne’s dedication to tackling issues facing the state.
“He never ducked away from a hard problem,” said Harold Hodes, founding partner of the legislative advocacy organization Public Strategies Impact and Byrne’s chief of staff during his second term as governor.
Byrne was the last Democratic governor to win two terms in office, a feat he narrowly pulled off after implementing the state’s first income tax, which was unpopular at the time. His popularity fluctuated as governor, sometimes dipping so low where citizens would spit or throw things at him when he was in public.
“He was resilient and tenacious in responding to negativity,” said John Degnan, president and CEO of the American Insurance Association and who served as Byrne’s attorney general from 1978 to 1981.
Byrne’s popularity would grow over time. Degnan compared Byrne’s latter-day approval popularity to that of President Jimmy Carter, who became increasingly popular once out of office.
Degnan characterized Byrne as a “phenomenal governor” and “out-of-the-box thinker” who read a lot and was passionate about the issues he felt strongly about. He also hailed Byrne for depoliticizing regulatory apparatuses that oversaw health care, insurance or any businesses that directly affected the environment.
“He wasn’t an ideologue,” said Degnan. “He was a practical guy who looked for ways to get things done.”
Colleagues of Byrne said his straightforward approach, coupled with self-deprecating humor made him an effective politician.
“People always talk about his humor, but the ability to find something light in a situation was tremendous,” said Shawn Laurenti, president of Laurenti Consultants, who served as Byrne’s executive assistant during his governorship.
Laurenti credited her work under Byrne’s administration as particularly inspiring in retrospect, given the current polarization in politics today.
“Reflecting in today’s context of a political world, it was a remarkable administration to work for because it was public service,” she said.
Byrne was willing to tackle important issues, regardless of their popularity, because it was what the state needed to get done. Some say that approach continues to influence New Jersey politics today.
“The income tax was something that the state needed at the time and he had the courage to put it forward even with the risk of losing his second term,” said Tom Bracken, president of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce. “That political courage is unique to a lot of politicians today, the courage to do what’s right.”
Byrne remained active in the political scene after leaving office. He served as the commissioner of the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority for four years in the early19 90s, and later co-wrote a recurring column with Gov. Thomas Kean for the Newark-based Star-Ledger.
Those who knew him characterized him as an effective politician and a genuine man.
“I think he was a man of his season, and even a man for the future. His accomplishments were long-lasting,” Laurenti said.