Brendan T. Byrne says that the office of the governor of New Jersey is the most powerful such executive office in the United States, and that’s a good thing as long as the governor wants to be an agent for change. “Otherwise, why run for office?” asked Byrne, who visited Rider for a witty and insightful Q&A session on April 14 as part of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics’ Governing New Jersey series.
“I used it to get things done,” said Byrne, who served as governor of New Jersey from 1974 to 1982, to a filled Mercer Room. Byrne, who participated in the session with Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute, discussed his own career in politics, spanning from his time as a legal clerk making $10 per week to a retiring governor who would see his name grace a state-of-the-art arena at the Meadowlands Sports Complex.
After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1951, Byrne clerked for attorney Joseph Weintraub, who would later become the chief justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court. After being appointed secretary to the governor in the administration of Gov. Robert Meyner, Byrne rose quickly through the legal ranks, and resigned from the state Superior Court to run for governor in 1973. He said it was never his intent to enter politics, but his connections initially paved his way.
“I had no political credentials,” he said of his appointment to Meyner’s staff. "I was just Joe Weintraub’s buddy.”
Byrne said that working for Meyner allowed his philosophy on governance to take shape. “He would come in to work, and then just open his mail,” Byrne recalled. “I said to myself, if I’m ever in that position, I’m not going to wait for thing to happen. I’m going to make things happen.”
A Democrat, Byrne became the state’s 47th governor in 1974, and served two terms in Trenton. His time in office is notable for the establishment of the state income tax, the Pinelands Protection Act, the introduction of casino gaming to Atlantic City, and the further development of the Meadowlands Sports Complex. Upon its completion in 1981, the current Izod Center was known as Brendan T. Byrne Arena before being renamed Continental Airlines Arena in 1996.
The implementation of the state income tax was the most notable legislation of Byrne’s first terms, and he conceded that in most cases, it would’ve cost him reelection.
“I had to be able to defend my record, and if there was one guy running against me, I probably would’ve lost,” Byrne recalled of the challenges mounted from within his own party. “But there were about 15 of them, so the vote was pretty well split.”
Byrne won of course, and continues to stand by the income tax, which he called the most viable solution among the various revenue-generating options.
“No one has attacked my income tax without distorting what it was,” he said. “We could’ve gotten by with a patchwork of taxes, but I figured as long as we’re going to do it, let’s do it right.”
Dworkin asked Byrne about New Jersey’s legendary reputation for political corruption, to which Byrne related a tale about visiting Yankee Stadium with James A. Farley, who had served as postmaster general under President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
“I asked him, ‘when you held that post, did anyone ever ask you to do anything corrupt?’” Byrne asked him. “And he told me, ‘no … well, only one person did – (former Jersey City mayor) Frank Hague.’”
During Byrne’s second term, a 1978 constitutional amendment allowed casino gambling in Atlantic City, a move the governor favored, though he admitted he would manage the project differently today.
“As a (former) prosecutor, I saw that organized crime was effectively running the casinos (elsewhere), so we took a big risk, I said I thought we could do it honestly,” Byrne said. “And I think we emphasized honesty at the exclusion of a lot of other things.”
Among those, Byrne mentioned poor zoning in the seaside gaming mecca that worsened a culture of haves and have-nots in the city. “We gave too much power to the municipal authorities,” he said.
Though the Meadowlands was already moving toward a conclusion when Byrne first took office, his review of the contract the state had developed with the New York Giants to move from Yankee Stadium to the new Giants Stadium would simply not do.
“I called the Giants and said the deal you got – well, forget about it,” he said. “So, we met at the Princeton Club in New York, and sat and talked. I said, ‘these are the things I want, and if you’re willing to give them to me, then we’ll build your stadium.’ These days, it’s, ‘tell us what you want and we’ll do it.’ It’s ridiculous.”
Byrne also said the decision to name the arena for his was not his idea.
“I said, ‘name the racetrack after me instead,’ because I thought ‘Byrne Downs’ would be pretty good,” he quipped.