Brendan Byrne's career forged in Newark before becoming N.J. governor

Gov. Brendan Byrne
Gov. Brendan Byrne at a victory celebration.
Brendan Byrne (right) and son, Tom Byrne.

Before he became New Jersey's governor, Brendan Byrne carved his career path in his native Essex County, as county prosecutor during a tumultuous era in Newark's history. 

Tested and tempered, he was ready for his time in Trenton. 

Byrne, who died Thursday, is fondly remembered by those who watched his life, and his legacy, spring to life as a young lawman who was once described on a wiretap as a "man who could not be bought."

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Several prominent political and non-profit leaders told TAPinto Newark their stories about Byrne, governor from 1974 to 1982. Their tales were told from the perspective of power and public service, tinged with humor, their laughter in the face of sadness fueled by fond memories of Byrne. 

Byrne was Essex County Prosecutor and Richard Hughes was governor during the 1967 Newark riot which left 26 people dead, resulted in millions of dollars in property damage and ripped apart the city's soul. 

Michael Murphy — one of the sons of the late Hughes, who served from 1962 to 1970 — remembered the connection Byrne and Hughes built during Newark’s darkest hour.

“They were either together or were on the phone constantly when the riot was at its peak,” Murphy, whose father reappointed Byrne in 1964 to his second term as county prosecutor, said. 

“They set up special prosecution teams to bring people in who were rioting, shooting, or otherwise misbehaving. And they kept the courthouse open 24/7 to arraign who they brought in," Murphy said. "The bonding that takes place in a crisis like that lasts a lifetime.”

For a young Tom Kean, who was elected to the state Assembly in 1967, the first two years were in many ways all about the riot – what had happened, what should be done for the city of Newark, including passage of an urban aid bill and other programs designed to salve wounds and send New Jersey's largest city down a better road. 

“I think that was a period of testing. If you went through that period and came out on the other side, you’d learned something. You’d been tempered a bit, like steel," said Kean, whose district contained a sliver of Newark. "You understood what some of the real problems and dangers were, and you learned how to deal with them." 

After Byrne was elected governor in 1973, he dealt with New Jersey's problems in several dramatic and unprecedented ways. He was the force behind the passage of the state's first income tax to fund public schools as well as property tax relief, the preservation of the one-million acre South Jersey forest known as the Pinelands, and the legalization of casino gambling in Atlantic City, which financed institutional care for the elderly and disabled. 

“Brendan did things nobody else would have done, and the state is a very different place because of that," said Kean, who followed Byrne as New Jersey's governor from 1982 to 1990. 

"If you look at the governors before and after him, none of us favored casino gambling," Kean said. "He was the only one who would’ve signed that bill. Based on his reading a book about the importance of the Pinelands region – The Pine Barrens, by John McPhee – he went on a crusade to save the Pinelands. And he did it.  

"I think we would have had a state income tax anyway because we couldn't fund education any other way," Kean continued. "But what took place with casinos and the Pinelands would not have happened without the unique legislation and legacy of Brendan Byrne." 

Former governor and current State Sen. Richard Codey was first elected to the Assembly in 1973, the same year that Byrne won his first term in Trenton. Codey knew Byrne's name before he shared a ballot with him - his father played tennis with Byrne when he was prosecutor and a judge. 

Newark might have burned in 1967, but Codey noted how Byrne stayed cool under fire. 

"As the county prosecutor, he had to work with, and under, the state and the feds at the time of the riot, as well as with the Newark police, which was no easy task. But he got pretty high marks for working with all of the communities in the city of Newark, including in the aftermath of the riot," Codey said. "He maintained his relationships. He stayed steady. He was a gentleman that you could respect.

"Governor Byrne's creed was this: I did what was right. I stand by it. Let my fate be determined by the voters," Codey noted, pointing to his spurning the 'one-term Byrne' slogan when he convincingly won reelection in 1977. "And what did they say? We want you back." 

After the voters said they wanted Kean for governor, the Livingston native looked around to help get a grip on the great power afforded New Jersey's governor. The 1947 state constitution makes the person who heads the Garden State arguably the most powerful governor in America. 

Kean, who led the Republican opposition while Byrne, a Democrat, was governor, forged a bipartisan bond at a place where Byrne was often found - the tennis court. 

"When I became governor, I had a Democratic legislature in both houses that didn’t really want to work with a new Republican governor. But very quietly, Brendan and I used to play tennis once a week or so in the afternoons, then we’d sit and talk. He would give me hints on how to deal with people," Kean said. "I treasured those talks. He helped me be a much better governor.

"We disagreed on a number of things, but in the process of disagreeing we got to like each other and developed a lifelong friendship. That’s the way politics should be," Kean said. "I hope that Governor Phil Murphy and future governors will look at Brendan Byrne as an example to follow.” 

Later in life, Byrne set an example to a new generation of people hoping to give back. 

"When I was in college, Governor Byrne and I would go for lunches at Pal's Cabin in West Orange and talk about public service," said Montclair native Carlos Lejnieks, president and CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Essex, Hudson & Union Counties, which is based in Newark. 

"We asked Governor Byrne and Governor Kean to help co-chair and launch our advisory board, knowing that their names would give it weight and credibility. They didn't hesitate. Governor Byrne became a donor, a supporter, and an amplifier of our mission to mentor kids in Newark when very few people were on board." 

Michael Murphy served as Morris County Prosecutor before his Democratic gubernatorial primary run in 1997. One day on the campaign trial, Byrne's mind went back to his home county when he gave Murphy some unofficial job advice. 

“Governor Byrne took me aside once and said ‘Mike, I’ve had a great career, but the best job that I ever had was being the Essex County Prosecutor," Murphy remembered. "You wake up every day and you know that you’re going to be able to do justice and help your community." 

Life springs from death. For Murphy, and for many others, Byrne left an impression that goes far beyond the grave.  

"I loved him dearly. He combined wit, wisdom, integrity, and character so seamlessly. Personally as an Irish Catholic Democrat, having been raised by an Irish Catholic Democrat, he was the guy who most reminded me of my late father," Murphy said. 

"Governor Byrne always told me this: 'We Irish Catholics have a great, self-effacing sense of humor. You know why that is? We just have good material.'" 

A tribute service to Gov. Byrne is scheduled for 11 a.m. today at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Milburn. It is open to the public.

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