Remembering Brendan Byrne, a New Jersey icon

“There was a time in New Jersey when 96 percent of the people of this state knew who I was, and four percent thought I was doing a good job.” — Gov. Brendan Byrne.

When he left office in 1982, Brendan Byrne was one of the most unpopular chief executives in the history of the state. But, almost immediately after he left office, his stock began to rise and, upon his death this week, he is being remembered as one of the greats of New Jersey politics and government.

“He was simply the most consequential governor of the 20th century,” recalled Politifax Editor Nick Acocella. “I don’t think anyone would question that.”

Sen. Bob Menendez was among many political leaders recalling the Jersey icon Friday.

“He was a giant in New Jersey’s history,” he said. “Not just its political history, but in New Jersey’s history.”

Brendan Thomas Byrne was born in 1924 in West Orange. He grew up during the Great Depression and served his country as an airman during World War II, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross and a Presidential Unit Citation. He went to Princeton as an undergrad and earned a law degree from Harvard. He served in a number of government posts, including Essex County prosecutor and Deputy Attorney General. But his lasting impact on the state came as governor: ushering in Atlantic City gaming, creating a state income tax, creating NJ Transit, saving the Meadowlands Complex and the Pinelands. All it got him was those historically low poll numbers.

“Everybody forgets how unpopular I was in the good old days,” he reminded us frequently.

But over the next 30 years, his low approval rating recently eclipsed by you know who, Byrne became one of our most popular former governors and a must-have speaker at events like the New Jersey Chamber’s “Walk to Washington,” where he frequently held court with wife, Ruthie. His speeches were witty and self deprecating, and full of now classic lines including, “The truth is I’m doing absolutely nothing, and I don’t start it until 11 o’clock in the morning. But I still regard myself as a product of Hudson County, and I still say I want to be buried in Hudson County so I can remain active in politics.”

“Gov. Byrne was very much a part of the environment in New Jersey,” said Sen. Loretta Weinberg. “I saw him most recently about a month ago at a big PSE&G luncheon in Newark and we sat a table together and he was as sharp as can be. Still.”

Byrne’s career is proof that there are, in fact, second acts in American lives. His life after politics was full of public adulation and personal joy. That he lived to 93, and remained active almost to the very end, speaks volumes about what he thought of New Jersey. Ultimately, his love for the state was surpassed by the love he received in return.