Brendan Byrne, Former New Jersey Governor, Is Dead at 93

Brendan T. Byrne, the former New Jersey governor who helped lure professional teams to a new sports colossus in the Meadowlands and won passage of the state’s first income tax, a feat that prompted some pundits and pollsters to write his political obituary prematurely, died on Thursday. He was 93.

His death was announced by Gov. Chris Christie, who did not say where Mr. Byrne died or provide any other details.

A Democrat, Mr. Byrne could be a controversial governor and in many ways a contradictory man. Sometimes he spoke in a distracted monotone; other times he displayed an easy, self-deprecating wit.

He was elected handily in 1973 and re-elected four years later after overcoming deep resentment over the income tax.

“There was a poll that showed 96 percent of the people knew who I was, and 4 percent thought I was doing a good job,” he joked years later at a Hudson County political dinner.

Mr. Byrne was the first New Jersey governor to serve eight years with his own party in control of the Legislature the entire time. Yet his relations even with Democratic lawmakers were often so prickly it was hard to remember that he was not a Republican.

His detractors said he was too much like the judge he had been and not enough like the tough Irish politician he should have been. They found him exasperatingly Hamlet-like, saying he was reluctant to make difficult decisions.

Nonetheless, Mr. Byrne persuaded legislators to pass the income tax to help finance schools and ease property-tax burdens; to curtail building in the Pine Barrens wilderness; to back public financing in gubernatorial elections; to create a state public advocate who could sue state agencies on behalf of citizens; and to approve voter registration by mail. And his administration was free of major scandal.

“I never saw more executive control of the Legislature,” one Republican said grudgingly well into Mr. Byrne’s second term. “Quite frankly, I don’t know whether to ascribe this to executive strength or to legislative weakness.”

It was fitting, somehow, that those remarks came from Raymond H. Bateman, who was a state senator when Mr. Byrne trounced him to win re-election in 1977. Mr. Byrne was often underestimated by his adversaries, usually to their sorrow.

Despite what casual acquaintances saw as awkwardness in public, people who watched the governor more closely concluded that he was not really shy — that he was, in fact, a self-assured man.

He just did not care for the baby-kissing and glad-handing that is endemic to politics. And sometimes he simply did not care what people said.

During the gasoline crisis of 1979, after lecturing New Jerseyans on the need to conserve fuel, he flew to Washington to meet with White House aides on energy problems. Before leaving Trenton, he saw to it that his official limousine was dispatched to Washington so that he could be chauffeured around the capital. After the meetings, he flew back to Trenton. The limo went back empty, except for the driver.

He was widely criticized for the episode, but there was never a hint that it bothered Mr. Byrne, who could give as well as he got in dealing with New Jersey journalists.

“It is not true that I can only read at a fifth-grade level,” he told a group of them, after being roasted at a press dinner. “I read out-of-state papers, too.”

He confounded the so-called experts again and again, at no time more dramatically than in 1977. That April, a poll by the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers found that only 17 percent of New Jerseyans approved of his performance.

His very vulnerability may have helped him: Nine Democrats were emboldened to challenge him in the primary. They consumed one another, allowing Mr. Byrne to be renominated with just 30 percent of the vote.

Mr. Bateman had also survived a bruising primary, after which he led the incumbent governor by as many as 10 percentage points in several reputable polls. But Mr. Byrne campaigned relentlessly.

He insisted that his Republican opponent had essentially no platform, except his condemnation of the income tax. Mr. Byrne never retreated from his stance that the income tax was not only right but also essential, and that its burden on homeowners would be offset by rebates on property taxes.

He underscored some conspicuous first-term accomplishments, like his successful backing of a referendum to bring casino gambling to Atlantic City, at the time a shabby resort community, to revitalize it. He reminded voters of his support for building the Meadowlands Sports Complex, which lured the football Giants from New York City.

He soon closed the gap in Truman-like fashion and won convincingly over the man who had been his adversary in squash as well as in politics.

“I knew I’d get re-elected when people started waving at me using all five fingers,” he reflected, perhaps only half-jokingly.

Mr. Byrne began his public career in the mid-1950s as an adviser to Gov. Robert B. Meyner. In 1959, Governor Meyner named him Essex County prosecutor. He was reappointed by Gov. Richard J. Hughes in 1964.

While Mr. Byrne was investigating organized crime, mobsters tapped his phone. Forget about trying to bribe him, one gangster told another; Brendan Byrne was a man “who couldn’t be bought.” This was high praise in a state where municipal mischief was no rarity.

After nine years as prosecutor, Mr. Byrne was named head of the state Public Utilities Commission by Governor Hughes. He held that post for two years before being appointed a Superior Court judge by Gov. William T. Cahill in 1970.

As the election year of 1973 drew near, a number of influential Democrats thought that this couldn’t-be-bought ex-prosecutor and ex-judge might be just the candidate to take on Governor Cahill. Mr. Cahill had never been accused of dishonesty himself but was bedeviled by improprieties among his top aides.

Mr. Byrne later recalled that he was happy on the bench, but that the entreaties from party leaders kept coming. On April 24, 1973, he went to Governor Cahill’s office, tendered his resignation from the court, then startled the governor’s aides by announcing his own candidacy from Mr. Cahill’s outer office.

Mr. Byrne won in a three-way primary. Mr. Cahill was so weakened politically by corruption among his aides that he lost the Republican primary to Representative Charles W. Sandman Jr., a South Jersey conservative. Mr. Sandman would soon become known as a strident supporter of President Richard M. Nixon during the Watergate hearings.

New Jersey Republicans did not unite behind Mr. Sandman, who was not liked either by Mr. Cahill or by Senator Clifford P. Case, a highly respected moderate. Mr. Byrne was elected governor by more than 720,000 votes, one of the biggest landslides in the state’s history.

His first term began auspiciously, with legislation to help finance future gubernatorial elections, create a public advocate’s office and simplify voter registration — all measures that he had pushed. During the energy crisis of early 1974, he moved decisively to put into place a widely respected fuel-allocation program.

But in June 1974, he called on the Legislature to pass a $1 billion tax package that included a state income tax. He argued that the levies were necessary; the State Supreme Court, finding wide disparities between rich school districts and poor ones, had ruled that New Jersey could no longer rely on local property taxes to finance education.

Necessary or not, the $1 billion package was political poison. As a candidate, Mr. Byrne had not exactly promised that there would be no income tax, but he had not discouraged the impression that he had.

Mr. Byrne’s first attempt to win passage of his tax program passed by one vote in the Assembly but was buried in the Senate. He persisted nonetheless. The debate over taxes, particularly the income tax, came to dominate his first term, and while he finally won enactment of a compromise program (with an income tax), he had spent enormous political capital and lost some political friends in the process, assuring himself of an uphill struggle for a second term.

During that second term, ground was broken at the Meadowlands Sports Complex for an indoor arena, and the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority decided to name it after Mr. Byrne — a decision that drew strong criticism.

The arena became the home of the New Jersey Nets basketball team and, until 2007, when they moved to Newark, of the New Jersey Devils hockey team. The Nets moved to Brooklyn in 2012. The name of the arena was later changed, first to Continental Airlines Arena and then the Izod Center.

After retiring from politics in 1982, Mr. Byrne was a senior partner in a law firm in Roseland, N.J. He also became a part owner of the Devils, and because of that he may have lost a chance to succeed Bowie Kuhn as baseball commissioner in the early 1980s.

That was because the primary owner of the Devils was John J. McMullen, who also owned the Houston Astros and had become known as a foe of Mr. Kuhn.

Brendan Thomas Byrne was born on April 1, 1924, and grew up in West Orange, N.J. His father, Francis, was the city’s public safety commissioner and later president of the Essex County tax board. His mother was the former Genevieve Brennan.

Mr. Byrne briefly attended Seton Hall University before enlisting in the Army Air Forces during World War II. He served as a navigator on European bombing missions and won a Distinguished Flying Cross and three Air Medals. He graduated from Princeton in 1949 and from Harvard Law School in 1951.

Mr. Byrne’s first marriage, to the former Jean Featherly, ended in divorce.

He is survived by his wife, the former Ruthi Zinn; three sons, Brendan Jr., Timothy and William; three daughters, Nancy Byrne, Mary Anne Byrne and Barbara Stefan; and nine grandchildren. Another daughter, Susan Byrne, died in 2006.

In his later years, Mr. Byrne remained active while retaining his sense of humor, even in acknowledging the weight of aging.

“Remember that stuff they put in our food during World War II, to prevent us from getting excited about girls?” he said at the dedication of a military monument when he was 84. “It’s beginning to work.”

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