Former New Jersey Gov. Brendan Byrne, who presided over the legalization of casino gambling in Atlantic City and nearly lost re-election after establishing the state’s first income tax, has died at age 93.
The Democrat held New Jersey’s highest office from 1974 to 1982. His death was announced by Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican who nonetheless acknowledged Byrne as a role model.
“Governor Byrne had an extraordinary career of public service,” Christie said in a statement.
Christie noted that Byrne was a prosecutor and Superior Court judge before becoming governor. “He did each of those jobs with integrity, honesty, intelligence, wit and flair.”
Byrne was a World War II veteran who graduated from Princeton and Harvard Law School.
After serving as Essex County prosecutor and Superior Court judge, he ran for governor in 1973. He got the Democratic nomination and then defeated conservative Republican Charles Sandman in a landslide.
A year later, he called on the legislature to pass a state income tax to finance public schools and for property tax relief – a move that nearly led to his political undoing.
As Politico reports, “The measure contributed to a massive fall in the polls, with his approval rating dropping to 17 percent in 1977 — the lowest of any New Jersey governor in history until Christie set a new record last year.”
Nevertheless, he resurged, prevailing in a crowded primary and waging an uphill battle to win a second term. He later quipped: “I knew I’d get reelected when people started waving at me using all five fingers.”
In his second term, he pushed through casino gambling in Atlantic City, but when he signed the bill into law in 1977, he warned the mafia to keep its “filthy hands” off the city. Mobsters caught on wiretaps in the 1960s had referred to then-prosecutor Byrne as the one “we can’t buy.”
The Associated Press writes: “In a New York Post headline, Byrne was proclaimed “The Man the Mob Couldn’t Buy.” That slogan ended up on bumper stickers that reminded voters in the Watergate era that not all politicians were unscrupulous.”
Decades later, as Atlantic City casinos struggled, Bryne expressed doubts about the 1977 law. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal in 2014, he called legalizing gambling in the city “my biggest mistake.”
Byrne’s son, Tom Byrne, said Thursday that his father had suffered an infection that went into his lungs and that he had been “too weak” to fight it.
In a statement, New Jersey Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto said of Byrne that he “always put doing the right thing ahead of politics, no matter how difficult the issue” and that his “honor, wit and courage … made him a model for all of us in elected office to emulate.”