Byron Baer: The activist legacy of an open, public life

by MAX PIZARRO and MATT FRIEDMAN
PoliticsNJ.com

Byron Baer was a rarity in New Jersey politics: he served time in jail before he took public office, not after.

“I tell people he was a politician who went to jail first instead of the other way around,” said his widow, Judge Linda Pollitt Baer.

Pollitt Baer was referring to the 45-day stint that her husband did in a Mississippi jail in 1961, after being arrested as part of the Freedom Riders.

But his civil rights work didn’t end there.

Baer, who died this morning after a long illness, was a pioneering warrior for government transparency during his four decades of service in the Legislature. He passed bills on consumer pricing, toxic waste cleanup and tenant protection. While working on legislation protecting migrant workers, he demonstrated for workers’ rights, getting his arm broken by a south Jersey farmer who tried to hit his head with an iron pipe.

Whether it was in the halls of state government, in the migrant workers’ fields, or on the freedom-bound buses in the Deep South, Baer was a citizen’s champion, according to those who worked with him.

Legislatively he strove boldly even in the face of those who didn’t think some of his proposals were practical. On one front especially he persevered to craft legislation that would become a model not only for New Jersey but for the country. His efforts to make government accessible to citizens culminated with the Open Public Meetings Act, signed into law in 1975 by Gov. Brendan T. Byrne.

“He was the author of the Sunshine Law, and out front on all of the Sunshine legislation,” recalled Byrne on Sunday. “He was a real leader, and a real student of the legislature and the process.”

The law establishes the right of all citizens to have “advance notice of all public meetings and the right to attend meetings at which any business affecting the public is discussed or acted upon.”

Former U.S. Rep. Herb Klein, who was first elected to the state Assembly the same year as Baer, said the late state senator “left a remarkable record of New Jersey public service, starting with the Open Public Meetings Act.

“It was a pretty novel idea,” said Klein. “Government meetings weren’t ever that way, and feelings were it couldn’t work. But Byron was the kind of person who if he believed in something, he fought for it.”

Baer was no firebrand. He could speak with passion about human rights, but he wasn’t the most eloquent politician. More remarkable was his attention to detail – when pushing for legislation, his speeches would be slow and plodding, but full of facts and figures. He usually crafted his legislation himself, rather than sending them to the Office of Legislative Services to be drafted.

“He was not known as an inspiring orator, and he used to make fun of himself in that area,” said state Sen. Loretta Weinberg, who took over Baer’s seat when he retired in 2005. “He was much more of a policy guy, and very interested in the actual details of developing that policy, which is a very important aspect that many of us often overlook.”

His devotion to policy was so great, said Weinberg, that he pulled her over on the New Jersey Turnpike, ran over to her car and rode to Trenton with her, giving her a “treatise” on the death penalty and the pros and cons of proportional review while whoever was driving with him drove his own car back home.

“The minute details that the average person wouldn’t think of,” said Weinberg.

Klein said in the 1970s Baer enjoyed rapport with Bryne, which helped him drive key legislation, particularly the Sunshine measures.

“He got the support of the Byrne administration when he simply said, ‘Look, public meetings belong to the people,’ that was the message,” said Klein.

“Byron Baer and I were on the same page on the issues,” Byrne said. “Basically, he was great on any issue, and he made a great contribution over his lifetime.”

Baer’s appeal wasn’t limited to his own party. He was a staunch Democrat, but he eventually formed a friendship with another Bergen County senator on the opposite end of the political spectrum. When Baer met Gerald Cardinale in the Assembly, the two were “serious opponents,” said Cardinale. But by the time the two joined each other in the state Senate in 1993, they became cordial.

“We started having breakfast at a diner in Englewood Cliffs, where we would meet and discuss some of the things that were coming up,” said Cardinale. “That’s kind of where we began to get along….. we began to understand that we were not under so much disagreement in our goals. Maybe in our message, but not in our goals,” said Cardinale.

Baer angered some legislators in south Jersey when he went into their region to personally investigate the conditions of migrant workers, which famously led to the altercation that resulted in Baer getting a broken arm.

But he was used to surviving in the fray.

During Baer’s jail term in Mississippi, some of his fellow freedom riders came to believe he was an FBI plant because he was so adept at smuggling in small useful items like pens, and even utilized his technical expertise learned during his pervious profession as a movie special effects technician to craft a chess board out of bread.

“There were a couple people who thought he was a plant,” said Pollitt Baer. “Because watching him was like watching Mission Impossible.”

For all of Baer’s activism beyond the halls of Trenton, what former Senate Minority Leader James Hurley remembered about the late senator was his soft-spoken, studious presence in the upper house.

“He was an extremely quiet and thoughtful legislator,” said Hurley, a Cumberland County Republican. “There was no question about it, he did his homework. On the issues we were about as far apart as you could get. I’ve never considered myself to be far right. I’m more center-right, but Sen. Baer was far left.”

Former Assemblyman Arnold Brown, Bergen County’s first African American legislator, employed Baer as his aide from 1965-67. After Brown lost a re-election bid in 1967, Baer won the seat in a tough 1971 contest.

“What I would say about Byron Baer is this,” said Brown: “he worked to make a difference. The man led a beautiful life, and he will be missed.”

Baer requested that Senate President Dick Codey give his eulogy.

Visiting hours on Tuesday June 26th from 2 to 5 and 7 to 9 PM at Gutterman and Musicant Funeral Directors, 402 Park Street, Hackensack, NJ 07601.

A visitation will take place on Wednesday June 27th from 10 AM-11 PM at the Bergen Performing Arts Center, 30 North Van Brunt Street, Englewood, NJ 07631. A memorial service will follow at 11 am in the Bergen Performing Arts Center.
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In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be made to The Ramapo College Foundation, Senator Byron M. Baer Memorial Scholarship Fund, 505 Ramapo Valley Road, Mahwah, NJ 07430-1680.

One of Baer’s last wishes, said Pollitt Baer, was to have “We Shall Overcome” sung at his funeral.

Byron Baer: The activist legacy of an open, public life