NEWARK – On a ridiculously hot day in which many other public speakers might have sent the brow-mopping audience on a premature beeline for the nearest watering hole, former Gov. Brendan T. Byrne regaled his willing audience with charm and one-liners.
"Everything else I asked for, but I didn’t ask for this," said Byrne, before officially accepting the honor bestowed by the Essex County Freeholders and Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo, and before he pulled the American flag off a stone fixture in a plaza named after him.
"When my kids used to visit me here, I used to put them in jail, and that taught them to stay on the straight and narrow," he cracked.
But before any of that, the elder statesman grew reflective.
"It bothers me a little bit to be honored because you were honest," said Byrne, former Essex County prosecutor (1959-1968) and governor (1974-1982), and West Orange native.
Nervous laughter swelled the tent in the plaza newly named for him, where attendees included Gov. Jon Corzine,Chief JusticeStuart Rabner, Senate President Richard Codey (D-Essex), Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), and many others.
"Two previous county executives (to DiVincenzo) made their way from the office upstairs on the fourth floor to jail," said Ruiz, who serves as DiVincenzo’s deputy chief of staff.
Moreover, a district judge sentenced former Newark Mayor Sharpe James to prison last month, and former Passaic City Mayor Sammy Rivera received his sentencing for corruption last week. Newark Councilwoman Dana Rone lost her Central Ward seat earlier this month after an assignment judge ruled that she had used her office to obstruct justice.
Regardless of his own trepidation for being honored, in his words, simply because he was a truth-teller, Byrne more than deserves the honor, according to Rabner.
"In choosing to name this plaza after Gov. Byrne, you couldn’t have selected a better symbol for what is honorable about public service, both as a prosecutor and as a governor," said the state Supreme Court Justice. "It is fitting that attorneys will be able to think of your name as they walk into the hall of justice."