I am working on a public television documentary special on the career of former Governor Brendan T. Byrne and I had the occasion of covering the unveiling of a 7-feet high bronze statue of the governor at the Essex County Courthouse plaza this week—an effort coordinated by Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo in which Byrne was introduced by Republican Governor Chris Christie.
Too often, in the media, we obsess over politicians who do the wrong thing and what doesn’t work in our government. That’s our job. We are supposed to do that. It’s easy because there are so many inept politicians and because government fails so often to do what it is supposed to do, including keeping the government functioning in Washington.
But while interviewing former governors like Tom Kean, and listening to other governors like Jim Florio, Jim McGreevey and current Governor Chris Christie talk about Brendan Byrne’s legacy, it’s clear that this is a guy who got it right. That doesn’t mean that he was right all the time. It means that he understood what it meant to be a strong leader that had to make tough decisions to move the state forward without pandering to what he thought the public wanted at a particular point in time. Why else would Brendan Byrne, as governor, propose the creation of an income tax to fund our public schools when he knew it would make him a pariah on the political scene? He did it because he thought it was the right thing to do.
He was told immediately his political career was over. Democrats came out of the woodwork to run against him in a Democratic primary in 1977. Members of his own cabinet ran against him. Two Democratic Congressmen ran against him. A Democratic mayor from Jersey City ran against him. Everyone said that Brendan Byrne had no chance of winning and his nickname became “one term Byrne.” But I spoke to his former chief of staff, Harold Hodes, now a successful lobbyist in the Statehouse, a the Byrne dedication who told me that in the campaign, Governor Byrne apologized for lying in his first campaign for governor. When I asked Hodes what he meant, he responded; “Governor Byrne said he was sorry for not telling people he was going to propose raising the income tax.”
Think about that. Brendan Byrne actually apologized to voters for not acknowledging that he thought raising the income tax was something that needed to be done, but he didn’t actually say it in his first run for governor. He didn’t apologize for creating the income tax, he apologized for not being more honest about the fact he believed the income tax needed to be raised. When was the last time you heard a politician in New Jersey or anywhere in this country talk like that? It just doesn’t happen.
In the end, Byrne was reelected by a wide margin mostly because of his candor, his wit and his ability to connect with voters. Brendan Byrne’s accomplishments as governor were considerable, including leading the effort to legalize gambling in Atlantic City, the creation of the Meadowlands Sports Complex and the preservation of the Pinelands in South Jersey. But most of all his greatest contribution was his courage and integrity to say and do what he thought was right for the state, even if it was wildly unpopular at the time. That’s real leadership. The statue of Brendan Byrne in the Essex County Court plaza is 7 feet tall. If it were 70 feet tall, it wouldn’t be big enough for this giant of New Jersey politics and government. I’m not saying he was perfect. No governor is. But he had the characteristics that are all too rare in so many of our political leaders today. Just look at the circus going on in Washington. You get the picture.
What are your thoughts about former Governor Brendan Byrne?