April 18, 2018

Political Legacy of Brendan Byrne Is Focus of Memorial Symposium

By Anne Levin

Brendan Byrne’s family wanted an event held in his honor at Princeton University last Friday to be focused on the work he did before, during, and after his two terms in state office.

The “Symposium on the Legacy of Brendan Byrne, New Jersey Governor 1974-1982,” at Alexander Hall, was “not a memorial, but a useful and candid discussion,” said his son Tom Byrne, at the start of the program in which politicians and public servants recalled Byrne’s achievements, personality, and influence. He died at age 93 on January 4.

Former New Jersey Gov. Thomas H. Kean, former U.S. Congressman and Senator Robert Torricelli, former New Jersey Supreme Court Justice James R. Zazzali, and recent Port Authority Chairman John J. Degnan took part in a panel discussion, recalling their relationships with Byrne and his leadership. Kent Manahan, news anchor for New Jersey Network from 1978 to 2011, was moderator.

The audience was filled with people who served with Byrne in state government, as well as local politicians including Mayor Liz Lempert and Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker. Former New Jersey Governor James McGreevey and attorney Barry H. Evenchick offered remarks.

In brief remarks, Princeton University President Christopher Eisgruber referred to Byrne, a 1949 graduate of the school, as “a fierce friend … famously known as the man who could not be bought.” Byrne served two terms as governor, enacting the state’s first income tax, legalizing casino gambling, developing the Meadowlands sports complex that bears his name, and preserving the environmentally fragile Pine Barrens through an executive order.

Degnan said Byrne’s interest in that region was sparked by his reading of author John McPhee’s famous 1968 book on the subject. “He said, ‘We’re gonna take on the Pine Barrens. And faced with a recalcitrant legislature, he had us draft a proposal,” Degnan recalled. Degnan, who was attorney general of New Jersey from 1978 to 1981, grew up down the road from Byrne in West Orange, and attended the same church. “He embraced and practiced politics as an art form,” he said of Byrne, also mentioning his “strategic use of humor to reach people and maintain balance.”

Torricelli was a junior in college when he first met Byrne, and volunteered to work for his campaign. The two men had “a very complex relationship,” he recalled. “We were so different. We had a generation between us.” Byrne “… knew where every bone was buried, every lever to push,” he said. “He grew up in the process and was not ashamed of it.”

Torricelli became emotional when recalling their final encounter, at an event in support of Gov. Phil Murphy’s campaign last year. In failing health, Byrne called Torricelli over and thanked him for his work. Torricelli said he was grateful “for the career he gave me. You may have been a complex man but you moved the needle on American life,” he concluded.

Zazzali worked under Byrne during Byrne’s 9-year term as Essex County Special Prosecutor. “He quickly became one of the best,” Zazzali said. “He taught us that the goal of a prosecutor is to see that justice is done, and not to obtain a conviction.”

In his program notes, Tom Byrne thanked the speakers and moderator for their participation in the symposium. “Dad respected your opinions, enjoyed the many debates, trusted your judgement and was proud of the people in his circle,” he wrote. “There are so many stories, anecdotes, and famous Brendan Byrne jokes to fondly recall. And there are hopefully lessons for future policymakers.”