Former Gov. Brendan T. Byrne, who presided over the legalization of casino gambling and the construction of the Meadowlands Sports Complex and whose decision to establish the state’s first income tax tanked his approval rating but not his reputation, died Thursday.
He was 93 and was the state’s oldest living governor.
The death of Byrne, a Democrat who held the state’s highest office from 1974 to 1982, was announced Thursday evening by Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican who had long said he admired the fellow executive as someone who set an example for his own career.
“Governor Byrne had an extraordinary career of public service,” Christie said in a statement, noting Byrne had also been a prosecutor and Superior Court judge. “He did each of those jobs with integrity, honesty, intelligence, wit and flair.”
A World War II veteran and graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School, Byrne was one of the most-well known governors in the state’s history and used his two terms to put his mark on New Jersey in fundamental and lasting ways.
Byrne’s single biggest legacy item may be instituting the state’s first income tax, which he signed into law in July 1976 as the state struggled amid widespread economic turmoil. 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.
But Byrne rebounded. He prevailed in a huge primary field that same year, going on to win reelection against Republican Ray Bateman and cement a reputation as one of the state’s most beloved figures.
“I knew I’d get reelected when people started waving at me using all five fingers," Byrne once quipped.
During his time in office, Byrne created some of the institutions for which the state is best known.
He commissioned the Meadowlands Sports Complex, convincing the New York Giants to make their new home in the Garden State. When the Meadowlands arena opened in 1981, it bore his name.
After voters approved plans for the sports complex, Byrne signed into law the legalization of casino gambling in Atlantic City, ushering in a new age for the troubled seaside resort town and creating a multibillion-dollar industry that had prospered until just a decade ago.
As Atlantic City struggled again in recent years, casino after casino closing as competition spread in neighboring states, the former governor doubted what he’d done there.
“It was my biggest mistake,” Bryne told The Wall Street Journal in 2014.
Byrne, who was a prosecutor in Essex County during the Newark riots in 1967 and walked the streets with a shotgun, famously became known as “the man who couldn’t be bought.”
When he signed the law legalizing casinos in 1977, he warned mobsters to keep their “filthy hands” off the city. In a famous transcript of mob figures talking about New Jersey politicians, their harshest words are reserved for the state’s 47th governor. They called Byrne an “S.O.B.” and a “Boy Scout.”
“Trying to buy him only makes it worse,” one mobster said, according to a 2014 biography of the former governor.
Byrne is also credited with saving the Pinelands, a sprawling region of forests, small towns and agricultural land that stretches across South Jersey. As development increased, cutting hole after hole after hole in the lush landscape, Byrne took unilateral action, signing an executive order in 1977 that halted development there. Within three years, the Legislature had passed the Pinelands Protection Act and Byrne had signed the bill into law.
“Gov. Byrne was a man who always — always — put doing the right thing ahead of politics, no matter how the difficult the issue,” Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto said in a statement Thursday. “His intelligence, honor, wit and courage combined with his dedication to his country and public service made him a model for all of us in elected office to emulate.”
Politicians across the state, from both sides of the political aisle, expressed sadness Thursday at news of his death. He was remembered as one of the funniest politicians the state has known, with a charm he kept bringing into public right up until his death.
Gov.-elect Phil Murphy, who saw Byrne as a personal friend and mentor, said the former governor was one of the state’s “most beloved and distinguished favorite sons.”
“Governor Byrne was a man of incredible decency, inscrutable honesty, admirable humility, and tremendous humor,” Murphy, who takes office this month, said in a statement. “He restored New Jersey’s faith that good people do go into politics to do the right things for the right reasons.”
Even into his 90s, Byrne remained an active member of the state’s political class, presiding as the dean of the powerful and ambitious with his wife, Ruthie, by his side. He attended numerous public events, took calls from reporters and attended the funerals of those he met along the way, never losing touch with those he cared about.
“My life is richer for having known him as I am sure are the lives of every person who had the privilege to meet him,” Christie said.
Matt Friedman contributed to this report.