Obituaries

Brendan Byrne, 93, former governor of New Jersey

Mr. Byrne was once dubbed ‘The Man the Mob Couldn’t Buy.’
Associated Press/file 2007
Mr. Byrne was once dubbed ‘The Man the Mob Couldn’t Buy.’

Former two-term New jersey governor Brendan Byrne, who mobsters said was too ethical to be bribed and who authorized the law permitting gambling in Atlantic City, has died at age 93.

Mr. Byrne, a Democrat, died Thursday of a lung infection at home in Livingston, N.J., his son Tom Byrne said.

Mr. Byrne built his reputation as a crusading prosecutor and held numerous governmental positions during more than 30 years of public service. He also signed New Jersey’s first income tax into law and authorized the law permitting gambling in Atlantic City during his two terms as the state’s chief executive.

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He won his first term as governor in 1973, beating Republican state Representative Charles W. Sandman Jr. by more than 700,000 votes. His campaign was helped by an FBI surveillance tape that showed mobsters discussing how Mr. Byrne, the Essex County prosecutor in the 1960s, was too ethical to be bribed.

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In a New York Post headline, he was described as ‘‘The Man the Mob Couldn’t Buy.’’ That slogan ended up on bumper stickers that reminded voters in the Watergate era that not all politicians were unscrupulous.

Fellow politicians on Thursday remembered Mr. Byrne for his honesty and integrity.

Governor Chris Christie said Mr. Byrne had ‘‘an extraordinary career of public service’’ and did his job ‘‘with integrity, honesty, intelligence, wit and flair.’’ State Senate President Steve Sweeney said New Jersey had lost one of its ‘‘most politically courageous public leaders.’’

After taking office, Mr. Byrne began to tackle the contentious issue of how to finance the state’s public education system after a 1973 state Supreme Court decision declaring that the state’s method of funding public education through local property taxes, along with state and federal aid, violated a clause in the state Constitution guaranteeing a ‘‘thorough and efficient’’ education.

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Mr. Byrne proposed the income tax to satisfy the court’s order, but the idea was unpopular with residents and lawmakers and was not approved by the Legislature until July 1976, after the court ordered all public schools closed until a new funding source was in place.

Despite the controversy over the income tax, Mr. Byrne easily won reelection in 1977, beating GOP state Senator Raymond H. Bateman by nearly 300,000 votes.

During his first term, Mr. Byrne signed legislation creating the state Department of the Public Advocate and the state Department of Energy.

In 1976, he authorized a referendum that led to the approval of legalized gambling in Atlantic City, a once-popular resort area that had fallen on hard times by the early 1970s. Money earned through the casinos has since been used to revitalize parts of the city and rebuild neighborhoods and for other projects across the state.

Mr. Byrne, who was born in West Orange, attended Seton Hall University for a year before enlisting in the Army Air Corps in 1943. He served as a pilot for two years, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross and other honors before returning to New Jersey and entering Princeton University, where he graduated in 1949.