Written by Paul Milo
Nearly every surviving elected governor came to Newark Thursday for the unveiling of a statue of Brendan Byrne, the former chief executive whose long list of legislative achievements include the introduction of casino gambling to Atlantic City and the creation of NJ Transit.
Byrne’s peers also praised the West Orange native’s wit and spirit of bipartisanship as the nation entered the third day of a government shutdown caused by Congressional infighting.
“People used to say to me, ‘He’s a Democrat, you’re a Republican, how did you get to be such close friends?’” said former Gov. Tom Kean, who was the head of the GOP in the Legislature when Byrne was governor in the 1970s and early ‘80s.
“He set the kind of example some of our friends in Washington should be following today …. His is the politics of inclusion. He brought people together, conservative, liberal,” added Kean, who was Byrne’s immediate successor in 1982 and with whom he later wrote a popular column in The Star-Ledger featuring dueling left- and right-wing takes on the issues.
“We would argue and argue and yet we’re the best of friends. That’s how it should be in government,” Kean said.
A decorated World War II veteran and graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School, Byrne, 89, had previously served as president of the state Board of Public Utilities, as a Superior Court judge and as Essex County Prosecutor. The seven-foot statue of Byrne was unveiled in a plaza already named in his honor located in front of Veterans Courthouse.
White-haired and walking with the aid of a cane, Byrne proved he could still work a crowd in time-honored style, enjoying a laugh at his own expense during brief remarks he made after he, wife Ruthi and Gov. Chris Christie removed the red, white and blue bunting from his likeness.
“Few men have had the privilege to respond to the dedication of a statue in their honor as I have at this moment,” Byrne said. “As Casey Stengel said, most men my age are dead already.”
“I got a statue that represents what you did,” he also said, referring to those who worked with him during his time as governor.
The statue and plaza, which was completed in 2008, were paid for with private donations in an effort spearheaded by Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo, a fellow Democrat.
“When I called him and told him what I wanted to do, he said, ‘What? Me? Why?’” DiVincenzo recalled.
That humility and self-deprecating humor also appeals to the current occupant of Drumthwacket, who praised Byrne for never losing his “perspective” during his two terms in the Statehouse.
“When I called him for advice, he would tell me, ‘When you’re traveling the state and people are waving all five fingers at you, you know you’re doing well,” Christie said, drawing knowing laughter from a crowd that included former members of Byrne’s administration.
“First and foremost, you’re there to serve the people, and while the office is serious, you can’t take yourself too seriously,” Christie added.
Byrne’s fellow governors also described him as a man of vision who led during an era of sweeping change. Byrne championed the creation of the state’s Sunshine Law, which ensures the public’s right to government information, introduced the Department of the Public Advocate and also sought to spare the Garden State’s natural resources from development.
“One issue I would like to dwell on, because it’s telling of his ability to think long-term, is the Pinelands,” said former Gov. James Florio. “Twenty percent of New Jersey is now protected because of Brendan Byrne.”
“Despite the political process, the give and take, the thrust and parry, Gov. Brendan Byrne always remained loyal to his principles,” said former Gov. James McGreevey.