MILLBURN, N.J. — A roster of current and former political heavyweights on Monday remembered late Gov. Brendan Byrne as a towering figure who infused the state’s bruising political arena with dignity and a dose of Irish humor.
Several former governors and current congressional members were among several hundred people who attended a memorial service for Byrne at the Paper Mill Playhouse theater. Byrne, a Democrat who served two terms as governor, died last week at age 93 following an infection that went into his lungs.
Byrne, a former prosecutor, signed New Jersey’s first income tax into law and authorized the law permitting gambling in Atlantic City in the mid-1970s. But he is probably most remembered for his first campaign for governor in 1973, when an FBI surveillance tape caught mobsters talking about how he was too ethical to be bribed.
The “man who couldn’t be bought” moniker extended to Byrne’s personal life, his son, Tom Byrne, said Monday. The son recalled Byrne not letting him and his friends duck under the turnstile to save 15 cents on subway rides to Yankee Stadium.
“There was no first step down that slippery slope,” he said.
Before the ceremony, Democratic Rep. Bill Pascrell called Byrne “the best statesman we’ve had for the last 50 years.”
“He brought people together,” Pascrell said. “He was a good Democrat, but he was beyond politics.”
Former Republican Gov. Tom Kean recalled how when he was Assembly speaker and Byrne was the newly elected governor they began arguing and the debates “lasted for 40 years” but were always civil and solidified their deep friendship. When Kean was elected governor and faced a Democratic legislature, he leaned on Byrne for advice.
“His friendship at that time was very, very helpful to me in getting my feet on the ground as governor,” Kean said.
Outgoing Republican Gov. Chris Christie, in his remarks, called Byrne “extraordinarily gracious and generous.” He joked that Byrne was “a little obsessed with death” and that on Byrne’s often unannounced visits to the Statehouse the former governor would check to make sure Christie hadn’t moved his portrait to a hallway alongside other previous governors who were deceased.
Echoing Kean, Christie said Byrne’s recommendations to him were “always thoughtful, always genuine and always appreciated.”
“Regardless of what he was saying, I knew it always came from the heart,” Christie said.
Cardinal Joseph Tobin, the archbishop of Newark, called Byrne a “disarming and self-deprecating” man who “knew the definition of blarney”: the knack of telling someone to go to hell so that he or she would look forward to the journey.