Former two-term Gov. 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.
Byrne, a Democrat, died Thursday at a home in Livingston, his son Tom Byrne said. He suffered an infection that went into his lungs and “was too weak to fight,” he son said.
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.
He won his first term as governor in 1973, beating Republican state Rep. Charles W. Sandman Jr. by more than 700,000 votes. His campaign was helped by an FBI surveillance tape that showed mobsters discussing how Byrne, the Essex County prosecutor in the 1960s, was too ethical to be bribed.
In a New York Post headline, Byrne was proclaimed “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.
After taking office, 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.
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, Byrne easily won re-election in 1977, beating GOP state Sen. Raymond H. Bateman by nearly 300,000 votes.