The first time Brendan Byrne made an in-print list of potential candidates for Governor of New Jersey was about a month after Richard Nixon’s landslide re-election in the 1972 presidential race. Watergate wasn’t really a thing yet, but Democrats sensed that the GOP incumbent, William Cahill, was vulnerable.
Democratic State Chairman Salvatore Bontempo compiled a list of about 25 possible candidates –he called it the A to W list, because it started with former Assemblyman Vito Albanese of Bergen and ended with Assemblyman S. Howard Woodson of Mercer.
Bontempo kept the list in alphabetical order, so Byrne was second. But the list was so wide and so deep that it sort of resembled Phil Murphy’s transition team. Sorry, but I had to do that. No tribute to Brendan Byrne can possibly be complete without a reference to his legendary humor. I kept mine at not very funny, out of respect for the late Governor, who passed away today at the age of 93.
There’s a lot being written tonight about Byrne as the Judge who mobsters felt could not be bought. But Byrne was no political neophyte when a group of party leaders urged him to become a candidate. He grew up as the son of a local politician amidst a group of families who played an increasingly active role in Essex County politics.
It was through his Essex County political contacts that Byrne got his first government gig in 1955, as a Special Deputy Attorney General. Instead of appointing a new Passaic County Prosecutor, Gov. Robert Meyner wanted to send in an outsider who would be unencumbered by political loyalties to the Republican State Senator from Passaic, Frank Shershin. Byrne quickly gained Meyner’s confidence and became an Assistant Counsel – back in the day when there was a Counsel and an Assistant Counsel – and not the team of lawyers that exist today.
Just before the 1956 Democratic National Convention, Meyner moved his Robert Burkhardt, his Executive Secretary – that’s what they called Chief of Staff to the Governor back then – over to the Democratic State Committee. Burkhardt was one of the premier political operatives of is day and he was going to set up the state’s general election efforts.
In 1957, Byrne organized what many believe was the first St. Patrick’s Day party inside the statehouse. He referred to the Governor as O’Meyner and led a group of Irish politicians in singing “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.” Meyner had just gotten married to the President of Oberlin College’s daughter, and Byrne suggested that the new First Lady was born in O’Berlin and was now living in Mavourneed, a pun on the old Governor’s residence, Morven.
The thing is, Byrne got much funnier as he got older.
The following year, Meyner put Byrne in charge of the Essex County Prosecutor’s office by again naming him Deputy Attorney General. Meyner was feuding with Essex County Democratic Chairman Dennis Carey, who would have blocked his confirmation by the Senate. Byrne didn’t get the real appointment until 1964 – after Republican Robert Sarcone won the Essex Senate seat. Gov. Richard Hughes nominated him.
Hughes put Byrne in his cabinet in 1968, as the President of the Board of Public Utilities.
When Cahill became Governor in 1970, Byrne was appointed to serve as a Superior Court Judge.
The first major Democratic candidate to enter the race was Senate Minority Leader Ed Crabiel of Middlesex, who positioned himself as a moderate, organization Democrat. He joined Albanese, a little ahead of his time as a support of legalized weed and abortion (pre- Roe v. Wade). Then came former State Sen. Dick Coffee, the Mercer County Democratic Chairman, followed by freshman Assemblywoman Ann Klein of Morris, the former President of the state League of Women Voters. Last in was State Sen. Ralph DeRose of South Orange, the choice of powerful Essex County Democratic Chairman Harry Lerner.
By February of 1973, the chatter about Byrne getting in the gubernatorial race began to increase exponentially. The fear among Democrats was that Crabiel, Coffee and Klein would fight for the left and center, allowing DeRose, a conservative Democrat even by 1973 standards, to win the nomination.
As a sitting Judge, Byrne was unable to hold meetings with county chairs, potential donors and other party leaders. He depended on a network of friends, led by State Sen. James Dugan of Hudson. And to be clear, there were some bending of the rules there.
Byrne didn’t enter the race until April, just two days before the filing deadline. Coffee dropped out and endorsed Byrne, putting pressure on Crabiel to do the same. Byrne went into the primary with organizational endorsements in Hudson, Bergen, Mercer, Middlesex and Passaic. He also had the backing of a faction in Camden that opposed County Chairman James Joyce, a DeRose supporter.
Before filing his petitions, Byrne Dugan walked into Cahill’s office to submit his letter of resignation as a Judge. Then they held a planned impromptu press conference in the Governor’s outer office.
This was essentially a five-week campaign for Governor. Byrne was anything but impressive in the earliest days of the campaign. Jim Florio, then an Assemblyman from Camden, saw him in the first couple of days; someone should ask him to compare early Byrne to early Corzine.
The excitement of Byrne’s first campaign was really in the months leading up to it. After he filed, and after Dick Leone and others put the wheels in motion, it was one of the less exciting New Jersey Democratic gubernatorial primaries.
Byrne won with 45%, running 76,415 votes ahead of Klein (27%). DeRose (22%) finished third, followed by Frank Forst, the business manager of the New Jersey Turnpike Employees Union, Local 194 (4%), and Albanese (1%). Klein carried Bergen, Morris, Hunterdon and Somerset, and Byrne won everywhere else. In a stunning rebuke to a pair of powerful party bosses, Byrne took Essex by more than 11,000 votes and Camden by a little more than 300 votes
The general election was even easier, especially after Nixon fired Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox in the Saturday Night Massacre, seventeen days before Election Day.
Cahill was beaten in the primary by a conservative Rep. Charles Sandman. Byrne romped to a 66%-32% win, with a plurality of 721,378. He won 20 of the 21 counties; only Cape May stuck with Sandman. Republican strongholds like Morris, Monmouth and Ocean counties didn’t just go for Byrne, they went big for Byrne. In the history of New Jersey gubernatorial elections, only Tom Kean (1985) did better. Democrats won lopsided majorities in both houses of the legislature. It was the election that foretold what was to come in 1974.
Byrne ran for public office only four times in his life, primaries and generals for Governor in 1973 and 1977. His first round was by far the easiest.