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Onetime Byrne foe turned into supporter

By David Wildstein, January 07 2018 3:41 pm

A considerate paid notice placed on the Star-Ledger obituary page is an indication of how highly even former political rivals have come to remember Brendan Byrne, the two-term Governor of New Jersey who died last Thursday at age 93.

Peter Levine made what might be the largest individual campaign contribution in New Jersey history.

Peter Levine was a real estate developer who helped finance Rep. Bob Roe’s challenge to Byrne in the 1977 Democratic primary.  Levine put $331,752 – the equivalent of about $1.3 million today, into Roe’s campaign.  This was a time when someone could just give that kind of cash directly without funneling it through the Democratic Governor’s Association.  Levine paid for more than a quarter of Roe’s campaign, which finished in second place out of ten Democrats who challenged Byrne’s renomination.

It was considered to be the largest individual campaign contribution in New Jersey history, not including self-funding candidates.

Byrne was a long-time supporter of campaign finance reform, saying in his 1974 inaugural address that “if this administration is remembered for nothing else, I want it to be remembered as the last administration elected in the marketplace of private financial contributions.”

It was Byrne who pushed for the enactment of public financing of gubernatorial elections.  Roe opted out of the program in able to accept Levine’s largesse amidst a series of court battles over campaign expenditure limits.

Byrne was not without his own mega donors:  oil company billionaire and Jets owner Leon Hess gave him $20,000.

Levin and Byrne made peace later that year, when Levine agreed to raise money for Byrne’s second inauguration.

Byrne named Levine to the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority in 1979.  Then Levine prevailed as Byrne’s choice for Chairman in what became a race against another Democratic fundraiser, Arthur Goldberg.  In the 1985, Levine served as Chairman of Democrats for Kean, and got remain as a Sports Authority for the full eight years of Gov. Tom Kean’s term.

Levine was the driving force behind the naming of the Brendan Byrne Arena after his foe-turned-friend. (John Degnan, Byrne’s attorney general, seconded Levine’s motion.)  The Byrne Arena drove Republicans nuts – a Republican Senator from Bergen asked the prosecutor to investigate whether sunshine laws were broken because the decision to name the arena was done in closed session.

in 1989, Levine raised over $1 million to Rep. Jim Florio’s campaign for Governor.  After Florio won, Levine got his chairmanship back. But the Levin-Florio alliance was short-lived.

Levine complained that Democrats actively solicited campaign contributions from Sports Authority contractors, and micromanaged personnel decisions.   He became a harsh Florio critic, telling a Republican-controlled Assembly committee that the Governor’s office interfered with the Sports Authority on an almost daily basis.    In 1994, Gov. Christine Todd Whitman declined to reappoint him.

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