As we approach the inauguration of Governor Phil Murphy, let’s look back at the Democratic governorship of Brendan Byrne (1974 to 1982) whose election and challenges in office bear similarities to today. After a few months into his term he was condemned as “one-term Byrne,” and reviled even by members of his own party, but that did not stop him from significant progressive achievements. Today,
alive and kicking, (celebrating his 90th birthday on April 1, 2014) he is held in high esteem. Murphy has much he could learn from Byrne’s period in office.
Like Governor Byrne, Phil Murphy won the state’s gubernatorial election by a landslide in the wake of political corruption scandals. Byrne had benefited by events outside his control such as “the post-Watergate political climate which bolstered the candidacies of honest, reform-minded politicians.” Likewise Murphy benefitted from a political climate of Democrats protesting against NJ’s Republican representatives and Trump, as well as Christie’s minimalist polling and Guadagno’s ineffective campaign.
Once in office Byrne went on to draw lines in the sand on issues of considerable importance including the Pinelands, the rescue of the the Meadowlands complex, school financing reform, and strong environmental controls to combat pollution. In the wake of Christie’s funding reductions and lack of support for these matters, Murphy will have an opportunity to breathe fresh air into these programs. He said he will, and he should not be deterred.
Also, for the first time, the pension fund arose as a potential future problem. In 2017 when he was asked, “Do you think the pension costs remain the biggest albatross for the next governor? Byrne responded, “Probably. Because they are being looked at more responsibly by people who don’t want to see the deficit kicked around anymore.”
Facing budget problems Byrne took his boldest, riskiest stand insisting that it was time for the state to enact its first income tax. The reaction to such an unpopular move resulted in Byrne being called “a bastard.” Nonetheless, with intellect, self-confidence, wit, wile and determination he got what he wanted. The new tax allowed him to implement progressive programs. Likewise Murphy faces a severe budget crunch and says he wants to raise income taxes on the wealthy, multi-state corporations and hedge fund managers in order to carry out his proposals. To do so he will have to deal shrewdly with powerful, entrenched interests. Byrne’s re-election victory was viewed as a vindication of his steadfast support of the school reform program and the imposition of the personal income tax, Byrne’s steadfastness should be a pillar of Murphy’s approach.
Byrne sometimes undermined his own base by curtailing benefits which had previously tainted his predecessors. Sometimes a governor must go against what his base expects. In doing so Murphy, like Byrne, must articulate clearly why he is doing so and why it ultimately will be beneficial.
On major issues Byrne faced hurdles overcoming opposition or gaining support from political bosses. During the 1973 campaign he formed alliances with old-line bosses. He lacked the formal support of the Essex County Democratic organization, but he had the support of Mayor Gibson and Steve Adubato in Newark. As political bosses are still with us, Murphy might learn from Byrne how to navigate these tricky waters.
Murphy would do well to heed former Governor Byrne. In a recent interview Byrne had some advice for Murphy: “Watch the bubble, and don’t let the situation get ahead of you. Figure out what we need in the first year. Make sure you have a good state treasurer, the personality of the treasurer is important. Don’t spend any more money than you have to. But on the other hand, don’t be unrealistic. If you are going to do a new project, make sure you’ve got it funded.”
An excellent book for Murphy and all of us to read is Donald Linky: New Jersey Governor Brendan Byrne: The Man Who Couldn’t Be Bought.
Even with his “warts” he left a proud legacy of progressive achievements. No Democratic governor has won re-election since Byrne did 40 years ago. Maybe Murphy will end that record and leave an impressive legacy.
For a brief list of Byrne’s many innovative policies, go here. For further brief information on his challenges, successes, and disappointment, and his intersection with later governor James Florio and with Raymond Bateman go here.