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Brendan Byrne, Governor Who Gave New Jersey Casinos, Dies at 93

  • Served two terms as the state’s top official starting in 1974
  • He pushed for legalized gambling to resurrect Atlantic City

Brendan Byrne, the former governor who brought casino gambling to New Jersey and presided over the construction of Giants Stadium in the 1970s, has died. He was 93.

He died Thursday, according to a statement from New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. No details were given.

Brendan Byrne

Photographer: Bobby Bank/Getty Images

The two-term Democrat’s support for legal gambling led to the opening of Resorts Casino Hotel in Atlantic City in 1978, the first legal U.S. casino outside Nevada. He also oversaw the development of the now-demolished Giants Stadium, once home to the New York Giants and New York Jets football teams. Byrne also introduced a state income tax to New Jersey while transforming the economy to one driven by services and trade to offset the loss of manufacturing jobs.

“Atlantic City used to be the resort area in the country,” Byrne said in a 1977 ad campaign. “It deteriorated badly, costing jobs, tourist revenue and pride. That’s why I fought for regulated casino gambling.”

Sports Complex

The state’s casino-related employment peaked at about 51,000 people working at a dozen sites in mid-1997. By November 2016, Atlantic City had seven casinos employing almost 22,000 people, according to the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement.

The Brendan Byrne Arena, which later became the Izod Center, was opened in 1981 by the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority to expand a sports complex that included a stadium for the New York Giants. The team moved to New Jersey in 1976 after a nomadic period that included the use of three different arenas as their home during the 1970s. The Jets followed in 1984.

As New Jersey’s top elected official, Byrne also created the first national reserve in the U.S. by signing the 1979 Pinelands Protection Act.

Byrne possessed “integrity, honesty, intelligence, wit and flair” and he had “an extraordinary career of public service,” according to Christie’s statement.

Brendan Thomas Byrne was born April 1, 1924, in West Orange, New Jersey, to Francis Byrne and the former Genevieve Brennan, according to Marquis Who’s Who. His father was a member of the municipal governing body.

Military Service

He attended West Orange High School and Seton Hall University in South Orange before enlisting in the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1943. As a squadron navigator in a bomb group during World War II, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal and four Air Medals, and rose to the rank of lieutenant.

Under the G.I. Bill, Byrne studied public and international affairs at Princeton University, graduating in 1949, before receiving a law degree at Harvard University. He then worked for law firms in Newark and East Orange, and was appointed assistant counsel as well as executive secretary to Governor Robert Meyner. Byrne became deputy attorney general in 1958, a county prosecutor the following year and president of the Board of Public Utilities Commissioners.

After three years as a superior court judge, Byrne became governor in 1974 and was re-elected to a second term. He left office in 1982 and became a senior partner at the law firm now known as Carella, Byrne, Cecchi, Olstein, Brody & Agnello PC. He also taught government at Princeton and Rutgers universities.

With his first wife, the former Jean Featherly, whom he married in 1953, Byrne had seven children: Brendan Byrne Jr., Nancy, Timothy, Mary Anne, Barbara, William and Susan, who died in 2006. That marriage ended in divorce.

In 1994, Byrne married the former Ruthi Zinn, the president of a public-relations firm.

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