I enjoy living in the South Bay because it’s San Francisco’s New Jersey, which is where I grew up. I mean that as a compliment. There’s no reason to apologize for making one’s home in a very livable and underrated industrial powerhouse, one that welcomes immigrants, values work over snoot and is as earthy as a Bruce Springsteen song.
The state was so down-to-earth that when I was just 14 years old and working for my high school’s 10-watt FM radio station, I managed to wangle interviews with both major party candidates for for governor. The Democrat, Brendan Byrne, was a former prosecutor who’d broken New Jersey tradition to put big mobsters in jail and was later appointed to the bench. My classmate’s dad, Angelo “Gyp” DeCarlo, whom some readers will remember as the loan shark played by Christopher Walken in “Jersey Boys,” famously complained on an FBI wiretap that Byrne was the state’s one judge who couldn’t be bribed. The mafioso called him a Boy Scout. After Byrne became one of the state’s great governors, his biographer titled his book “The Man Who Couldn’t Be Bought.”
My interview took place in a private room off the lobby of the Edison Lanes bowling alley after a campaign appearance. His aide locked the door’s deadbolt, presumably for privacy but maybe because President Nixon had pardoned DeCarlo—on the advice of his bribe-taking vice president, Spiro Agnew—from a term DeCarlo had been serving in federal penitentiary.
When we were done, Byrne’s political consigliere discovered that the deadbolt had frozen. He frantically twisted the thumbturn and made a racket shaking the door back and forth. Byrne tapped his aide on the shoulder and interrupted the meltdown. He eyed the cylinder, then slowly, methodically twisted the turnbolt back and forth a few times times. He sat down on a bench, to calmly await a locksmith who was no doubt being called by the panicked bowling alley employees gathering outside.
Cardboard two-gallon tubs of potato chips were stacked along one wall, and Byrne cracked one open. We chatted until we were freed about half an hour later. Byrne went on to win the general election and was sworn in as governor that January.
Four months later he presided at the Rutgers University graduation, where Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox delivered the commencement address amidst the raging national scandal. I greeted the governor afterwards and he laughed when I reminded of our imprisonment.
That summer, my family moved to California and Nixon resigned in disgrace. Byrne went on to pass the state’s first income tax, expand highways, protect the state’s pine forests and revitalize Atlantic City with casino gambling. He opened the Meadowlands Arena, named in his honor, with six sold out Springsteen shows; it later housed the New Jersey Devils ice hockey team.
Byrne, who died Jan. 4 at age 93, was one of the state’s last honest governors. Christine Todd Whitman illegally frisked a black teen for a photo op and lied as George W. Bush’s Environmental Protection Agency head, when she assured New Yorkers that there were no health dangers from toxins in the 9/11 rubble cloud. James McGreevey became the nation’s first openly gay governor when the married governor came out of the closet in a resignation speech amidst a workplace sexual harassment claim.
Jon Corzine nearly died in a state-trooper driven SUV wreck at 91 mph while the governor wasn’t wearing a seat belt; he was later fined $5 million after $1.2 billion dollars in client money went missing at a large Wall Street brokerage that he managed into bankruptcy. Chris Christie’s felony-plagued administration will be remembered for punishing a mayor who didn’t support his gubernatorial run by intentionally causing massive traffic jams with lane closures at the main toll plaza for the upper level of the George Washington Bridge.
Intemperate personalities screw things up with hotheadedness, ego and ambition. My admiration for Byrne was sealed the day he carefully assessed the state of the lock by personally inspecting it—yes, we were trapped—and instead of freaking out, calmly sitting down to much chips and hang out with a high school sophomore.
That kind of levelheadedness was an attribute that presaged his steady-handed leadership as governor. And it was a quality that could have saved his aforementioned successors from their disastrous falls from grace as well.