Byron Baer, champion of open government, remembered

Byron Baer, champion of open government, remembered

Friends, family, politicians, and people affected by his legislation gathered inside Englewood’s Bergen Performing Arts Center Wednesday to say goodbye to state Sen. Byron Baer, who died Sunday of complications from congestive heart failure at the age of 77.

State Sen. President Richard Codey delivers a eulogy for Sen. Byron Baer.

Baer retired from the Senate in ‘005 after a career spanning 39 years in both houses of the legislature. He is considered the father of New Jersey’s Open Records Act, or Sunshine law, which was recently renamed the "Senator Byron M. Baer Open Public Meetings Act."

Senate President Richard Codey, who gave the eulogy at Wednesday’s memorial service, recalled how shortly after Baer had been elected to the Assembly in 197′, he visited farms in southern New Jersey that hired immigrant laborers. He left with a broken arm after getting into a fight with one of the farm’s operators while protesting the treatment of their workers.

"That didn’t stop Byron from doing what he believed in," Codey said. Baer returned to Trenton to become a champion for migrant labor rights. "[He had an] inherent belief that any good idea was worth fighting for."

In 1961, Baer served a 45-day prison sentence in the Mississippi Parchman Penitentiary as a result of being one of the Freedom Riders, a group that rode interstate buses into segregated southern states. In 1963, he participated in the March on Washington where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I have a dream" speech.

Baer’s sense of justice came from his early years growing up. Born in 19’9, as a young man in America he watched what happened to his fellow Jews in Europe during the Holocaust.

"He saw what man’s inhumanity to man did," his widow, retired administrative law Judge Linda Pollitt Baer, told The Jewish Standard after the memorial service. That experience would shape his legislative career, she said, and while he was not a greatly observant Jew, he always felt connected to the Jewish people.

"He didn’t wear his religion on his sleeve but it was deep in his heart," she said. He enjoyed studying Jewish philosophy and particularly liked the idea that one’s work lives on after one dies, she said.

Baer’s name will certainly live on in New Jersey.

In ‘005, shortly before he retired from the Senate, the New Jersey Association of Jewish Federations presented Baer with the Shem Tov and Distinguished Service awards. Jeffrey Maas, then executive director of the association, said Baer was responsible for making sure Jewish community centers, nursing homes, and social service agencies received extensive state funding.

"It’s truly a great loss for our community," said Joy Kurland, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey. "Sen. Baer has been a wonderful friend to us."
In one of his final acts as senator in ‘005, Kurland recalled, Baer helped secure $400,000 in state money to be divided among the state’s 1’ Jewish Family Service organizations to aid Holocaust survivors.

During the early 1990s, Baer served as president of the National Association of Jewish Legislators, which he had belonged to for more than 30 years. Although NAJL director Jeff Wice had not yet joined the organization when Baer was president, he said Baer was "known nationally for his work and dedication for Jews in the American public theater. He will be missed by so many people he worked with in so many states."

U.S. Rep. Steve Rothman (D-Dist. 9) began his career in politics working as Baer’s campaign coordinator when Baer ran for re-election to the state Assembly in 1978. Rothman credited Baer as one of his chief political mentors.

"He was a role model to me of what a person’s integrity, principle, and great political skill could accomplish for the public good," Rothman said Tuesday.

When Rothman ran for mayor of Englewood at the age of ‘9, Baer was the first elected official to endorse him. Their conversations included what Rothman called "a healthy measure of political know-how that would seek to have me avoid the political minefields."

Baer spent 11 terms in the Assembly and four terms in the Senate before he resigned halfway through his fifth term. When Baer retired from the Senate, Loretta Weinberg won his District 37 seat, but that was not her first time following Baer. She had worked with him beginning in 199′ when they were both in the Assembly, until he moved to the Senate in 1994.

"I had a lot to learn about the legislative process and how Trenton works, and he was a great teacher," Weinberg said Monday. "He really had a legislative career that was unparalleled in terms of the big issues he tackled."

Last year, the National Freedom of Information Coalition and the Society of Professional Journalists inducted Baer into the Open Government Hall of Fame. The award recognizes lifetime achievement and dedication to open government causes.

"The open public meetings act is something many of us in public life — and the citizens who take advantage of it — take for granted," Weinberg said. "That was groundbreaking legislation."

Although largely known for his work to secure civil rights and open records, Baer was also a staunch advocate of tenant rights in New Jersey, said Matt Shapiro, president of the New Jersey Tenant’s Organization.

"If there was a tenants’ rights bill, it was a Byron Baer bill," he said after Wednesday’s service.

"He was the father of New Jersey’s ‘ethics in government,’ bringing open public meetings to our state, fighting for consumer rights, equal justice for all New Jerseyans, as well as anti-hate legislation" said Rothman. "He was one of the giants in the history of New Jersey’s public servants."

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