Atlantic City Reflections: John J. Degnan
Excerpts of the transcript of an interview with John J. Degnan (NJ Attorney General 1978-81; Counsel to Governor Byrne 1977; Executive Secretary to Governor 1976-77; Assistant Counsel to Governor 1973-76; 1981 Democratic gubernatorial primary candidate) conducted by Michael Aron for the Eagleton Center on the American Governor on April 5, 2006. The full interview is available in the Video Library.
Michael Aron: Any other issues you were active on in the first term that we haven’t discussed?….Atlantic City?
John Degnan: I was involved in the decision. I was not a big supporter of casinos in Atlantic City personally. I didn’t believe it was an appropriate way to revitalize the city. Had several discussions with the governor about it. It was obvious to me he had strong feelings that gambling was not quite as bad an activity as I thought it was. He used to use the analogy all the time of trading the stock options or stock and isn’t that a form of legalized betting, talked about the frustration he had as a prosecutor trying to wipe out the numbers within reality. There was no way you were going to wipe out people’s wanting to have some fun and taking a bet against a better future even if you wished that they had applied those efforts to more practical—
Q: These are his thoughts?
John Degnan: These are his thoughts. He never convinced me but what he did convince me was that he was going there and he was the governor and he was elected so if he was going there I was going to go there. I didn’t play a role–I played a role in the development of the legislation and the language for the constitutional amendment but there was a group of people, I think Bob Martinez [deputy attorney general] in the AG’s office headed that up, and Al Luciani [deputy attorney general] and very knowledgeable guys and I was convinced if we had to do it they were doing it the right way. So I played a role in those and I went to the meetings but I- since I wasn’t a champion of the initiative I didn’t play a dominant role in it.
[discussing 1977 gubernatorial campaign issues contributing to Byrne re-election victory over Senator Raymond Bateman, including controversy over Joseph Lordi, Byrne appointee as chair of Casino Control Commission]
John Degnan: . . . I think I probably was wrong in my judgment about this. There was a- state police conducted four way on a guy named Joe Lordi who was a very talented prosecutor in Essex County, followed Brendan Byrne as prosecutor I think. And Joe had been appointed as chairman of the Casino Control Commission. And yet Joe had grown up in Newark . And so, I don’t think in his generation you grew up in Newark without rubbing elbows with some people who later became criminals, and the four way had some unflattering details about that. Byrne knew this guy very well, had worked with him in the prosecutor’s office, you know, knew his values and his integrity, and appointed him, notwithstanding the four way. The state police, though, leaked the four way. There are certain state police officers leaked the four way to the Republican campaign we learned later, to a certainty. And it was released by them to the press. And because at that point Byrne was sort of Mr. Integrity in Atlantic City, and had made very strong public statements about keeping the mob out of Atlantic City, we thought it might be a fatal blow. The knowledge that he had appointed the Casino Control Commissioner who had some of these peccadilloes in his background ,and they weren’t into more than that. In reality, that turned out to be- it mobilized the Italian/American community in New Jersey like I’ve never seen before. To defend Joe Lordi and to extol the merits of Brendan Byrne who would appoint a guy he knew to be honest, not withstanding some hearsay information in the state police report that he might not be. It fed into the image of a guy who had integrity who would make the right decision rather than a political decision. Those three things, the quality of Byrne as a candidate, the Bateman-Simon plan, and to a lesser degree, this Republican tactical mistake of leaking the four way, began to change the momentum. So by mid September, maybe late September early October, we really could sense that we had a chance.