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Kevin J. O'Toole, the chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, is a former New Jersey State Senator. (Photo: Kevin J. O'Toole.)

The O’Toole Chronicles: The Introverted Politician

By Kevin O'Toole, December 13 2022 12:01 am

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines an “introvert” as a person whose personality is characterized by introversion and is typically reserved, or a quiet person who tends to be introspective and enjoys spending time alone.

After each weekly column I inevitably receive a call, text, or email from a few folks providing comments. Sometimes the comments are just being polite, some are pithy, sometimes the reaction is strong and sometimes you get the feeling that I really struck a chord. This week I attended an event in Edison and a stranger came up to me and said that he was a big fan of my columns, and he looked forward to the next one. Oddly enough, after a brief chat, this individual made the observation that he feels like I am leaving a piece of me in each column. Wow! Time to pivot and transition to the purpose of the column – introverts.

Since I was a kid, I always suffered from unspoken shyness and introversion that I worked hard to keep at bay. Coming from a large family, it was easy to get lost in the crowd. I found myself with an occasional stutter when I spoke up in class and found it very difficult to read prepared texts or verbatim speaking roles. It just didn’t come easy. Despite all that, I worked myself through high school, college, and law school, I found myself putting my head down and just plowing through my studies and getting by at my jobs. While working full time and going to school was difficult, public speaking and working a crowd has been the hardest thing for me to achieve. How can that be?

After 58 years of this journey called life, I have come to the conclusion that I am in fact an introvert. Again, how can that be? I’ve given speeches thousands of times in venues with thousands upon thousands of people. I’ve stood on the Assembly and Senate floors hundreds of times riffing (sans notes) on the issues of the day. I have headlined too many fundraisers to count as a candidate and county chair. I have taken part in countless press conferences and far too many tv and radio shows. So how can I now confess to being an introvert? How could I be that introverted politician?

I think that I need to qualify my definition of an introvert. I do like alone time, who doesn’t? I love time with very close friends and my wife and kids. I get ribbed for my noted and much maligned “O’Toole fly byes” at political and corporate events. I will come by and say hello and work the room and quietly leave after a set time (usually between 15 and 25 minutes). The typical politician will spend 2 to 3 hours at each event and that simply blows my mind. Elected officials have a lot going on and if you have 2 hours to give each and every event you have nothing else going on in your life and your time management skills need to be tweaked.

Part of my fly bye method is because I am uncomfortable in large crowds. I don’t feel at ease with a large enclosed crowd. The people are well meaning, but I find events to be claustrophobic and restrictive. Now when pressed to deliver in those large crowds, I put my head down and work it like I love it, even though I am not grooving it and sometimes feeling a little overwhelmed. In a smaller crowd with friends and immediate family, I could hang for an hour or two, but then I’m gone. As I write this, I realize how difficult a person I must be.

I still look back in utter amazement and gratitude that I was able to practice law as a litigator and was lucky enough to serve as an elected and appointed official for the last 34 years. Those twin jobs have required me to suit up and argue and mix it up with the best orators and litigators in this State. This introversion thing has challenged me and pushed me to improvise and play a different, atypical strategy.

I have advice for the politician who doesn’t like politicking and is more comfortable staring at his cellphone than working the crowd – surrender yourself to this back slapping politics or you will never see the promised land in Trenton. You need to plunge into those crowded and packed events and work the crowd with everything you have and act like you love it. If you truly suffer as an Introverted Politician, rethink your career choices, and maybe shift to something more solitary.

I hope that with this column I haven’t given too big of a piece of me away.

BTW—politicians who excelled at the retail and enjoyed pressing the flesh in large crowds:

United States Senator Cory Booker
Former Congressman Robert Franks
Former Governor Brendan Byrne
Former Governor James McGreevey
Former Congresswoman Millicent Fenwick
State Senator/ Union City Mayor Brian Stack

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