Pulling up to the State House after four years was a jaw-dropping experience. The stately building is a classic example of the American Renaissance style, with a soaring dome and rotunda bearing an inscription of the Latin phrase Fiat Justitia Ruat Coelum—meaning “There must be justice even though the heavens fall.”
As is often the case, however, the State House is undergoing renovations, and the work I saw resembled work underway on, perhaps, an ancient Egyptian pyramid, with workers walking buckets of debris out one bucket at a time. By my calculation (aided by one in-the-know insider), the building will be inhabitable by the third quarter of the year 2026 A.D.
We move forward.
As I was walked into the Annex, I heard the unmistakable bellow of a familiar voice: “Is that Senator O’Toole?” As I approached the one-of-a-kind Senator for Life, Raymond Lesniak, we had a great catch-up conversation as he was preparing a demonstration against caged animals. (I imagine an unknowing tourist could mistakenly think it was a reference to the legislators). Anyhow, Ray was the definition of power broker for decades. He made and unmade hundreds of careers and had United States presidents on speed dial. Ray is still quite active, and I love and respect his energy and advocacy.
I finally made it into the Annex and met a familiar face at security. Even under my (no longer needed) mask the guard recognized me and said “hello, Senator”—and then requested my driver’s license. I put on the State House visitor’s badge, for the first time since elementary school when we took our class trip here and moved on.
Up to see the Senate President.
I met the three Port Authority nominees and their excited family members—Dana and Judge Martinotti, along with their daughter Brianna, Michelle Richardson, husband Judge Joseph (former Senator) Charles, and Robert Menendez Jr. and his wife Alexandra. The anxious excitement on their faces surely masking the cartwheels their stomachs were doing as they hoped everything went off without a hitch later. As we were escorted into the Senate Majority Caucus room, I forgot how magnificent the room was since I had not stepped foot in it since January of 2002. It was larger than I remembered.
I had to bear in mind that Senate President Steve Sweeney has grown his caucus from 22-18 in 2010 to 25-15 today. Let us see if the room expands or contracts in seven months—Carnac the Magnificent predicts it will further expand, and, with workers already on site, it seems solid prediction.
The Executive Director of the Senate Majority, Kevin Drennan, came by to talk to us and buy time as the Senate President was finishing an interview. I have known Kevin for a decade or so and have high regard for him. I have found him to be one of the most effective staffers Trenton has seen. He dutifully reminded our Port Authority crowd that the nearby sandwich platters and soft drinks were for Senators only. Apparently, Kevin got the Garabed Haytaian memo about non-members eating caucus meals. I’m just kidding Kevin.
Stating the obvious, Steve Sweeney is a longtime friend and colleague. I trust him, and he trusts me. Steve engaged Dana, Michelle, and Robert with his personalized Irish/blue collar charm, and everyone spoke a little about themselves. The Senate President talked about big-picture policy and its intersection with the Senate. Steve has an uncanny ability to grow connective tissue almost immediately with anyone he is speaking to—a rare gift/talent for an elected official.
Off to Committee Room 4.
The familiar walk to Committee Room 4 was one I have done thousands of times—so many memorable Senate Budget and Senate Judiciary meetings.
As I waited in the visitor’s section of Committee Room 4 (a perspective of democracy you don’t get from the other side of the room), I ran into several familiar faces, including Justice Lee Solomon and BPU Commissioner Diane, who also happens to be the wife of the Justice. Justice Solomon holds the record of being vetted by the Senate six times – he was an assemblyman who left office the day I arrived in 1996 and as a senator, I voted to confirm him three times – and should be congratulated for a most distinguished career. Well done, Lee!
I saw Deidre Naughton, who helps the Senators and staff interact with judicial nominees, as well as having the unenviable task of holding the hands of judicial candidates through their appointment and reconfirmation process—I say unenviable because some of these candidates can be a bit high maintenance (not that Deirdre ever divulged their names . . ..). Deidre succeeded (some might say pushed into early retirement) the incomparable David Anderson.
It was nice to catch up with the Sergeant-at-Arms and staffers. One snuck up behind me and whispered: “You were always nice to us.” It was the nicest thing I heard in a while.
Game time with the Senators:
Senator Pou was engaged and looking to further a discussion on Port policy.
Senator Sarlo (with his new Allbirds shoes) worked the room, as Paul does so well, and asked about getting more money to the Port from D.C.
Senator Testa and I talked about the awesomeness of the Judiciary Committee.
Senator Bateman was effusive, and we talked about yesteryear and his plans for a post-legislative life.
Senator Corrado asked me if I missed the Senate—let me be clear that my answer was NO.
Senator Doherty and I caught up. Don’t let the “mountain man” exterior fool you; he is just a person from Glen Ridge.
The Senate President appeared and made gracious remarks.
Senator Stack is my dearest friend, and we hadn’t talked or texted for at least four hours, so we got current on all things Union City (in between phone calls he was getting from residents on one of his four cell phones).
Majority Leader Weinberg showed no signs of her upcoming retirement as she was as engaged and involved as ever.
Judiciary Chairman, and my friend, Senator Nick Scutari is master of his domain. Senator Nick runs the important Judiciary Committee in his trademark style, thorough, efficient, without pretense, and right to the point. Stealing a line from Carly Simon, nobody does it better than Nick.
As the formal meeting began, I was called on to testify about the State affairs of the Port Authority and vouch for the incoming class of commissioners.
Dana is a dynamic public servant whose intelligence and focus on law and public safety will add incredible value to our agency, as we are charged with protecting vital infrastructure in our region.
Michelle has an incredible background in finance and community development, which will only enhance our goals of ensuring opportunities for success are provided to small business entrepreneurs of all backgrounds.
Robert has an impressive background dealing with complicated transactions and private equity matters, an area of particular importance to the Port as we focus on finding new and creative ways to deliver a world-class transportation experience in the post-COVID world.
The vetting of the three went quickly and, like a proud parent, I watched as all three garnered high praise and, more importantly, unanimous votes of approval. On to the full Senate on June 1.
As I left the Committee room, I could not help but think this was a good return to the halls of Trenton after four years away. Let’s see when I’ll be back again.