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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: Carpe Diem – Seize the Day

By Kevin O'Toole, September 15 2020 11:00 am

I have worked in and observed the political world since 1984, and during those years, I have learned that very few people in coveted elected positions truly take advantage of the opportunity to seize the day, or moment, and do something extraordinary. In politics, it is an interesting case study as you observe our elected officials sacrifice much and work so hard to get elected and then waste the opportunity. What is that all about?

As I have written about in the past, running for office, or serving in a consequential appointed position, is an honor and rarity. Few in those positions ever fully take advantage and do something ground-breaking—far too many are happy playing it safe and hedging until the next election.

I remember during my freshman orientation in 1996, as a newly elected Assembly Member from District 21 (Essex-Union), veteran Assemblyman Jerry Zecker pulled me aside and said: “Kid—I remember my orientation (and as he snapped his nicotine stained fingers) and like that your career is over.”  I took that observation to heart, especially because I had a history with Jerry.  As a legislative aide to Assemblyman John Kelly I would occasionally drive the community van to Trenton—down that murderous Route 1 with Assembly Members John Kelly, Newt Miller and Jerry Zecker.  They would talk the entire ride and I heard about the bold moves, the stupid plays, and much in between. Between these three elected leaders there was nearly a hundred years of public service —listening and saying little was the coolest education a 21 year old could have.

To the current office holders—the sands of time are running and soon you will no longer be in that position – Do something extraordinary, seize the moment. Like John Keating told his pupils in Dead Poets Society: “Seize the day, make your lives extraordinary, –CARPE DIEM (gather the rosebuds).”

In public service you can do something extraordinary everyday – do it. You only occupy that position or office for a period of time, say what you want to say, do what you want to do and don’t suffer stage fright or presumed political correctness.  With a mother who ran from communist North Korea, I had front row seats to the stories of suppression of one’s freedoms—no free speech, no free association, no choice of religion.  Contrary political views were not tolerated in my mother’s birth land, which is exactly why she fled on foot in 1951.  As a 13 year old with only the clothes on her back, she seized the day, something pretty bold and extraordinary that affected generations. Many of our relatives took a similarly courageous path to come to this amazing country.  For all those generations who sacrificed everything to emigrate, wouldn’t they be disappointed if they saw that their blood line ascended to a political position and did nothing meaningful with it.  We embrace a democracy here and we should encourage bold political movements. Education, health care, transportation, environment, or justice —go big or go home.

Things to keep in mind as an elected official:

-Clinging to elected office isn’t life or death—if you lose an election, life moves on;
-Hold firm to a few core principles;
-Don’t stick around too long;
-Be bold and ignore the naysayers;
-Help people everyday;
-Don’t be parlayed by critics or the press;
-Take to heart advice from those who actually put the uniform on and played the game—those of us who put our names on a ballot, raised money, took on incoming and outgoing can truly attest to the political battlefield and have some perspective;
-Once in a while make a speech from the heart, not some teleprompter or words crafted by a paid advisor;
-Help those who can’t help themselves;
-Don’t be timid or afraid; and
-Be open and tolerant of other viewpoints.

We are fortunate that we embrace this democracy that encourages free speech from all points of view and encourages political participation by all.  These political times are challenging and difficult and we need strong leaders to do what is bold and significant—our leaders need to take charge.  As Professor Keating reminded his young students, while they were made to stare at the dated photograph of former students who have since passed away—these students were just like you, they are dead now and I am extolling you to go big and don’t waste the opportunity. Pretty cool advice.

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