Home>Feature>The O’Toole Chronicles: Fireside Conversation with Senator Joe Kyrillos

Former State Sen. Joe Kyrillos . (Photo: Monmouth University).

The O’Toole Chronicles: Fireside Conversation with Senator Joe Kyrillos

By Kevin O'Toole, May 30 2022 12:01 am

I recently had a long overdue lunch with a former Senate colleague, Senator Joe Kyrillos, and I came away with an unexpected takeaway.

Before we arrive at the big reveal, let me state that I have known Joe for many decades and I very much admire and respect his 30 years of serving in our New Jersey Legislature. Actually, when you review his political resume, including his stint as State Party Chair, few if any in this state can compare to this consistency, longevity and distinguished record.

My first interaction with Joe goes back to 1995. We both found ourselves invited to a MetroWest sponsored trip to Israel.  In retrospect, this trip was one of the most meaningful of my life, and the sights and understanding found along that trip have had a lasting impression on me. With the likes of Congressmen Frelinghuysen and Martini heading up the trip, the journey took us to fascinating places and many thought provoking conversations were had along the way.

Joseph Kyrillos with President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan while serving in the Reagan Administration in the 1980s. (Photo: White House).

From the initial landing in Tel Aviv, to the travels to many of the cities and important points of note, such as the Golan Heights, the Wailing Wall, Masada, Jerusalem, the Dead Sea and Yad Vasham, it left the group with a very different understanding of global politics and made many of us appreciate the daily struggles, challenges and dangers facing the Israeli people. This seven-day trip was a whirlwind of activity and after each long day of touring, a small group would meet for a beer to take it all in and would talk about the day’s events.

The group included Paul Goldenberg, former Morris Prosecutor Michael Murphy, Former Governor James McGreevy, my wife Beth, and a few others. The unintended consequence of having this compressed living with colleagues is that you really get acquainted with who they really are. Stating the obvious, many politicians have an ON switch and that public persona is the one that the public sees. When traveling the 5,756 miles to and from the two countries, riding buses, planes, and taxis and walking a ton, eventually the real YOU bleeds out. During this trip, I found Joe to be inquisitive, intelligent, engaging and very considerate of his fellow travelers. This cannot be said about everyone in our happy group. The unforgettable trip was a great introduction to Senator Joe.

Backing up a bit, we need to talk about Joe’s start in politics. After a few years working on campaigns in Washington D.C., Joe was appointed as a special assistant to the Secretary to the Interior. After that service, Joe was recruited in 1987 to run for New Jersey State Assembly on a ticket with Senator Joe Azzolina. Some national political recruiters looked at Jersey born talent and Joe was on the top of the list to help reshape the Republican Party.

Let us keep in mind that at this time Joe K. was in his twenties and had the world ahead of him.

Joe ran and won and served two terms on the Assembly. This wonder kid from Middletown was on his way to a long distinguished road in public service. Joe went on to spend 26 years in the New Jersey Senate and whether he knew it or not, Joe was one of my role models as I served both stints in the Senate with him. In my world, I am not the type to have many role models, but it did not take me long in Trenton to notice Joe had the “it” factor and he got things done.

Joe had a knack of working and getting along with others. It is a rarity to work 30 years in Trenton and leave without someone having a grudge against you. The staff and legislators alike loved to work with Joe. Joe was a calming force during sometimes-contentious times. He was a conciliatory leader who was respected by all sides and was not overly political.

Regarding policy, Joe handled all things economic development and was a big picture legislator. Governors and fellow legislators from both sides sought his counsel and Joe was a thoughtful and impactful speaker on the floor, charismatic and knew how to work the room for the necessary votes. Joe always had a certain presence and awareness. To this day, Joe’s service in Trenton is not complete, as many legislators seek his advice and he always has time for them.

President George H.W. Bush campaigns with Joe Kyrillos in 1992. (Photo: Joe Kyrillos).

As we finished our extended lunch (literally by a fireplace), we focused on our kids and their futures, family was a common theme. We touched on the subjects of our own futures, both of us shrugged and said life is really good post legislature.

The dirty little secret in Trenton is very few retired legislators find peace and satisfaction with life after leaving our state’s capitol. You talk to every former legislator (Gormley is the exception) and they will tell you that they miss the good ole days of being in the thick of it and being relevant in politics. Most, if not all, still yearn to be back in the well of the Senate, wheeling and dealing,  but not Joe. Joe appears to be very content and life is treating him well. Joe seemed relaxed and confident and I got a sense he achieved a certain healthy balance in his civilian life.

The takeaway from my long overdue lunch was found as we were getting up to leave. Senator Joe leaned over and said that the one lesson learned from his near four decades of public service is that he should have listened more. As we made it to the door and waited for our cars, he expanded on that theme. Senator Joe said that in all occupations, and all facets of life, we need to stop talking so much and we need to listen more – pretty sound advice from the Senator from Monmouth County.

Editor’s note: look for a second edition of The O’Toole Chronicles — “The Dunning-Kruger Effect” —  on Tuesday morning. 

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