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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: How to Run for Governor

By Kevin O'Toole, April 04 2019 12:00 am

Someone asked me the other day, why do I bother writing these periodic columns  I immediately said for the money, naturally. As a political retiree, there comes an occasion or two when someone (from either party) wants to chat about lessons learned when I served under the Golden Dome, more commonly known as the New Jersey Legislature. I enjoy offering my two cents on this profession, a profession that I owe so much to and one that I encourage others to take part in. But I caution those that want to run for office – do it with the utmost commitment, do it for the right reasons, and do it right.  I’ve seen the road to elected office littered with half-committed candidates that no one remembers.   

It was true during my term in the Legislature, every legislator believes at one time or another that he or she could run for State Senate/Governor/Congress/US Senate and that he or she would do a better job than the person currently serving. True story and I’m not naming namesnot yet.  

How do you prepare to run for that next office? 

I remember in the 70’s reading about a quixotic state legislator in Florida who started a “workdays program to more readily identify with the people he represented.  

The individual was Bob Graham, and whether you approve or not of his politics, you have to hand it to him for adding real value to his office and creating something out of nothing. The term “making something out of nothing is one we used in Essex when the opposite party needed to generate some badly needed publicity for a cause or candidate.  It was not unusual in those days to comb the local newspapers (a lost art) and find some small or obscure issue that, when properly examined and exploited, generated untold amounts of news copy and voter attention. 

In the State of Florida, Bob Graham brought this to a whole new level. By way of quick background, Graham started his political career in 1966 in the Florida House of Representatives (our General Assembly).  He served for 2 and ½ terms (five years) before moving to the Florida Senate, where he served until 1979, when he was elected Governor of the Sunshine State and later served 18 years as a United States Senator. 

In 1977, Mr. Graham was a little-known legislatorIt was during a committee hearing on education where Legislator Graham was voicing some displeasure about civic awareness in Florida’s students. A courageous teacher, Sue Reilly, challenged this indignant legislator to try and teach a class one day. Graham halfheartedly committed to teaching one day and that teacher held him to his word. Sure enough, that following Fall, Legislator Graham was held to his promise and he taught for the day. 

Born from this moment was the Graham “workday program and presumably a platform to run for Governor.     

What in the world is “workday? 

Some would suggest that “workday was a ploy to get much needed publicity for a relatively unknown state official who secretly harbored aspirations to be Governor. Workday was a program in which Legislator Graham dedicated one day a week to doing a job that his constituents worked. It was reported that he worked 408 workdays, and later when he served as a United States Senator, he expanded his Workdays to five states. All told he held 921 jobs, including the following: bellhop, laborer, tomato picker, short order cook, social worker, plumberpooper scooper at a horse farm, garbage man, factory worker, department store Santa Claus, police man, and teacher 

The publicity that legislator, and soontobe Governor, Graham received was shocking, and unmatched in those times. In the preinternet daysTV stations and newspapers (national, regional and local), all covered him as he worked these various jobs. The reaction by people was that they finally had an elected official who identified with them and they saw Mr. Graham as more than every other politician. He, in a Zelig like move, transformed himself from a hated elected official to one of the working folks  WOW.    

As previously mentioned, the unprecedented and unrelenting positive news coverage gave Legislator Graham the publicity his peers craved and, along with some carefully crafted bipartisan political measures, allowed him to set up and ultimately win the GovernorshipUnited Stated Senate seat and to run for President of the United States in 2004.  

Side note, during his run for President he had heart surgery and his campaign ultimately fizzled out. In spite of that, this was some ride for a guy from Dade County, Florida.  

We can all learn some lessons from the political life and times of Bob Graham. Another lesson to be learned is that in politics you need to keep moving. Bob Graham moved from the lower house in Florida, to the upper house, to Governor, to the US Senate.  A record of your time in one office starts to accumulate and those statistics can end your career.  It only takes one issue, one bloated budget, one horrible vote, or just shifting political tides, to short circuit the best laid plans for higher office —get out or move up on your timetable. I will once again borrow from vaunted political guru David Murray, “Longevity in this business is NOT your friend.” 

Politics, like many things in life, is about opportunity. Sometimes you are at the right place at the right time, other times you see an opening and create your own opportunity. I personally don’t believe in sitting around and waiting to be at the right place at the right time, and I suspect many in this business want to be in control of their destiny. Whether your goal is to be a MayorFreeholderAssembly memberState SenatorGovernorCongressperson or US Senator, you need to be constantly in motion, constantly watching for the curve around the curve, and always looking to create your own opportunity when the moment is right. There is no greater example than Legislator, turn Governor, turn US Senator Bob Graham – the guy who made an entire career by creating his something out of nothing.  

Other fun facts that no one cares about: 

 I swore my Oath of Office in January of 1996 as proud member of the General Assembly. Of the 80 Assembly Members who took their oath that day (with Speaker Collins) in the War Memorial  only two are still in office and one (David Wolfe) is retiring this year.  Congratulations to my friend, Assembly Majority Leader Louis Greenwald, the ultimate winner of Survivor – Class of 1996. 

When I elevated for the first time to the State Senate in 2001, I had 39 colleagues witness my inaugural Senate speech from the Senate President’s perch. As I survey the names from that 2001 senate roster, only 8 of the 40 remain in office. 

This column originally appeared on InsiderNJ.

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