Home>Feature>The O’Toole Chronicles: Is that a Ghost?

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: Is that a Ghost?

By Kevin O'Toole, March 09 2021 12:01 am

We are less than a month away from the filing deadline (glad I had to look it up instead of having it circled on my calendar).  Nominating conventions are in full swing, petitions are being digitally circulated, slogan letters are being prepared (for those who actually own their slogan), and the mad dash for candidate recruitment in unwinnable districts is keeping party leaders up at night.

Leave nothing to chance. Cover all your bases. I’ve written about this time and again.

Do you have more than enough signatures? Is your vote count for the county committee convention accurate? Is the Chair really with you or making you the same “commitment” they made to others? Is there a “deal” you’re unaware of? Why is a particular councilperson taking longer than normal to endorse you?

Politics is an interesting profession and with it comes some inherent and present dangers – seeing ghosts is one.

Seeing ghosts, by some in our profession, is a very real problem. I find that the longer you have been in this business, the more likely it is that you will see ghosts.

I recall Steve Adubato Sr., regaling a few of us as to why he felt Senator Codey hated yours truly.  Big Steve imparted the following: “Kevin when he sees you, he sees my head on your body.”

Weird concept, but I will bite.

Steve and the Senator from District 27, currently in west Essex and eastern Morris county, had an odd and confused relationship. According to one Essex county historian, what started in the 1970’s as the Italians vs the Irish, somehow morphed into Steve vs Dick. It was no secret that this half Irishman worked very closely with Steve and the Newark North Center, and that infuriated Codey.

For years to follow, each and every move made by the North Ward and this writer was perceived by one person as a small part of a massive conspiracy to unseat the longest serving Senator in our State’s history.

Truth be told: nothing could be further from the truth; we focused on things that actually mattered.

But if you listen carefully, as you swing through district 27, you can hear a faint calling of how many strawberries did you take? Strawberries? Remember the movie, The Caine Mutiny, Captain Queeg had his soldiers on a mission to hunt for the strawberry bandits, and if you understand his paranoia you understand the concept of seeing ghosts.

However, if I am to be fair, the seeing of ghosts is not just limited to one person. Many politicos suffer from this delusion or malady.

If you see a councilmember going to too many events, then I will show you an upset Mayor. If you see a Mayor playing an “outsized” role in the selection of a County Commissioner, then I will show you an upset Assemblymember. If you see a County Commissioner taking an interest in countywide affairs, then I will show you a nervous County Executive. If you see an Assemblymember all of a sudden getting a lot of press attention, then I will show you a paranoid Senator. If you see a Senator or Assemblymember crisscrossing the state to raise money or recruit candidates, then I will show you an upset caucus leader. If you see a Senator all of a sudden taking interest in statewide issues, then I will show you County Chairs starting to add up county organization lines.

In politics we have mentors and we have protégées. Experience has taught me that it is a particularly dangerous place when the perception is that the protégés have ascended to equal or beyond stature of the mentor.

I was viewed by the Senator in my former district (when I was an Assemblyman) as an ever-present threat – even when we had an agreement that I would never challenge the incumbent but instead succeed him (with his endorsement) when he retired (he reneged on that deal in case you were wondering). I had a group of local flunkies who were feeding on the then-County Executive’s largesse, constantly whispering that I was “getting too big” or looking to somehow “step outside his shadow” and should be banished from existence.

In this business, we all have aspirations of some kind. Most people don’t want to stay in the same job forever (unless you’re a Senator). The question is, is that person’s ambition only at the expense of yours? Sometimes, yes. A lot of times, in this game of politics, it is about positioning yourself for WHEN or IF the opportunity presents itself.

Often the paranoia is warranted and disloyalty must be dealt with. Occasionally, it is the principal seeing ghosts or having them planted in their head. From time-to-time relationships do matter and the depth of them play a part in how people behave. If they are your disciple then you should know THEM enough to know what they are capable of.  In a moment of quiet self-honesty you should know what type of person you have helped create.

Sometimes the protégé is advancing the overall goal by developing and cultivating people without clearing EVERY conversation ahead of time. Sometimes they are trying to preserve what has been built by planning for the future. Sometimes they are a 49er during the Gold Rush and just prospecting. Sometimes, THEY want to achieve something in life that isn’t perceived to be because you “gave” it or “let” them have it. Remember: No one goes to career day in elementary school and says “When I grow up I want to be whatever Mayor/County Commissioner/County Executive/Senator so-and-so says I can be.”

(As an aside: In my book, it is a badge of honor for me when those who worked for me outpaced me or reached successes beyond one’s expectation. Whether it be in law or politics, I revel in the moment when those I have attempted to school have gone on to more advanced placement. Think of it like the “Bill Walsh Coaching Tree” in football).

Before you make the decision to allow yourself to see ghosts, you should ask the following:

  • Is this person an actual threat to me?
  • Is this person capable of damaging me?
  • Aside from putting a body on the tarmac, is there a real benefit to this?
  • Are the people whispering to me trying to help me or just get what the other person has?
  • What’s the worst that will happen if I just ignore this?
  • Have I lost all perspective?
  • Is the “win” worth the fight?
  • Most importantly: Am I creating an enemy for NO reason?

There’s enough that actually happens on a daily basis to cause an elected official or party leader to have a healthy level of paranoia, but allowing yourself to be crippled by that paranoia so much so that all you see is that ghost at every turn will eventually lead to your ACTUAL opponent walking right up to you and saying “Captain, I’m sorry, but you’re a sick man…I’m relieving you as Captain.”

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