Home>Highlight>The O’Toole Chronicles: ‘It’s the Thursday morning after petitions were filed, do you know where you are on the ballot?’

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: ‘It’s the Thursday morning after petitions were filed, do you know where you are on the ballot?’

By Kevin O'Toole, April 08 2021 9:35 am

It’s the Thursday morning after petitions were filed, do you know where you are on the ballot?

We have all followed the latest political news of incumbent state legislators losing the popular vote of their respective county committees. Whether it be a long-time county commissioner from Mercer or a handful of well-established assembly members, all have experienced a lack of confidence vote from their county committees and that is a real shame.

The hard truth is that simply being a terrific elected official doesn’t guarantee you support for another term.

Generally speaking, once an incumbent, you tend to enjoy the support of your county committee. As a matter of course, most incumbents are unanimously given the line, and most don’t face contested elections to again represent their party.

Well, times they are a changing .

It appears that with some regularity incumbents are being defeated from once perfunctory and routine screenings of their county committee.

What is going on??

In 1995, I ran for an open seat for assembly and I won that hotly contested race as I presented myself to the 300-person county committee. I won by a baker’s dozen and did so because I took the race seriously. Even though I was backed by both county chairs (Essex and Union) and had the support of most party leaders, I knew then that every vote mattered.

I repeatedly called every county committee person and mailed my message several times before the nerve-wracking election. I later had to face the county committee in April of 2001 when I wanted to contend for a then vacant senate seat. Because of the groundwork done over 6 years, I was uncontested for that seat.

A few lessons when dealing with county committee:
1) When running you need to call, email, and contact each and every member – at least TWICE.
2) Don’t take any vote for granted.
3) Attend events throughout the year that allow you to come into contact with county committee – yes that means dragging yourself to that meeting of 12 county committee when they meet to talk about inane matters.
4) As an incumbent, I would email and mail monthly to each county committee person. Keep them informed and seek their opinion year round, not just when you need the vote.
5) Donate generously to local political candidates and causes – the county committee is watching.
6) Actively recruit your friends and network to fill county committee vacancies.
7) County committee want to be with a winner, so adopt the psychology of winner and project strength.
8) MOST IMPORTANTLY: Don’t pick sides in inter-municipal fights! You gain NOTHING by inserting yourself into a municipal committee civil war. As a legislator or county commissioner, learn to resist the urge to interject yourself into these matters. You’re no longer a local official – ACT LIKE IT.

Last point, in the event you lose the support of your county committee, you can still win. In 2007, then-Bergen GOP chair Guy Talerico wouldn’t let me screen for the county line for state senate and I had to adopt and run on my own line. Largely on the strength of my Bergen based friends, we created a line with local and county candidates and we clearly won the race, but we ended up winning off the line in Bergen. Up until that time, the longtime Bergen senators and party elders talked about the unbeaten strength of the vaunted Bergen line. Oh well.

A decade later, Senator Kristin Corrado had a similar experience in 2017. Then Bergen Chair Paul D refused to allow a county committee vote for my soon to be vacant seat.  Paulie had designs on the senate seat for himself, a seat that has eluded him for decades.  He was craving to get back to Trenton since leaving in 2006 after an embarrassing run at governor in 2005. Senator Corrado showed the “old boys network” by putting her own line together and absolutely obliterating the Paulie D team two-to-one.

The point is you can win off the line when your county committee goes south, or arrogant/self-serving party leaders don’t allow you to compete fairly. Where there is a will, there is a way. However, if you pay attention to your county committee year round, life is a lot easier.

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