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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: Picking a Successor

By Kevin O'Toole, December 29 2020 12:01 am

One of the more difficult political tightropes to walk is picking a successor. No one likes to let go of power and no one believes that they are truly dispensable – these hurdles make planning for succession extremely hard. NEWS FLASH: NO ONE IS IRREPLACEABLE.

I was fortunate to elevate from several positions (Councilman, Assemblyman, Senator and County Chair). Before each elevation, I was charged with helping to find and seat a qualified successor.

Vacating my town council seat in 1995 to take the oath of office for State Assemblyman was easy. The remaining council members “found” a former member and the seat was filled without controversy.

When I elevated to the State Senate in 2001, grooming a new running mate in the Assembly was a little trickier. My then-assembly mate was hypersensitive about certain individuals and I had a two-county agreement that I had to honor. At that time, in District 21, we had operated under the governing principle that the Senate Seat would hail from Union County and the two Assembly Seats would originate in Essex.

At that point in my life, I was still not great at following the rules, so I (an Essex resident) challenged for the open Senate Seat and won. That paradigm shift caused a recalibration of the “two-county agreement” and thus my Assembly successor was to come from Union County — still following me?

Ultimately, that tricky situation turned out for the best.  I selected Dr. Eric Munoz from Summit and the County Committee ratified the choice. Eric was the most amazing and gifted person. He was trauma surgeon at UMDNJ and helped so many people with serious medical issues. To this day, many of us miss Eric’s unique charm and incredible giving spirit.

Then, after 12 long years as the Essex County Republican Chair, I decided to retire in September of 2011 and worked with party leaders to select my then-Chief of Staff and Party Executive Director, Al Barlas, to head the organization. The County Committee unanimously voted to approve his selection and have recently voted him in for yet another 4-year term.  That choice was made easier because I had worked with Al for so long, knowing he was fully capable, and I was ready to relinquish power.

When I decided to leave my second term in the Senate in 2017, I had another obvious successor, then-Passaic County Clerk, Kristin Corrado. We rallied to support Kristin early and she won the County Committee votes and primary – easily.

As I have written about before, longevity is not your friend in politics and the key is to keep moving along.  As I “moved” along I managed to attract and retain phenomenal successors, who had won over the crowd before it was time for them to step up.

What is the secret sauce?

Some decades ago, a really smart Nutley attorney, James Piro, gave me pretty sound advice as how he successfully advised and counseled the long-time Chair of Essex County Republicans,  John Renna. He said don’t ever tell the Chair what he must do; instead, he made it John Renna’s “idea” and guided him to safe ground. An interesting concept.

In these times, I have a little different take.  Once you have settled on a successor you should think about a few things:

  • Allow the person to ACTUALLY do the job, delegate responsibility early and often;
  • Learn to let go of the former job, this happens naturally for those that can delegate;
  • If you really need something, be upfront and ask;
  • Always be counted on as dispassionate consigliere (see old column);
  • You don’t need to broadcast that you helped “make” the successor. In fact, that could hinder their success;
  • Respect the independence of your successor. If you were good to them and chose properly, they will do the right thing;
  • Trust your instincts that you and your successor have similar goals and principles;
  • Let your successor develop their own relationships with people – you’ll be surprised (which may be why you don’t let them); and
  • Trying to show “control” will only cause resentment — sooner or later.

I will finish with this . The year was 1996, I was in the Assembly for two months and after finishing my required attendance at an underground political meeting with a Democratic Boss and Republican Boss, I sped down Route 280 East to Trenton for a committee meeting. My 16-pound cell phone rang. I picked it up and was “commanded” to come back to West Orange for some follow up. I explained my predicament, but was told by both to turn around. After a few choice thoughts, I turned around at the South Orange exit and flew back to the meeting place. Both bosses smiled broadly as I walked in smoking mad. I answered their seemingly inane questions and got back in my car and arrived very late to my committee meeting. In their minds, they still had “control” over their successor. Twenty-four years later, I’m still here, having picked great successors, who are doing phenomenal work, and I am not wondering if anyone will ever have a story like that to tell about me.


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