Home>Feature>The O’Toole Chronicles: Senate Seats Don’t Grow on Trees

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: Senate Seats Don’t Grow on Trees

By Kevin O'Toole, March 02 2021 12:01 am

With some humility, I will point out that I predicted in an earlier column that we would see a high turnover rate in the State Senate. At the time I wrote, there were several issues that influenced my thinking:

  • Redistricting would make it difficult for some to return or naturally cause changeover;
  • Evolving demographics and the fairness doctrine would allow for less incumbent white males; and
  • The time to say “when” for some incumbents was upon them.

Now that redistricting has been put off for another two years, there are five districts where the incumbents will not be running for re-election. When the wheel stops after redistricting in 2023, I suspect quite a few more retirements will be announced. For those of us who have followed redistricting, there are always districts that get removed or disappear.

For example, in 1991, the then-formidable District 30, which housed former Senate President Carmen Orechio and stretched from Nutley to Cedar Grove, disappeared. District 30 landed in Ocean County (for those wondering how 30 ended up sandwiched between districts 8, 9, 10, 11 and 12). Don’t be surprised if a district or two, which are similarly situated in North Jersey, meet a similar fate in the next redistricting map. However, that is an entirely different column for another day.

I remember when I was sworn in as a Senator (the first time) in May 2001, I turned to my fellow Senator, Bill Gormley, and he said to me — welcome aboard, and remember these senate seats don’t grow on trees. The wise senator from District 2 went on a diatribe about the fights that typically occur when a state senate seat becomes vacant. Of course, in typical Bill Gormley fashion, he went on about his primary against a jitney driver, taking on the establishment (GOP, NRA, casino owners), and ultimately surviving.

More importantly, that edict about senators not growing on trees stuck with me.

The senate and its 40 members occupy a pretty cool piece of real estate in our state. Former Senator John Scott once told me that he would rather be a state senator than a Congress member — interesting take. I will say that those of us who wandered as a member in the senate halls for a bit and have used a senate prerogative or two, will testify that being a state senator is one of the most exhilarating elected positions you can hold. But let’s get back to the dynamics that occur when we see a rare senate vacancy.

Taking a senate seat is rarely a coronation. To make the leap to the major leagues (sorry members of the Assembly), expect to fight with everything you have.  I recall vividly the two fights I had to get into the Senate. The first one was cloak and dagger with party leaders and county committee members. The second was full blown primary war that took lots of money, a committed and enduring intensity, an understanding spouse and kids, a real campaign team, and pushing myself and others well beyond what we thought were our limits. It wasn’t easy but to this day, winning that senate seat in 2007 and subsequent re-elects in 2011 and 2013 were pretty memorable moments.

Advice to those running for senate:

  • No one will call you up and ask if you’d like the seat;
  • Think long and hard before you commit. You will be giving up a lot and, in some cases, an existing assembly seat. You’ve got to be willing to fly without a safety net;
  • Understand that if you commit, it will be a fight for the next 100 days, without any let up;
  • Go in with your eyes wide open, people who you think will support you won’t;
  • If this primary isn’t bitter enough, expect round 2 in 2023;
  • Opposition research will be run with razor intensity — don’t expect any social media faux pas to go unnoticed;
  • Forge ahead fearlessly – mistakes will happen, but minimize them and move on; and
  • Don’t be frozen by fear or worry about a loss – either you believe you’re all in or you don’t.

Remember that what you are looking to achieve has been tried by many, and most have flamed out miserably. To be one of 40 is rare, expect the other person to want it just as much as you – if not more. You’ve got to be willing to forsake all else to get this.

Let me end where I began – Senate seats don’t grow on trees.

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