Home>Feature>The O’Toole Chronicles: Senator Overkill

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: Senator Overkill

By Kevin O'Toole, May 16 2023 12:01 am

I have been called a few names over the years, some are printable and funny, and some are unworthy of the ink needed to reprint the slur.

As we have come to learn, politics is not for the faint of heart or those candidates with rabbit ears or thin skin. Name-calling is sometimes employed to rattle an opponent, invoke a less than charming image of a candidate, tell an untruth about a vote or as was done in my case, for the purposes of creating race baiting imagery. Name calling in politics is a tradition that goes back to at least the 1800 presidential race between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. As said by the 19th century novelist, Finley Peter Dunne, “politics ain’t beanbag.”

At any rate, on to the point of this column.

Dave Murray, a now retired political consultant, was someone that I used when I was a candidate, a county chair, and a campaign manager.David was calm, cool, and incredibly smart. Dave Murray was the “Bill Walsh” of Republican political consultants in New Jersey. His “tree” has branches running campaigns at every level of republican politics in our state and nationally. While not in his nature to brag, this humble, and at times verbose (you never had a short conversation with Dave), Irishman has left an indelible mark on our political landscape.

In typical fashion, as a campaign was about to be announced, I would sit with Dave, and he would give me (or the candidate) a summary of the political landscape and talk about national or state events that could influence the race. Dave would pull together a budget, and he wasn’t the consultant who measured a campaign budget proportionally to the need for a new 3,000 square foot addition to his home or correlate it to the costs of his kids’ upcoming college payment, rather, he would map out a program and budget that was necessary to win.

Like all political vendors, Dave would make a consultant fee, would get a percentage of the mail, radio and television buys, and he was open about the practice. Dave would never allow for a “win” bonus in his contract, his rationale being “I get paid to win, why would I get a bonus for doing my job?” Let that sink in as you’re all about to start looking at campaign budgets (sorry consultant class).

In every campaign that I worked with him, Dave prepared a budget, and decided what was needed to win. He also assumed that the candidate would do their part every last hour of the day to ensure a victory (i.e. the 2002 campaign for Bergen County Executive, which was supposed to be a surefire win for republicans slipped away when then-Bergen Democratic Chairman Joe Ferriero carpet bombed the county with so much negative [but true] tv and mail that the GOP candidate did a shelter-in-place and didn’t leave his compound for the last 10 days).

Back to Dave and his budgets. In my first state legislative race in 1995, my incumbent running mate wanted two safe (‘pedestrian” as Dave would call them) mail pieces and do zero GOTV. We had 5 towns in Union County, including Union Township, and 8 towns in West Essex, including Livingston. I said we need a lot more mail and need a ton of targeted walkers. That year, nationally, the Democratic Party accused the GOP of cutting Social Security and all hell broke out. Against the advice of my fellow candidate and consultant, I called an audible and added more targeted mail and hundreds of walkers.

We won that race, but our numbers were reduced from prior years.

My next big race (2007 senate primary) I told Dave to double the budget. He wanted 10 mailers; I said do 20 and add radio and TV to it. It was at this point, the first of many, that Dave turned to me and argued AGAINST me spending more money. He asked, “do you want to be known as Senator Overkill?” I said, “at least they’ll be calling me Senator.”

When you think you have done enough to win, do more. If 5 mailers are enough, do 8. If the plan calls for 100 walkers, get 150. If the petition requirement is 200 signatures, get 500. Why? Just because.  When I was campaign manager for a countywide race, the plan called for 12 mailers, we did 23. The GOTV plan called for 1000 walkers, and we gathered 2400. As a rule, in campaigns, enough is never enough.

Let me end this column with a sad truth; when my former staffers wanted to irritate me, they would let me exclaim the need for more campaign spending, speedier turnaround times, more opposition research, negative mailers that cut deeper. They would yes me to death and the end of my diatribe, they’d call me “Senator Overkill” and walk away. Nice people, huh? Oh, and Dave Murray, I hope you’re reading this on your 37-foot sailboat.

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