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New Jersey State Assembly Chambers in Trenton, New Jersey. (Photo: Courtesy of the New Jersey Office of Legislative Services).

The O’Toole Chronicles: Welcome to the Club

By Kevin O'Toole, January 11 2022 12:01 am

Today, as 5 new State Senators and 15 new Assembly Members are being sworn in, I (as a former legislator) say welcome to the club!

Even in these seemingly never-ending days of the pandemic, behind the face masks and social distancing, you can feel and touch (don’t actually touch without a travel size bottle of Purell) the palpable energy and excitement of this special day.

I had the unique experience of having served two separate stints of services in the Assembly – 1996 to 2001 & 2002 to 2007, and two separate stints of service in the Senate – May 2001 to January 2002 & 2008 to 2017.

I have served in the majority and the minority in both houses, and that affords me an unparalleled insight to the feelings and dynamics of this day.

The initial swearing is a day to remember for a lifetime.

I was sworn in by Speaker Jack Collins in January of 1996 and my wife and parents stood on the stage at the War Memorial. The moment was unreal as I heard my name called to be sworn in. Experiencing excitement that all my years of hard work had paid off and here I was making my family proud; nervousness to make sure that I never embarrassed my family as well as because you feel like a bit of show pony at an equestrian ranch being put on display for the first time for the larger Trenton crowd of staffers, policy makers, influencers and now your peers. The hundreds in the audience looked on as I exhaled, took it in, proudly took my oath and walked slowly back to my seat. I signed the oath (with a little extra vigor) and was given a commemorative pin. I was officially a State Legislator.

Dream obtained!

The first time I was sworn into the Senate was in May of 2001, and I was on the Senate rostrum and Senate President John Bennett administered the oath. This time not only my parents and wife, but also our two children, joined me. I remember looking around after the oath, at that hallowed chamber, floating down the stairs and walking slowly to my seat in the back row. The indescribable feeling was as close to political nirvana as it gets.

Life was now perfect and what could possibly go wrong?

Then came every legislator’s worst nightmare – redistricting! My then-District 21 (West Essex and Western Union County) was chain sawed and I was left barely politically alive attached to a District that was majority Bergen and Passaic.

My choices were: go back to the Assembly or run against an entrenched incumbent in a district that was 95% new to me or just go home. The choice was equally as easy as it was hard – take the bird in the hand and live to fight another day.

Enough time down memory lane.

For the 20 new members and 100 returning, you are about to embark upon on a journey that will be engrained in your frontal lobe for a lifetime. You are also about to develop or continue to develop relationships, some that will last a lifetime, simply as a result of being a member of the legislative club.

Just like that friend from your study group in law school who is now a section chief at the US Attorney’s Office, your buddy from town who went off to the military after high school and is now an FBI agent, or the college roommate who is now a bigshot on Wall Street; you could end up sitting next to a future Governor, Senator, Congress Member, Attorney General, or titan of industry. If you don’t believe me, I cite to you Richard Bagger – with whom I served in the Assembly and then he went on to a prosperous career at one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world, only to come back later as Chief of Staff to the Governor.

Being in this club allows you to do a lot of good in life for your constituents, and depending upon circumstances, either you or your current colleagues may be able to help more people. All of that starts with relationships. I tell all newcomers to make friends in this business and those friendships will bear fruit years, sometimes decades later.

In this business, depending upon how you conduct yourself, you can build real relationships for life; or hard grudges that are passed down to your children. As Republicans and Democrats, we all have a job to do and a role to play, and provided that both sides get that “joke” we can all do what we have to and move on to the next thing. While I wrote previously about things being just business and not personal, the way you behave with the opposition absolutely defines that. If you stand up to criticize a bill on its merits – no problem; call the sponsor a no-good shill for some party boss — problem. Everyone loves an impassioned floor speech or theatrical haymaker, but most times in politics, just like in life, the key to success is simply gold-old fashioned common sense.

Note to staffers: This applies to you as well. You never know when 30 years later you might end up signing off on a former fellow Congressional Intern (Congressman Minish 1984) for a judgeship – Shout out to Judge John Gizzo.

To the new members, today is a special day. Cherish every second of it. Live in the moment of its auspiciousness. Remember this feeling. Serve your constituents well. Build relationships for a lifetime.

Welcome to the club and as they said on Succession, “the treehouse is cool.”

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