A Legislator’s Guide to Treating Staff

Kevin O'Toole, former senator from the 40th Legislative District, advises current and future politicians to have the courage to surround yourself with strong staff that are willing to stand up and tell you when you are wrong. Otherwise, they risk becoming disconnected from reality.

GOLDEN RULE– Treat others how you want to be treated (Pretty simple concept)

For most of us in this business, before we became elected officials we spent time in the trenches as volunteers, campaign staffers and legislative aides. My career in politics started in 1984 when I was a sophomore at Seton Hall University and I was assigned a Congressional Internship to Congressman Joseph J. Minish. While I was never paid, I viewed myself as a staffer on the lowest rung.

On day one, as I was lead to the basement of the old Town and Campus in West Orange, I was given over to the campaign manager, Joseph Puzo (whom I developed a lifelong relationship with until his untimely passing) and I was put to work. Allow me to digress for a moment and tell you about Joe Puzo.

He was a WWII veteran and cut from the rough cloth that only a person borne from the Labor Movement would possess. He was tough as nails and told us stories about the war of signing up Union folks in the Deep South, none of it was nice. He was also a solider, in that if you were part of his troop he never left a person behind.

As an intern I had many jobs; I cut out news articles, wrote briefing memos, fetched coffee, passed out leaflets and brochures at events, held up campaign signs at rallies, phone banked, constructed lawn signs, and, yes, even pulled a few lawn signs down. All the while I got to meet some interesting people – like Former CEO and Chairman of Chrysler, Lee Iacocca, and NYC Mayor Ed Koch (for the younger readers – if you don’t know who they are please google them).

It was during this time that I first was exposed to big scale campaigns and retail politics. It was here where I first learned and experienced HOW to treat STAFFERS.

Congressman Minish and Joe Puzo treated staff, paid and volunteer, with respect and dignity. They always solicited our opinions, were always considerate of others – even when we had a bad day or were losing the election. There was no yelling at staff, angry fits of rage or temper tantrums following a screw up or misstep. These two individuals were my first experience with politicians, and gave me the foundation on how to treat staff.

My next stop was with Assemblyman John V. Kelly, who I served as a campaign staffer and aide. I learned so much at this stage, John was a prince of a man and there were thousands of people who he helped at the Nutley Savings Bank, as Mayor and as Assemblyman. I learned the most about politics and people from this giant of a human being wrapped in the cloak of a politician.

John had many mottos, a lot that I have adopted as my own over the years:

1) Staff never pays for anything (meals, tolls, gas, expenses). As legend has it, and as told to me by a former campaign staffer, a former Republican Governor would famously fall “asleep” when in the back of the campaign car and pulling up to the toll booth (pre-ezpass days).

2) Always take care of the staff and they will take care of you.

3) Don’t give a task to staff that you have not done or will not do yourself.

4) Don’t sleep with the staff (fairly obvious to most of us but John regaled us with interesting stories about former elected officials we all know who saw fit to violate this one—perhaps subject of another article).

5) Always use the work product of staff (OLS and partisan staff work long and hard on complex issues–be smart and utilize every inch of it and make yourself sound smart. For some, they make you smarter than you actually are).

John taught me that if you have any perceived “power,” subordinates or employees will look at you with a heavy tilt or care. Don’t abuse this trust and don’t misuse this scared reverence that is inherently found with up-and-comers relative to their seemingly immortal bosses. A disapproving look or critical word weighs much heavier when sent by a beloved or worshiped politician.

Good rule–please try and look at yourself through the lenses of others. It is truly hard to see yourself as others see you, it can be very humbling and eye opening.

Random thought: A “Josh Steiner” is always lurking about. Be intelligent about what you say in ‘off the record’ meetings as someone is always listening (see: Josh Steiner).

In short, be decent to people as it is the right thing to do – especially those who make it their life to advance YOUR career. If you need a political calculus, let me add that good deeds come back to you. Bear in mind that one moment of anger or mistreatment could lead to a lifetime of consequences.

I’m not known as one to hold a grudge, as it would violate both my Korean and Irish heritage and upbringing, but I do recall one story where it had some lasting physiological impact on me. I was a staffer to Assemblyman John Kelly and we were in caucus in the Annex (during Statehouse renovations) and at lunch time John encouraged all the staffers to eat lunch with the members.

Speaker Chuck Haytain walked to the front of the room, called all to attention and said he needed to point out that some aides (lowly) were eating before or along with the members. He took particular care to point out that I was one of the offending staffers. I recoiled in horror and apologized for the faux pas.

I wanted to say that John Kelly made me do it, but kept silent; instead all you heard was the wrenching sound of a 22-year old heaving and nearly vomiting the now off limits sandwich. That humiliation stayed with me. I remember it finally leaving me when Garbed called years later to ask for support as he was running against Michael Doherty for his old assembly seat.

Even though the entire caucus was helping the former Speaker (as he tried to regain his lost glory), I felt compelled to max out to Michael and had others send cascades of money to Mike and have done so every time Mike has run for reelection. But, life moves on.

Hopefully this column, as with the others, sheds some light to a world that is hard to describe to most unless you have actually lived it.

P.S. The world is round and politics is a funny place, there may come a time when that very same staffer of yester year now has the title of Governor or Senator.

My apologies to the readers as I didn’t have much time to spend crafting out a longer article. I have been a little busy with family life, moving into a new office space, adding 10 more lawyers, got voted on to the Port Authority, witnessed my daughter selecting her choice of college, survived my son’s Spring Break and a few other benign things.

Preview for the next article: Two of my favorite things in life are movies and politics…“they only love you when you win…”

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Kevin O’Toole is the 40th District State Senator

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