Courage and Strategy of Getting on the Ballot

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.

It takes a certain courage to put your name on a ballot to put yourself out there to the world. Recently, campaigns have morphed into open political hunting season—that has become our familiar politics. While many elections are tranquil and quiet celebrations of our democracy, we recognize that some races are designed or destined to be hard fought to the very last vote. I truly commend all who have the temerity to run for any office.

For the very first time in 28 years I will NOT be on a ballot for elected office. To put this in some perspective, I offer the following timeline and take you down history lane:

1989–filed petition and elected to Cedar Grove Council

1993–ran again locally and won 4 year seat

1995–filed petition for State Assembly (District -21) and won

1997-filed petition for reelection to Assembly and won

1999-filed petition for reelection to Assembly and won

2001-won convention vote and ascended up to State Senate (District 40)

2001-filed petition for Assembly (District 40) and won

2003 -filed petition for Assembly and won (also had June Primary and won)

2005 -filed petition for Assembly and won (also had June primary and won)

2007 -filed petition for State Senate and won (also had bruising primary battle and won–more on this doozy later)

2011–filed petition for State Senate and won

2013–filed petition for State Senate and won

2017–no petitions filed

Sandwiched in between these elections, I was GOP County Chairman in Essex County for 12 years. That joy brought me several other elections and a few successful court battles (my counsel, and now law partner, Tom P. Scrivo Esq., never loses these wars). To be complete I would add that I also won elections for County Chair in 1997, 1998, 2000 and 2004.

Art of the Petition:

The first step to getting on the ballot for elective office, after convincing your reluctant spouse that this is a limited hobby that won’t detract from family life, is getting your petitions signed and accepted. For the local races, you need a percentage of registered voters (I did say registered –and you would be surprised how many family and friends are NOT registered) and then you submit duly notarized petitions. The threshold is not high, but it takes work.

Tip of the day–if you need 100 signatures, get 3 times that amount.

I can’t tell you the horror that some have experienced when they saw their petition nullified for lack of threshold signatures. If challenged, you find that some individuals moved out of district, some are not registered, others are not declared in the proper party and in a rare case, when discovered, forgeries don’t count.

A few notes– when circulating the petition, make sure the circulator is actually a qualified voter. When getting the petition notarized, make sure the circulator and other signatories actually are present when the notary fixes that seal to the now legal document. As legend has it, some have actually coaxed a notary to seal without seeing the entire stapled petition. We ran into an allegation in 2007 that one supporter of our opponent had a notary (from a prominent Bergen law firm) simply notarize an empty petition. We actually drew up legal papers to pursue this serious criminal allegation, but somehow it got lost in the chaotic shuffle of the primary. I still remember the name of the legal secretary and the lawyer who employed her. But who needs to dwell on old history?

What is a line and who owns the slogan:

It needs to be understood that each County Chair has a responsibility to ensure that the County slogan is incorporated and that his or her leadership team has the right to award the slogan. Most don’t understand how basic a function this is, and how simple it is to let it lapse. You incorporate your slogan the same way you form a business. Just like your business, if you don’t own the registration, you don’t have the right to use it. If Apple forgets to register their domain name, anyone can buy it and control it. It is tantamount to political malpractice for a Chair to not know this and let it lapse.

Little known fact about “the line” – under Title 19, it is the Campaign Manager for the “Joint Candidates” for countywide office that controls the line in a primary.

What does that mean? (Tedious but valuable stuff):

It means that the campaign manager for the joint candidates gets to decide who brackets on “the line” with the countywide candidates, (in many counties, they require the Chairman be designated as the campaign manager for this reason), it means that the campaign manager has the sole discretion to pick and choose who will appear with the county candidates – whether that be for governor or council or anything in between. This insider tidbit of information can change the dynamics of a primary election very quickly. Those who know this fact and appreciate its true value, are far smarter than the average bear in New Jersey politics. For example: A town in your county could decide to throw the incumbent Mayor off the line in the primary. The campaign manager for the joint ticket could place the incumbent Mayor back on the organization line in the primary – N.J.S.A. 19:49-2.

The common misconception during conventions is that the organization awards “the line,” when in fact they award the slogan (if they actually own it). The campaign manager for the joint candidates for countywide office controls who is on that organization “line.” So in a nutshell: own the slogan and control the campaign manager and YOU control the process.

As simple as it would appear to fill out a petition, get it notarized, get endorsed by your party, and submit it to the clerk; human nature dictates that any of these steps can get screwed up. It is through experience, know-how, or a capable team around you that mistakes can be avoided. Conversely, if you want to knock off a candidate or otherwise invalidate a petition, as long as you have the know-how, it can be done at the local level, by a Superior Court Judge or through appellate level judicial action. That’s experience talking…

For those of you who ended up off the line this year, please read this carefully: “the line” is only as good as the money and organizational support behind it. “The line” and/or slogan is nothing but words on a piece of paper. To bolster your chances, ask local candidates to drop to your “line” so that you have a perfectly proportional line to your opponent.

Examples of winning with created line–

1) Whoever gets the support of the Adubato team in the Newark’s North Ward wins because the Adubato team has/controls the money, organizational structure and manpower.

2) In 2007 I was thrown off the vaunted “Bergen line.” That was supposed to be my death knell. Instead, I had over $300k in my war chest, two able running mates, and a superb campaign team of operatives and workers. WE had an organization behind us. The result: WE beat our opponents and even won in Bergen County, off the mystical Bergen GOP “line.”

3) Run with Senator/Mayor Brian Stack and win with 84% of the vote, every time.

If you are a determined candidate, you can win. This year is no different for any one. History always repeats itself.

I promised this column would include favorite ‘political’ movies –I will list below a partial list and will explain more in the future: Some may not seem overtly ‘political’, but in life everything is related in some manner shape or form to so called politics–get used to it because that runs the world.


Usual Suspects—like politics, everything is an illusion

Miller’s Crossing—the consequences of winning and losing

City Hall—space between a handshake

MI-5 (not the Tom Cruise version)—hard choices for the greater good

Body of Lies (Washington D.C and Trenton on the line)—I put him in that room

Clear and Present Danger—tell them that you are really good friends

Fiddler on the Roof–just seeing if you are paying attention–

Dave—remember why you first ran for office

Hoffa—we using words now

Miss Sloane—always have a trump card

Godfather I & II—need I say more

Kevin O’Toole is the senator representing the 40th Legislative District.

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4 responses to “Courage and Strategy of Getting on the Ballot”

  1. Senator…you clearly understand the concept of “the line” and the provisions of NJSA 19:49-2…bravo! John M. Carbone, Esq.

  2. Would’ve been fun to see O’Foole lose to a primary challenger in 2017. He’s a coward who voted for the gas tax, then decided not to run again. #MarkOfTheRINO

  3. And it is in the controlling of the regular organization line of either party, and the supporting organization controlled campaign workers and money that are behind that line and slogan, that the hierarchies of the two major parties in this state vet those who would rise to candidacy for higher office. In that vetting weeding out those who would upset the well established, corrupted, status quo.

    Unfortunately, in the opinion of this writer, this means the likelihood of untainted candidates produced for the state house or governor’s mansion in this state are dubious, to say the least. The corrupted” good ol’ boy” regular organizations of both parties produce a product deliberately lacking in the characteristics necessary to change the body politic of this state and thus threaten the rigged game the Regular Organization Democrats and Republicans profit from in this state.

  4. Honerable Mr. O’Toole,

    As you mention the management of the “party line” a few times in your article, and with your experience as a county chairman, may I, both sincerely and politely, ask of you what you’d reply to NJ voters whose opinion it is that the use and power of the Regular Organization line of both major parties, Republican and Democrat, is as a tool to vet out those rising for higher office that weeds out those potential candidates that would put electorate before party and shake the status quo of the body politic of this state’s state house and Governor’s mansion?

    Thank you for your time and attention to my query.

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