Creating Political Leverage

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.

The year was 1994 and I served as the unofficial campaign manager for a race that was virtually unwinnable for a Republican – Essex County Executive. The GOP candidate was James W. Treffinger, who was an Essex County Freeholder and a partner at a major New York law firm. Not many gave this race much of a chance for a GOP upset, but we dug in and focused our fight in a few targeted towns and districts that we knew we had a chance to move the needle.  If we were successful, we could have a real shot at winning this race.  At this time, there existed a divide in the Essex County Democratic party and we encouraged that divide to pull one of the factions close to our little band of fighters.   

We raised a little over $800,000 and we focused hard on mail in our targeted districts.  We also pulled together a stealthy ground game that identified strategic households for our knock and pull election day operation.  After many months of slogging through a hard fought and difficult campaign, we prevailed on election night with a little over 2,000 votes to spare.   

Then we were faced with the task of creating and running a transition committee that took control of a county run by Democrats, primarily for Democrats. For those that have lead such an operation, and few have done so, it is a very difficult task and you never know how many friends you have until you stand knee deep in resumes, requests for jobs, promotions, contracts and whatever else your “friends” need.  

Ultimately the hard work was complete, and we had assembled an administration.  I chose to serve as Chief of Staff for one year. The County had a budget of $500 million and a deficit of nearly $160 million. Sound like fun yet?  

As we started this brand-new administration we had a very hostile Board of Chosen Freeholders to deal with and the relationship was very rocky, to say the least.  Some in the Essex County Democratic Party and one or two on the Freeholder Board regarded this new Executive as a one hit wonder.  Almost on day one the battle to position for a challenge in 1998 had begun.  The game plan became evident – how hard can it be to wait out these political neophytes and stall and obstruct until the reelection?  

Luckily, on one fateful day during the transition, our rag tag team was able to forge a significant alliance to ease the effects of the daily onslaught from the Democratic Party.  It was December 26, 1994, and the incoming County Executive and I were huddled in a conference room at Verona Town Hall awash in budget documents and a draft transition report. We received a phone call from none other than the North Ward Political Boss, Steve Adubato, and he wanted to talk.  Interestingly, Steve had strongly opposed our effort to get elected, yet wanted to now collaborate as we were about to start this grand new adventure.  Treffinger wasn’t crazy about taking the meeting, but I nudged him to begin the dialogue with the opposition. We would need legislative help from the Freeholder Board and we needed advice from politicians smarter than us.  For those who know Steve, he was the most charming yet scary person in politics. Please feel free to click here to review my column where I wrote of my loving admiration of Steve.  

The meeting began with Steve talking and talking and talking (think Plato to students) and after lecturing us about politics and the structure of political power in Essex County, he declared that we were going to get along and he was going to “help” engineer our administration. I don’t know if it was my North Korean side or Irish side that began to twitch and get annoyed. Here was Steve Adubato, the overlord of the Essex County Democrats, dictating our actions while a few weeks ago he assembled an army of workers and money to destroy and derail our fledgling election effort. This was quintessential Steve. 

I don’t know why, but at this time I leaned over to Steve and asked him what was most important to him in this administration – I said tell me what is the most dear thing to your heart – he responded quickly, it was that his son-in-law (sorry Anthony) was to remain as Director of Parks. I said are you sure? Is Anthony the most important thing to you? He said yes, and he went on to justify that when we kept Anthony as the Director of Parks it would signal to the politicos that we had an alliance and we could all get along. More importantly, it would allow Steve to show that no matter who was “in charge,” HE was “in charge.” 

We finished our meeting and Steve climbed into his Crown Victoria as he headed to the fabled North Ward Center. Question – what is the next chess move? I picked up the phone and called the head of personnel and asked at what stage was the process of notifying all unclassified employees of a potential layoff.  She responded that it was a day or two away. Without going into too much detail, the next thing that happened was the Director of Parks was handed a pink slip.  It didn’t dawn on me then, but certainly in retrospect, this could have been a really bad idea.  

Sixty minutes later I got a call on my cell phone.  Guess who? Steve calmly said the following – “Ok m**********r, you have my attention and you and I are going get along famously.” 

For those thinking that this was merely a stunt, the employee never returned to his position as Director of Parks, he went on to have a long career in public service – just not in our Administration.  

The rest of the story is Steve and I became family friends and he became the most influential political mentor of my life.  Steve’s advice to me then was that you can make friends in this business, but you always need to have political leverage.  

Sage advice from the smartest person in Jersey politics.

Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Chair Kevin O’Toole is the former Republican senator from the 40th Legislative District.

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