I’m Not Socrates

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.

I often wonder if what I’m writing in my columns is actually read, and if what I’m saying is worth the time to read. As I’m not Socrates, I try to keep my pontification to a minimum and include practical experiences for readers to draw from. Along those lines, in the New Year, I thought I’d try something a little different.  

I get the sense that I might be channeling my inner Martin Tupper, the main character from the HBO Series –Dream On (1990-1996).  Like Martin Tupper, I too get inspired by movies, TV characters and scenes that later prove to be the breeding ground for my next idea or column.  In that vein, I channel (pirate) some ideas from MTV (think Leif Garrett) and ESPN’s “Where Are They Now” (Bo Jackson) to put forth the New Jersey political version of “Where Are They Now?”  

I decided to reach out to two former and respected State Senators, Raymond Lesniak and Joseph Kyrillos, and asked them to participate in our inaugural “Where Are They Now” segment. Both gladly said yes and below is our collaboration.  

Having served with both Senators I can say unequivocally that Ray and Joe were two of the brightest and shrewdest that I served with. Ray and I had some legendary discussions on the Senate floor (sometimes with elevated voices).  We agreed on some things and it was always distracting as I rose to speak, when Ray (on rare occasion) heckled or tried to provoke me – mission accomplished. Joe was one of the smoothest and strategic members of the Legislature.  He was deliberative and well-liked by all. Ray and Joe were true believers in the institution of the State Senate and have left quite an unmatched legacy in their wake.  

As a point of reference, to some of our newer readers, here is their history in the Legislature:  

Ray Lesniak: General Assembly: 1978 – 1983; Senate: 1983 – 2018 

Joe Kyrillos: General Assembly: 1988 – 1992; Senate: 1992 – 2018  

I asked each of them the same 5 questions and here are their responses: 

Question 1: What are you doing now? 

RL: I got married to my girlfriend of 20 years, Salena, on October 4th. Losing an election does have its benefits. I founded The Lesniak Institute for American Leadership at Kean University, www.thelesniakinstitute.com, and I started teaching a course on Advocacy at Kean University on January 22. I wrote a book that will soon be published—Beating the Odds: The Epic Battle to Bring Sports Betting to America. 

JK: My description is a “Portfolio Life.” Working with the companies I’ve been with, Newport Capital Group, Newmark Knight Frank; handling some projects in my consulting firm SK Partners; Public Servant-In-Residence at Monmouth University this year; serving on some impressive corporate and non-profit boards. And enjoying family life with Susan and our two kids as they navigate their teenage years.  

Question 2: Do you miss Trenton? 

RL: I miss spending time with legislators from both parties discussing and debating legislation dear to their hearts and beliefs. 

JK: There are times I miss the action in Trenton and miss the opportunities to serve as senator to people at home. But my timing was right, and I don’t miss the frustration and lack of progress 

Question 3: What do you notice now in Trenton that you like or don’t like? 

RL: I very much like the effort of Democrats and Republicans in the Legislature to study and propose fundamental changes in government to make New Jersey affordable for our residents.  

JK: I applaud some of the bi-partisan sentiment in the State Senate to deal with New Jersey’s fundamental affordability challenges to our long-term well-being but am genuinely and seriously concerned by the lack of productivity. 

Question 4: What advice do you have for the current or future legislators?  

RL: The same advice I’ve given to every new legislator upon swearing in—whether you vote for or against something, it can be used for or against your re-election– so vote your conscience and it will serve you well.  

JK: Be proud of your office, be true to your oath, and bear in my mind you were elected to work for big things. Remember that most of our problems are not philosophical or even ideological but matters of practicality and math.  

Question 5: Is there life after retiring from the Senate?  

RL: The question should be is there life while serving in the Legislature. Too often I got so wrapped up in pursuing my legislative agenda that I forgot to sit back and smell the roses. I’m now surrounded by a garden of beautiful smelling roses. 

JK: I’ve had a great first year out of office with some new opportunities and enjoy and keep up with old friends.  

I have long maintained that in terms of public service, serving in the New Jersey State Senate is the rarest of honors and few, if any, other public service experiences can match it. These two individuals have served in the upper house honorably and notably, and now both continue to create larger foot print in the sands of our Garden State.  

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

 

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