Lame Duck doesn’t have to be Lame: Reflections and Predictions

Kevin O'Toole, former senator from the 40th Legislative District, warns legislators to learn from the lessons of former Congressman Dan Rostenkowski, who was indicted for misuse of public funds and aids for personal gain.

Lame Duck: In politics, a lame duck is an elected official whose successor has already been elected. The official is often seen as having less influence with other politicians due to their limited time left in office. Conversely, a lame duck is free to make decisions that exercise their standard powers with little fear of consequence…

The term “lame duck” first entered our lexicon in 1761 from Horace Walpole in “Letters to Sir Horace Mann.”   The term was employed in the context of U.S. politics in 1926 in the Appleton Post-Crescent piece entitled “Making a lame duck of Coolidge.”

I have had more than my fair share of witnessing and participating in legislative lame duck sessions. Notwithstanding the negative imagery, lame duck doesn’t have to live up to its name.

I think back to the 2007 legislative lame duck when we passed the once untouchable school funding reform and ended the long-standing death penalty. Whether you agree with those initiatives or not, you can’t deny they were significant pieces of legislation. Lame duck is a magical time of year in Trenton.    Some politicians are on their way out the door, while others are emboldened from recent election results.  The most recent elections are in the rear-view mirror while the next are too far down the horizon to see.  It is a time of heightened political sensibilities with an emphasis on priorities that need to get done, legacies that get cemented or tarnished, deals to be made, and golden parachutes to be given out (then retiring, thanks to Jeff Van Drew, Senator Nick Asselta).

With about 8 weeks left in the legislative term (and for this Governor) it is time to take stock of some things that should happen.

First and foremost, legislators should pass long overdue salary increases for judges, cabinet officers and senior staff.

Judges last received an increase in 2002 and their take home pay of $133,000 is LESS than it was 9 years ago. We entrust the 465 people to make the most important decisions for our society and yet refuse to compensate them appropriately.

How do we expect to attract the best and brightest? In addition to the problem of attracting new judges, we are also losing some of the smartest judicial minds currently on the bench (e.g. Judge Doyne) due to this crisis – and it is a crisis. The current legislature should vote now for a modest increase that has two or three years of salary increases phased in and put the all-important CPI in the bill. This will forever resolve this nagging and persistent issue.

The legislature should also take this opportunity to increase the salary range for incoming cabinet officers and senior staff. Incoming Governor Phil Murphy, and all future governors, should have the ability to attract high caliber individuals to their administrations. Currently, cabinet members and senior front office staff are capped at $141,000. While this is significant sum, I would suggest a range of $141,000 – $175,000 for the Governor to choose from based on experience, ability and department.

Little known fact: According to Article 6 of our Constitution, if salaries are increased for either judges, cabinet members or senior front office staff a legislator (irrespective of whether they voted for/against/abstained) is PRECLUDED from taking any position affected by the pay raise for the rest of that legislative term. Something to think about…Allow me to editorialize here and say that it is akin to political malpractice for members of the 217th Legislature to not enact these measures right now, in this lame duck session.

As we sit here today, the next election will never be farther away, the moment is now to get things done. This rare opportunity should be utilized to take stock of what really needs to be done, whether it is education reform, healthcare, transportation or correcting a flaw in our criminal justice program; whatever the issue, now is the time to accomplish something.

Time as a legislator is brief and fleeting, do something bold and everlasting – it is your mandate and charge.

Here are some of my observations from the election:

State Senator Stack delivered unimaginable numbers to his campaign and to Governor-Elect Murphy, 32,000 votes. For those that actually understand how elections are won and lost, that 30,000 plus differential is the stuff of legend. Imagine what half that plurality in each legislative district would mean to a campaign. After you’ve completed the math in your head, all future statewide office seekers might want to start developing a relationship with Brian Stack – NOW!

Senate President Steve Sweeney goes down in the books as having the most amount of money spent against him in the history of the state and he still won by 18 points – his largest margin of victory ever. Going forward, if you don’t think the Senate President is going to be larger than King Kong, well than you don’t belong in this business and should stop pretending. I suspect you will see this Senate President consolidating his power base within his own caucus and continuing to make friends with 5 or 6 Republican Senators.

Flashback: I remember former Senator John Lynch being a target in 1991 of the NJEA and he survived a similar carpet bombing (look up his favored opponent Ed Tiller who lost by 1335 votes). Lynch opposed a controversial school funding proposal and was marked for political defeat.

Senator-elect Chris Brown did a remarkable job of pulling together an amazing coalition of supporters. A superb win!

Vin Gopal was in a very tough race. Most prognosticators gave him slim hope but he won in impressive fashion – those Asbury Park numbers were impressive! Senator Nick Scutari gets a major assist on this one.

In a losing effort, Assembly Democrats, due to horrible advice, insidious vanity or incredible hubris spent almost $1.5 million dollars in an effort to knock off GOP members in LD25, 39 and 40 – what a colossal waste of time and resources. They were better off donating that money to the Salvation Army or Red Cross.

For those of us who have been around long enough, New Jersey cycles back and forth so let’s see what happens in 4 years. The Demographics favor Democrats but those numbers will come back to haunt them at redistricting – which is right around the corner.

Prediction: The Senate Republican caucus will see at least 8 of the remaining 15 senators not run for re-election in 2021.

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