Many years ago, I stumbled on an amazing song by John Lennon, Beautiful Boy, which spoke to me in several different meaningful ways. I will save the casual reader from any details of my then new born son’s nightmarish first year, and turn your attention to how one line in that magical song played into my politics and my life. Somewhere in the middle of the song, as this father is looking to comfort his son, the following phrase is heard: “Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans” – Mr. Lennon said more to me in that one line than he could have ever anticipated.
Since I was in my early 20’s, I planned on running for the State Legislature and I didn’t exactly know how to get there. As a law student, I planned to run for local office to lay the ground work for my dream of landing that lifelong pursuit – a state legislator.
My advice: Be around the sphere of opportunity and allow good things to happen.
One of the best jobs that I had was serving as a legislative aide to former Assemblyman John V. Kelly. John taught me a lot about political life and preparing for the next step. John educated me on what makes a good legislator or a terrible/self-serving one. I followed John closely as I prepared someday to follow in his giant footsteps in this all Essex County district. I felt confident that if I stayed around this circle, that I would be in a position to be the anointed one to succeed him. When the moment of truth came, as the 1991 State redistricting map was made public, all the training and positioning of the last decade was for naught. Low and behold, my hometown of Cedar Grove was cut away from Assemblyman Kelly’s 30th Legislative District – I did NOT see that one coming. All that planning down the drain as life was making other plans.
After receiving this devastating news, I was slightly heart-broken, I gathered myself, and investigated that my hometown was now in the 21st Legislative District, and it had one opening for assembly. This newly created district had 5 towns in Union County and 8 towns in Essex. Despite the newness of this county and unknown in at least 1/2 of the district, I crafted a plan and prepared to screen before the county committee. As I approached the meeting at Pal’s Cabin, I had a stack of my resumes and political positons outlined in a neat hand out. As I walked in the room, I clearly remember the then-Chairman of the party approach me and say, “the decision is made kid, don’t embarrass yourself, we have the freeholder in mind.” WHAT? The vote was done before the actual vote? Just like that I was back to square one. So much for a plan coming together.
Despite this setback, and even though it seemed impossible, I decided to continue to plan my ascent to the legislature and I knew that I had to remain around this political sphere; I ran for reelection locally and began to get close to the County party apparatus. In four short years, another surprise vacancy was created when the senior assemblywoman made a shocking decision to retire and attempted to insert her chief of staff as her successor (a move that didn’t seem fair when viewed from this angle). Because I was in the mix and viewed as a party builder and up and comer, I was able to successfully compete for the county committee. I won the Essex/Union Party nomination, by 18 votes, and on to the general election.
Getting sworn in as the junior assembly member in 1996 was momentous in many ways. This was my dream and my plan was realized. While life threw a few curves at me, in the end it worked because I remained around this sphere of opportunity. Five years later the district was undergoing some more shocking and once unfathomable changes. The long-time senator was taking a job and moving on, even after losing our second assemblyman a few years earlier to retirement, we were about to see three new legislators in all of 5 years. No one saw this coming. My campaign team worked the county committee again, and in no time, we ascended to the State Senate in April of 2001.
Life was making other plans.
After another rough redistricting in 2001, I found myself fighting for political survival, seeking any legislative seat in the newly created Legislative District 40 – I know all of this is hard to keep straight (and I lived it). This new district had 3 counties, Bergen and Passaic counties made up 90% of the district, and my home county of Essex held a meager 10%. Notwithstanding the obvious math problem, I was committed to remaining in the legislature and found a way to flip back to the assembly (unthinkable then and now), against a hostile senator and equally hostile district. I won an assembly seat and plotted my return to the senate. I cultivated relationships with many of the once hostile county committee members, raised record amounts of money for all the county organizations, local candidates and municipal organizations. Despite my planning for a smooth reentry back to the senate, there were still obstacles to come.
In 2007, some six years after I entered this new legislative district, I was primed to compete for a soon to be vacant senate seat.
It was the planning and careful maintaining of many political relationships throughout the district that allowed me to even compete for this seat. I was thrown off the line in Bergen, created my own line, had two opponents who coordinated their attacks against me. Despite this we won all three counties and blasted on to victory (I plan in a future column on detailing this sweet victory, piece by piece, including outlining the treachery by many, and some luck on my part).
All this was possible because I took great pains to be firmly planted around the sphere of opportunity and good things happened. It took painstaking planning and effort. It required monthly mailings to county committee, persistent emailing to thousands of supporters/constituents, yearly fund raisers netting 6 figures or more, attending far too many district events, sponsorship of high profile bills, working the phone on a daily basis to local elected officials and other things that I can’t admit to in this column. All this effort put me around the sphere of opportunity, and when those opportunities came, I was prepared to take full advantage.
In 2011, the most curious thing happened when redistricting reduced my home county to just 5% of the district as we added Morris County to the party. Because we had formed long and fast relationships with local and state players, I held on to the senate seat and moved ahead into my third different district in 20 years. I decided that after all this time, I wasn’t going to let another redistricting affect my destiny, not to mention I didn’t savor the prospects of my district stretching to Cape May (New York State was my limit), so I decided to retire and move on to this quiet life.
My point in all of this is simple: Plan and plot and understand that nothing goes as planned. Yet hard work and positioning can place you close to the sphere of opportunity and all good things will come, or so John Lennon led me to believe.
Kevin O’Toole is Chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and the former Senator from the 40th District.