In Politics, They Love You Until They Don’t

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 carnal destruction of feeding piranhas is one of the more violent images I have of nature.  When piranhas are done feeding on a host body, they disengage and move on to other shinier objects. I have never personally seen piranhas feeding, but I feel that, by virtue of being a part of the political pageantry over the years, I have some understanding of the devastation that takes place in the murky Amazonian environment in which these predatory fish thrive.

I remember too many times hosting a gala or political fundraiser and walking in to the throngs of awaiting masses being greeted as the incumbent Senator (or someone with some legislative relevance or brawn) by family, friends, supporters, vendors, lobbyists and others. Over the years, as a legislator, I hosted 23 annual fundraisers, each geared to raise in the neighborhood of $250,000.  Each and every event took time, dedication and a deep appreciation for all those who took part.

For those who actually care, the success of these annual events depended largely on the effort that was made by the fundraiser team. The principal (guess who) made a point to call every single repeat contributor and ask leaders to assume the role of corralling bundles of checks. I also had a fundraiser captain (calling Tom Scrivo) who would task a finite number of friends, law school buddies, and vendors to all be responsible for the success of the night. Add in constant phone calls and emails from your paid consultant, and this usually added up to a mad success.  If the event is not a success, you have only one person to blame—any guesses?

Note to those hosting an event—you need to lead the team.  During the event, you should: call out and laud individuals who helped the most (after pithy comments about your kids or dog—Happy Birthday Ollie); say something meaningful about your spouse (thank you Bethany); and make a point to position yourself by the door to greet and shake hands with every single attendee.

Other tips.  At the all-important money getting night, the candidate must be enthusiastic, be ON, and be high energy – it is contagious. Have a dynamic headliner, like the Senate President, Speaker, Governor, or someone that can light up a room and make a routine night interesting (i.e., Roger Stone).  Spend a few bucks and get a photographer so the attendees feel like they received something of value.  Have a special dinner or drinks after the main event for those who made the exceptional effort.  None of this is terribly difficult.

As the party chair who oversaw consecutive wins by a County Executive, I had the privilege of helping run an event that saw more than 1,000 attendees and raised in the seven figures.  Few things are as exhilarating for a young thirty something year old as ascending up to the podium to introduce the winning moment.

It feels like yesterday that I remember feeling the crush of the crowds at the Senate and County fundraisers. People line up to shake your hand, hug you and otherwise get a piece of the energy – it is cool. The love of family and friends and the welcoming advances by lobbyists and other opportunists creates an orb of good feelings, kind of walking into Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory (Gene Wilder version).  The wonderment and allure of having that much party anthem in a room creates a swell and wave of support and love.

The problem for some, and I kindly don’t suffer from this affliction, is that they think this feeling and support is permanent, life sustaining and perpetual.  A note to current office holders, when the music stops, the love and support dissipate, and you come back to earth. I always say that the mirage in politics isn’t real life – it is part an illusion, part grander, and part an ego ride. I submit that in politics most of us enter it because we seek validation as we strive to do the right thing.  Like feeding piranhas, your supporters and admirers love you…until they don’t .

Do you want to learn more about politics and navigating in dangerous waters?  See HBO’s Succession and you will very quickly understand this odd world of ours.


PS – Our 26th President, Theodore Roosevelt, can be somewhat held responsible for the negative connotations on the exploits of the piranha. In his 1913  bestseller, Through the Brazilian Wilderness, he writes about the piranha— “they are the most ferocious fish in the world. Even the most formidable fish, the sharks or the barracudas, usually attack things smaller than themselves. But the piranha habitually attack things much larger than themselves; they mutilate swimmers—in every river in Paraguay there are men who have thus been mutilated; they will rend and devour alive any wounded man or beast; for blood in the water excites them to madness. They will tear wounded wild fowl to pieces; and bite off the tails of big fish as they grow exhausted when fighting after being hooked.”

Lastly, the life span of a piranha is about 10 years, which is significantly longer than the tenure of a New Jersey State Assemblyperson, and shorter than the tenure of a New Jersey State Senator.

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