Running for Office for the First Time

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.

One year ago, I retired from the New Jersey State Senate to enjoy life as a non-elected official, which was something I had not experienced since 1988. I knew throughout my life that I had a plan to serve in local office for a term or two, move to the county level and eventually land the mother lode, serve in the New Jersey State Legislature. We can all dream. 

The other day, a friend of mine, Anthony S., asked me what would I have done if I was never accepted into law school. Great question—landscaping was always my fallback and at the time of admittance I had over one dozen years of experience with by backup plan – but Law School worked out. The more interesting question and more to the point, what would I have done if I was never elected to office?  It got me thinking about running for office the very first time. 

Let me set the stage – Since the age of 18, I attended local council meetings and I was a legislative aide to Assemblyman John V. Kelly since I was 22—what a geek!  But I always believed that my destiny was to hold elected office.  I don’t know why I possessed this seemingly odd goal.  As an aide and driver to the Assemblyman (now known as a body person) I traveled frequently to Trenton and I remember seeing the Dome and marveling at its beauty. I recall standing in the Assembly chambers for the first time and being breathless. I remember watching every movement and watching procedural motions and arcane parliamentary maneuvers. I loved it—bigger geek!! 

I recall listening to the floor debates back in the late 1980’s, witnessing the good work of many terrific members. Whether it be Assembly Lou Romano and his operatic lines, the booming voice of Alan Karcher, the sage wisdom of Assemblyman Gary Stuhltrager, the passion of Joe Roberts, the wit of Tom Foy, the quiet leadership of John Watson, the frantic brilliance of Robert Franks, this aspirant held on to every word that was echoed in those chambers. I always took particular pride in hearing Assemblyman Kelly get up and act annoyed and then he would say something primal. Short and to the point. I learned about being real and keeping it simple from John.  

Back to running for office – I knew that to achieve the goal of being a legislator I had to run for local office.   


I don’t come from a political family that can trace our ancestors to the Mayflower (we are still checking the workers log for below deck staff for some connection).  I decided I needed to run and I needed a plan. There was no handbook to help guide this first-time candidate. So, I hope this presents some outline for future seekers: 

Steps — (local office):  

1-     Pull results of last 4 local official races and see where more attention should be spent 

2-     Go to the clerk and pull petitions and get them filed with at least three times as many of the required signatures 

3-     Open an election account and put seed money in the account –quickly have a fundraiser—money attracts more money 

4-     Social media accounts should be active with local information, your bio, “humanizing” photos of the candidate around town  

5-     Identify 3 or 4 issues (hint expanding senior citizen and youth programs are a good place to start) 

6-     Get a copy of the last two or three budgets and STUDY them — know what zero based budgeting is 

7-     Spend very little money until the end – handouts and lawn signs are the exception. 

8-     Sit with local officials or friendly state representatives and seek advice 

9-     Plan mail and media budget and work backwards from election day 

10-  Adopt this attitude of ‘’winning psychology”— have many house parties to spread the message and support 

11-  Walk the entire town at least once and hand deliver your flier 

12-   Mail voters at least two more times and plan a GOTV operation – voters need to hear or see your name at least three times 

13-  Hang at local food store or bagel joint handing out flier – the public needs to feel your presence in and around town 

14-  Adopt Sarasota Four Corner Offense – have supporters occupy all four corners of busiest intersection all day election day with signs, shirts and noise 

These are the basic steps we took to win the election in 1989. We took 9 of 10 voting districts and broke the record for all time votes. We raised only a few thousand dollars but it all worked out. We really didn’t have a plan but developed the above organically and with some advice from others. I remember when the votes were all tallied and the feeling that overcomes you like a wave of pure emotion and sheer joy — that joy and innocence carries over when you serve locally (will discuss loss of innocence in future column). 

I find it interesting and helpful to get advice from folks in the business of public service and elected office. As my father used to tell me — experience counts for an awful lot. However, I almost always take more seriously the advice of individuals who actually had the courage to put their name on a ballot and run the gauntlet we call elections. Running for office is a very physical, mentally demanding, and hard challenge few actually do. But running and serving locally gives you an exhilarating and educational experience that carries with you for a lifetime. 

Hope the above gives some courage to make the run, it isn’t so hard – even if you don’t have relatives on the manifest of the Mayflower. 

Port Authority of New York/New Jersey Chairman Kevin O’Toole is a former LD40 state Senator.

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