My Thoughts on the History of Trenton’s Political Toxicity: Ranking NJ’s Last Six Elected Governors

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.

I long ruminated about the HOW of New Jersey politics becoming so toxic and one answer literally fell into my lap last Friday. As luck would have it, I was moderating a continuing legal education panel for the New Jersey State Bar last Friday and as I was getting a coffee during one of the breaks, I met a former high-ranking cabinet officer who served under former Governor Florio. This seemingly intelligent and well-informed individual (who shall remain anonymous) struck up a quick conversation and in short order we were discussing the broader points of the state of politics in New Jersey. This gentleman (clue 1), offered an easy and digestible opinion that former Speaker Chuck Haytaian (at some point they all become former – and that is a real wakeup call for some who think that the title defines them and it is forever) started it all when he tried to channel Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich. That one breathless observation caused me to pause, and it takes a lot for me to pause.  I concluded that it is the governor who really sets the tempo and tone for the political mood in our state’s capitol and sets the stage for bipartisanship, or lack of it.  As much as some would like to believe that it was Chuck Haytaian who led to the decline of modern day statesmanship and provided the motivation to decapitate the once Old English Rules of decorum in Trenton, and I’m sure that Senator Mike Doherty heartily agrees, it is more probable that the CEOs of our State are a more fitting place to trace back the origin of this vexing question.

With that premise, it got me thinking and provided me enough motivation to crank out this article. I do apologize for the long break from my last article. The new firm, two kids in college and this thing called the Port Authority have kept me rather occupied.

With the above motivation in hand, I thought it appropriate to walk down my personal memory lane of different administrations and how I remember them treating the opposition party, and in some cases, their own party. I will try to briefly describe the tone, tenor and rhythm of the then sitting governors. I did have front row seats as I served as a legislative aide from 1986-1991 and as a state legislator from 1996-2017. These are MY observations and recollections only. I will give a little more detail to the more dated governorships and less to the more recent ones of Corzine and Christie. I’m assuming that most readers can reach back and remember the last 12 years without much assistance from political reading aids. I will save my much longer dissertation and analysis for a future book.

Before I begin, I would like to point out to all future governors who might happen to read this column; I know that by every measure New Jersey’s governorship is by far the most powerful in the country. However, as a co-equal branch of government the legislature is not to be forgotten or ignored. After having spent nearly 30 years in those halls, I can give a little insight into the mindset of most: “We were here before you, and we’ll be here after you.”

Governor Tom Kean:
Everyone loved this governor as evidenced by his great popularity in both parties. One only has to go back to the time he received support from disgruntled Democrats to become Speaker of the Assembly, even though his Republican party was the minority party (40-39-1). Imagine that Tom Kean made a political deal with the likes of David Friedland to secure the support of Hudson County Democrat assembly members to reach the magical number of 41 in the lower house. While Tom Kean became the speaker DESPITE being in the minority, things did not work out so well for the dealmaker, David Friedland (for the younger readers here is a little history on Mr. Friedland). History will always be very kind to Former Governor Tom Kean, and rightly so. His politics of inclusion opened the door for many minorities to feel right at home in the Grand Old Party, I am one such person. Governor Tom Kean did
amazing things while rebuilding in the urban areas – he funneled hundreds of millions of dollars to Newark and Camden. The state budget grew from $8 billion to $16 billion in his 8 years but he was, at that time, the “PERFECT” leader for our state. This Governor was a creature of politics whose ancestors represented our Garden State for over one hundred years. I was a legislative aide then, and I watched and marveled at how Tom Kean operated. He was rarely seen handling the imperfections associated with sausage making and the legislative process. This governor gets top marks for including both parties underneath his elaborate and inclusive tent. It is important to note that with the exception of a 21/19 Republican Senate in 1983, this governor never had the luxury of enjoying a Republican majority in the Senate during his tenure. Democrat Senate Presidents Carmen Orechio and John Russo set the standard for how to dignify the office.  Both former legislative leaders were class acts and both knew how to use the full measure of the office to bargain with a politically shrewd governor.  As for the Assembly, we all recall how the Kean landslide in 1988 not only put him front and center on the national political scene, but it also helped the GOP in the Assembly pick up 15 seats. This governor gets high marks for working in a bipartisan manner and making smart political deals for a common good.

Governor James Florio:
Governor Florio was an interesting individual with some huge ideas about school funding. Governor Florio proposed a very controversial plan to raise $2.8 billion dollars in taxes to help pay for the education system.  Even if he believed in his ideas, the timing and manner in which he brought about his agenda were dead wrong. As I recall, the tax and spend plan was hatched virtually overnight and had little if any legislative and public buy in. The overwhelming (cannot find a stronger term) reaction to his plan was heard round the world, or so it seemed. I remember attending a Hands Across New Jersey rally in Trenton where they burned toilet paper in protest of these unexpected tax increases. This massive movement flipped both houses from Democrat majorities (23/17 – 43/37) to veto proof majorities for the Republicans (27/13 – 59/22) literally overnight. This one piece of legislation made Governor Florio the most maligned public official in our state’s long history. The push back was so great that it made it impossible for any substantive negotiations with his legislative counterparts. Fairly or unfairly, Governor Florio never fully got to utilize his deal making chops. His face and name were radioactive for a decade, which made it politically convenient to demonize and actively oppose any of his legislative agenda, of which virtually every Republican took full advantage.

Governor Christine Todd Whitman
Governor Whitman was an extraordinary politician who in the year before she won the governorship nearly knocked off legendary NJ political giant, Senator Bill Bradley. The good Senator refused to comment or take a position on the above-mentioned Florio taxes and nearly paid the ultimate political price.  Former Somerset Freeholder Whitman ran an amazing race and beat the incumbent by 26,000 votes.  I ran for the Assembly for the first time during her first mid-term and I had pretty good seats to her governorship. Truth be told, Governor Whitman was a national star and influenced many locally and afar. However, she had apparent misgivings about dealing with individual legislators. It was made known to us common legislators that all legislative priorities and ‘deals’ would emanate and operate out of the Senate President and the Speaker’s offices. I fully understand the adoption of this method but it allowed a disconnect to be created and when we all ran in 1997 the Republican campaigns had disparate messages. Many of us felt the uneasy space that the Governor created between fellow party members. I recall attending one campaign event in Kenilworth where Gov. Whitman stood with all three GOP incumbents (Senator Bassano, Assemblyman Joel Weingarten and this former legislator) and she refused to acknowledge our presence. Cardinal rule number one in politics—always acknowledge your local
candidates when on their turf.  As an aside, several district campaigns ran well ahead of the gubernatorial candidate. Whitman won but the result was far closer than projected. Chief Counsel Michael Torpey did his level best to open the door for a few of us but the Governor’s State Chair was Speaker Garbed ‘Chuck’ Haytaian and he was sure to carry out the order to limit access to the Governor. Whitman had enjoyed excellent relations with minority communities but took a significant hit when she was seen photographed grinning widely as she ‘frisked’ a young man in Camden. Someone thought it a great idea to have the Governor do a ‘ride along’ (pre-Kevin Hart) with the State Police.  Somehow, that private photo leaked out into the public and the damage was done. This misstep came on the heels of her former campaign manager, Ed Rollins Jr., declaring that the Whitman campaign paid off black ministers to ‘suppress’ the vote. Mr. Rollins later went on to recant this offensive statement. After those two events, Governor Whitman never seemed to regain the trust of many minority legislators.

Governor James McGreevey:
Governor McGreevey was the most magnificent campaigner but an equally poor administrator. I will not go into too much detail, as it could be considered too gratuitous. Jim has endured a lot for one person, but political history will show that as Governor, Jim refused to meet or acknowledge most of the Republicans. I remember when he walked on the Assembly floor and literally ignored every single Republican and talked with only a few high-powered Democrats. He made an occasional deal in the Senate but by in large, left it to the unelected power brokers to craft priorities and spending programs. I have since gotten to know Jim and respect his grand transformation. I would like to imagine that the new Jim’s vision for what he could have been involves this more magnanimous and congenial person versus the arrogant and narrowly focused one of over a decade ago. If only we had an opportunity to see today’s Jim back then, perhaps his section would be so very different.

Governor Jon Corzine:
Governor Corzine was a lofty minded, big picture thinker who NEVER understood or got the pulse of the legislature. Corzine’s own party would openly grouse about the shortcomings of this accidental Governor. I say “accidental” because if Acting Governor Codey had the courage to run in the primary, as he should have, he would have beaten this seemingly robotic candidate from Wall Street. Jon was a nice guy, but he would often follow the advice of the last person who spoke to him. This weathervane approach did not lead to great legislative relations. And except for the occasional bone thrown by Deputy Chief of Staff Patti McGuire, presumably when Corzine wasn’t looking, the Republicans rarely saw the inside of the Governor’s office or his politics. It was ironic that the Republicans came to his side when State government actually shutdown. It was four GOP Assembly members joining forces with the 4 Corzine Democrats on the Assembly Budget Committee to help break the budget impasse (ALL state workers were to be declared essential). Governor Corzine let great opportunity escape when in 2006 a bipartisan committee recommended 41 pension reforms. The Governor promised swift passage of all, but later, after consultations with other stakeholders, meekly told us that he would only sign less than a dozen of the reforms. Jon had Democrat majorities in both houses and he did not waste too much time with the opposition, even though we worked with him on several of his priorities.
GRADE: C Minus

Governor Chris Christie:
Governor Christie will long be remembered for the things he had nothing to do with. I believe that history will have a much more kind and accurate view of him. Despite, at times, facing a very hostile and uncooperative legislature, this Governor rolled out several historic legislative victories: pension and
health care reform, 2% property tax cap, teacher tenure reform, school funding reform, replenishing the Transportation Trust Fund, record job growth and repealing archaic anti-business regulations. Governor Christie appointed a record number of Superior Court Judges and Supreme Court Justices. He worked well with willing Democrats and Republicans. For those elected officials not preoccupied or possessed by a desire to destroy him, Governor Christie had an open door and was willing to accommodate any legislator.

Best Speaker: Jack Collins 
Best Senate President: Steve Sweeney 

To all the future Governors out there, I leave you with a paraphrase from Gov. Kean: “Care and watering of the Legislature is where you will need to spend a majority of your time – particularly in the Senate.”

Nick Acocella from Politifax instructs all new Governors to take the time in your term to meet with each legislative team in all 40 districts. While this will not mollify all the attention hungry legislators, it will create basic connections to your legislature that will make the ride an easier one.

For all future legislators, here is some bipartisan wisdom as passed down to me from two great political geniuses, Steven N. Adubato, Sr. and former State Senator William Gormley: Regardless of political party, work with that front office and earn or command respect from that co-equal branch of government.

Kevin O’Toole retired earlier this year as the 4oth District Senator and now serves as the Chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

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2 responses to “My Thoughts on the History of Trenton’s Political Toxicity: Ranking NJ’s Last Six Elected Governors”

  1. For a few paragraphs,I was agreeing with much of what the O’Toole had to say regarding our less than stellar gallery of governors. However, to have given an “A” to what most of N.J. considers a failed governor now totally negates this opinion piece. Given all that we know about Bridgegate and everything that led up to this ridiculous political stunt disqualifies Christie as having been a good C.E.O., let along his abandonment of his post to pursue his political delusions. There is also the Exxon settlement giveaway, the abuse and waste of Sandy funds,the cancellation of the ARC project, etc. that O’Toole conveniently neglects to mention, that makes me think that this columnist is more interested in soliciting attention and controversial remarks than in seriously getting the record straight about this string of could have beens.

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