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Dear Trenton: I hardly miss you.
The year was 2006 and the Democrat governor and legislature had shut down state government because they couldn’t agree on how to spend a tax increase. As members of the Assembly Budget Committee, we had to travel to Trenton every day and sit around on the off chance a deal was reached. We watched and listened as the Democrats tried to engage in shuttle diplomacy to end their self-created stalemate – with each side tipping off the Statehouse press corps that they were going in to the Governor’s office or leaving it.
As I approach my two-year anniversary of retirement from the Legislature (July 1, 2017), I am often asked if I miss Trenton?
That question gets posed to me at least half-a-dozen times a week.
So, to the inquiring minds that what to know, and after having had 24 months to think it through; the answer is I don’t miss it at all.
For perspective: I started out as an aide who drove Assembly members to and from Trenton – pre-exit 7A and the famous Governor Whitman tunnel. Route 1 was the only road in and out, and it was such a dream ride to the Dome every Monday and Thursday (insert sarcasm). However, to have front row seats in the late 1980’s and early 90’s as some of our legislative giants waged war, yet remained genteel and professional, was a sight never to be seen again. I learned a lot about life, budgets, relationships and politics as I chased down coffee for legislators in those formative years.
My subsequent 22 years of public service in the General Assembly and Senate was a joy that I will never forget. I can tell you with complete honesty that each and every time that I drove down (yes, I did the driving) to our State’s Capitol, I would take one long admiring look at the Gold Dome, which personified our rich democracy, and exhaled at what a cool sight that was. Each and every time I walked on the Assembly or Senate floor, I admired the beauty and grand design of those hallowed chambers. I have counseled many legislators, past and present, to embrace their service of today and understand that it isn’t forever. As a state legislator, each and every time I rose to speak on the floor, I knew I could impact some bill, grab a good headline, make for great copy, churn out a novel idea, piss off someone (usually Ray Lesniak) or do some good. Sometimes I think not enough.
Legislators effectively use every square inch of real estate their office affords. Showboating on the floor was never encouraged, but it wasn’t a foreign concept to me either. Life can be good as a legislator, but that service isn’t like curing cancer. Nurses, teachers, home health aides, police officers, firefighters and doctors deserve more attention and gratitude than an average legislator – if we are being honest with ourselves.
The cool part now is that I no longer have each Monday and Thursday blocked off for Legislative days. I don’t lose time each Spring and Summer laboring on the Judiciary and Budget committees. I play golf with my wife a lot more, see my kids and family with greater frequency, and spend time with my law clients with more regularity. Ironically, I interact more with legislators today (equal parts Democrat and Republican) than I did during my times in the legislature – for some reason I was viewed as an intense partisan mercenary. The friendships and relationships borne out of my almost 30 years in Trenton have afforded me the privilege of some genuine connections that continue to this day. Who says everything in Trenton is make believe?
As I reflect back on my two-year anniversary of leaving elected office, I love my post-Trenton life and I would do it all over again – but I’d never go back to where I have been. It is very hard for most retired legislators to give up the politics, but sometimes you need to know when to say when. As I finish up writing this column, it just occurred to me that I have not set foot back in the Statehouse since I left it.
As someone who could have run again, and again, I have no second thoughts or regrets – no matter how amazing the thought of roaming the halls while a budget deal is negotiated (or not negotiated) sounds (insert HEAVY dose of sarcasm).
To Trenton, thank you for the honor of a lifetime to serve, but I hardly miss you.
Chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, Kevin O’Toole is the former senator from the 40th Legislative District.