Kevin O’Toole may not have been the first person to jump into your mind when you thought of who might be a good person to chair the Port Authority Board of Commissioners, and his appointment did strike most observers as curious. But for Gov. Chris Christie, who, by virtue of the Port Authority’s share and share alike leadership selection policies gets to appoint the agency’s board chairman, O’Toole’s selection was a no-brainer.
“I can think of no one better than Kevin O’Toole to assume the Port Authority chairmanship at this point,” the governor gushed in a statement announcing the appointment last week. “Kevin is the right person at the right time.”
“There is nobody, no one better at getting things done, and you know this, than Kevin O’Toole,” said Assembly Minority leader – and fellow Republican – Jon Bramnick.
As a senator, O’Toole was a fierce Christie supporter. You may remember him dressing down the Senate Judiciary Committee for its “public lynching” of Phil Kwon when he was up for a Supreme Court seat. O’Toole was also the tip of the spear for the governor when he tried to oust Tom Kean from his Senate leadership role. But it was his comments after a hearing into the lane closures at the GWB that stick out today. That infamous hearing is where former Port Authority official Bill Baroni testified that the lane closures were part of a traffic study.
“Every one of you has people in your communities who sit in longer traffic everyday because of the special lane for Fort Lee,” Baroni testified in 2013.
That theory has long been discredited, but on the very day that Baroni offered it, O’Toole released this statement blasting Democrats for supporting what he called a sweetheart deal for Bergen County.
“Today’s hearing is an example of the type of government waste that happens when out-of-touch Democrats try to score political points against an ever-popular governor,” he wrote.
We didn’t find out until a couple years later when a record of a text exchange between Baroni and GWB co-conspirator David Wildstein suggested that Wildstein may have been in contact with O’Toole about Baroni’s testimony.
Baroni asks about Trenton feedback. “Good,” responds Wildstein. “O’Toole statement ready.”
“Let’s talk about that point in time,” added Bramnick. “Hindsight is 20/20. Bill Baroni testified before the Senate, saying it was a traffic study. It appeared that the information coming out of the Port Authority said it was a traffic study. It sounded to me, back then, that it was a traffic study. Actually I think the governor held a press conference and my recollection is that he understood it to be a traffic study, so the fact that Kevin O’Toole, a legislator, weighed in on that? That’s an overreaction years later.”
O’Toole is a firebrand who has gotten into it with his colleagues more than once, taking down Assemblyman John Wisniewski over procedure at a GWB committee hearing in 2014.
“Chairman, since when are you in a position to tell members what they can say and cannot say,” he famously said then. “This is not North Korea, John. This is America.”
But, even Senator Loretta Weinberg, one of the former senator’s staunchest adversaries says that — if you put aside what she called O’Toole’s ill-advised role supporting the traffic study theory — the governor made a good pick.
“I think that we all believe that Kevin O’Toole is going to be a passionate voice for New Jersey’s interests. That he understands them,” she said.
Asked if she thought a Christie appointee would have any appetite for reform, Weinberg answered, “Well, he certainly has stated to me, on any number of occasions that he does, that he understands the first mission of the Port Authority should be about transportation.”
The next governor would, again, based on the Port Authority’s current system, be able to select his or her own person to chair the Port Authority. There are roughly six months left in the Christie term, and maybe another six months after that for his successor to get a look at the ins and outs of the agency. But neither candidate would say today whether they thought O’Toole would stay on.