All Aboard The New Jersey Chamber's Lobbying Express

WNYC — Thursday, January 26, 2012

By Bob Hennelly

This week, hundreds of New Jersey business leaders and politicians are traveling on a special train to Washington booked by the state's Chamber of Commerce. The trip to Washington is part of a controversial lobbying ritual that dates back to the 1930s when Roosevelt was president.

The revelers who board the train include a who's who of New Jersey business and politics. This year, utilities, engineering and law firms who are all angling for state work were in the mix. And it doesn't come cheap. State chamber members pay $560 for a train ticket, the dinner and the reception. It goes up to $660 for non-members.

But for businesses and lobbyists that want to really make a splash, there are much pricier options. $15,000 dollars puts you at the "Presidential" level which entitles you to ten round trip chartered train tickets, a reserved table at the Congressional dinner, five tickets to a pre-dinner VIP reception and all sorts of signage documenting your business's particpation at the Presidential level.

The train's destination is the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, where both US Senators and members of the Congressional delegation make the scene over the two-day gathering this week.

"This is a networking event," the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce's Scott Goldstein said. "It allows business owners of all sizes to exchange business cards and also talk to people from the state legislature and governor and his cabinet will be there too."

But it's not without its critics. Phyllis Salowe-Kaye with New Jersey Citizen Action, said the train is a symbol of what's wrong with Trenton and Washington. "Only those who can afford to pay a very large amount of money ride on a train with elected officials, party and push their agendas."

Salowe-Kaye said that struggling families facing foreclosure aren't represented and neither are small businesses run by owner operators who can't afford to take two days off to press the flesh.

But Goldstein defended the annual tradition, pointing out that non-profits also participate. At last one environmental advocacy group is represented. Jeff Tittle of the Sierra Club says he bought a ticket on this year's Chamber train so the environmental advocacy group could make some important connections.

"Solar manufacturers, recyclers, even retailers who are putting solar on their buildings are there," said Tittle, who is usually a major irritant to developers. "The mix has kind of changed. The business community is not just monolithically polluters."

Tittle said the social connections can actually help him find common ground with his policy adversaries. "It may sound funny because it is business people, but they realize that you are someone who they can talk to, advocate with and sometimes fight with and still have a cup of coffee or a beer with."

Last year, Governor Chris Christie did not participate in the Chamber events. This year, he was the featured speaker. When asked about the turnaround, Christie's spokeman Mike Dwerniak said that last year at this time, the governor had just taken office and was just getting a handle on the state budget crisis. "When we told them we were too busy, we really were," said Dwerniak. "This year the governor was happy to get the chance to make his case to the state's business community about how he's working on getting New Jersey's economy back on track."

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