The Star-Ledger

Chamber Of Commerce Train Leaves N.J. For Annual 'Walk To Washington' Event

The Star-Ledger — Thursday, January 26, 2012

By Jenna Portnoy and Matt Friedman / Statehouse Bureau

TRENTON — The Chamber train has pulled into Union Station in Washington, concluding the "walk" portion of the "Walk to Washington."

The 800 passengers are now disembarking and hopping on the Metro to the Marriot, where they'll attend the Congressional Dinner.

Despite its name, only a fraction of the congressional delegation will actually attend the dinner, and none are speaking. Reps. Chris Smith (R-4th Dist.), Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-11th Dist.) and Leonard Lance (R-7th Dist.) will be there. U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez showed up to the early evening reception but did not plan to stay for dinner, his spokeswoman Tricia Enright said.

The Chamber of Commerce decided not to feature any other speakers after conducting an online survey last year, they said. Gov. Chris Christie will be the only speaker.

This trip is in its 75th year — and nothing new for Jersey elites. But for John Prato, Canada's Consul General in New York — it's a secret weapon. "We cover three states, New York, Connecticut and Jersey and I'm not aware of any other train rides so kudos to Jersey for being innovative in that sense," said Prato, a so-called train version, who stood perfectly erect as the train bucked and riders tried to keep their balance.

His mission: hammer home Canada's economic importance to the Garden State in energy, engineering and other high-tech industries. "I would love to meet a host of small, mid-sized businesses that would come to an information session we're going to organize with the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce," he said.

State Sen. Joseph Kyrillos (R-Monmouth), who declared his U.S. Senate candidacy last weedk, worked the train. So did Michael Soliman, the state director for Menendez, who Kyrillos wants to challenge.

James Horne Jr., president of the United Way of Greater Union County, likened the trip to a buttoned-up version of speed dating, with a captive audience of VIPs. A five-year veteran of the train, he seeks out corporate supporters, but also connects with others in the nonprofit and social service world.

"As with anything," he said, "as you do it you become a little more familiar with the people who do it and those connections become a little tighter. You do have richer conversations the more people you know and the longer you've been here."

Gordon Haas, CEO of the Greater Elizabeth Chamber of Commerce, said when he started riding the train 15 years ago it took him the whole four hours just to walk one loop.

"The first year I did this I met people that at couldn't get past their secretaries," he said. "It's an opportunity to meet people because literally they can't get away from you because they can't get off."

While the days of 18 car trains of the boom times in the late 1990s and early 2000s are over, Chamber of Commerce Vice President Michael Egenton said there's been a resurgence of interest after attendance bottomed out along with the economy a couple years ago.

"I would hope the Walk to Washington is a good indicator for us that (the economy) is going in the right direction," said Egenton. "A couple years ago I think our low end was 10 train cars. We went to 11 last year and we're at 12 this year."

Everyone found a bag of promotional materials on their seat, in a tote bag provided by Scarinci Hollenbeck, one of the state's most politically connected law firms. Contents included a flash drive from Creative Solar Solutions, and New Jersey shaped post-its from Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex), the state Democratic chairman.

In years past, the event got a reputation for rowdy, intoxicated crowds and palm greasing. But Egenton said those days are long gone.

"If I start coming across improper, it's going to show up somewhere," Egenton said. "It's going to be in your paper, it's going to be on Twitter, it's going to be on Politicker, it's going to be on 101.5 (FM). So I think those days are gone."

Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Union) said this is his fifth or sixth ride on the Chamber train, and that attendees this year seem to be in higher spirits than last year.

"I think there's an up attitude this year. I think people are more excited than I've seen, probably for a number of reasons. I think people have a better feeling about New Jersey," he said.

Activists representing the have-nots greeted passengers before they boarded.

One, from NJ Citizen Action, dressed as a skunk and handed out clothespins to protest potential cuts to New Jersey's unemployment benefits.

"We're here to tell the people who can afford to go on the train that they need to carry a message to Washington that unemployment stinks," said Executive Director Phyllis Salowe-Kaye. "This is a place where VIPs come, they get on the train. They have access. This is our way of having access."

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