Press of Atlantic City

Hard Times Make For Different Feel On N.J. Political Train

Press of Atlantic City — Friday, January 30, 2009

By DEREK HARPER
Statehouse Bureau

WASHINGTON - The ride might be smaller and the festivities more austere, but politicians, lobbyists and other advocates still headed to the nation's capital for the rare chance to rub elbows with the state's leaders on a special train chartered by the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce.

But as Gov. Jon S. Corzine made the rounds of the cars, four Republican candidates electing to stay home in protest meant less competition for attention.

In election years, the trip has traditionally been a venue for candidates to meet the state's prominent business, labor and nonprofit leaders. But candidates were reportedly concerned about the appearance of taking a trip that costs several hundred dollars per ticket and is seen by some as the exclusive, clubby domain of state insiders, a reputation underscored by a 1996 report on an episode of "60 Minutes" about lobbying.

Republican gubernatorial candidates Chris Christie, Steve Lonegan, Rick Merkt and Brian Levine skipped Thursday's overnight trip, which fiscal conservative Lonegan dubbed "the tax and spend express."

Christie's campaign manager Bill Stepien said, "Chris is a different kind of candidate. He's running for governor to change Trenton, and the train trip has become symbolic of business as usual and that's what Chris is running to change."

Others said the candidate stayed home to continue his whirlwind series of policy briefings and political meetings with top state leaders as he seeks the nomination.

Regardless, some of the politically active people aboard were disappointed that they would not get the chance to talk to the people they would soon be reading about.

Assemblyman Sam Thompson, R-Middlesex, Monmouth, a veteran of about a dozen trips, said he was ambivalent about going this year until he realized the state was electing a governor.

"I decided I should go," he said onboard the train. "And what happens? They don't show up."

Others onboard defended the trip as a great way to meet and mingle.

The trip is a good way to hear first-hand from people who have issues and concerns across the state, said Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts Jr., D-Camden, who added that the economic downturn made the event more important.

Standing on the platform in Trenton before the train arrived, he said he expected he would have 100 to 200 conversations while aboard.

"I always end the trip with a pocket full of business cards," he said. "It's a good way to get everybody together. For better or worse, it's forced confinement for two or three hours."

In one car, advocates for the Junior League of New Jersey talked to passers-by about ovarian cancer, vaccinations and the state's Division of Youth and Family Services. But at the same time, Alysia Welch-Chester offered people samples of her brownies and other items from her baked-goods business.

While the trip is slowly shedding its boozy reputation, drinks were not hard to find.

A couple of people set a crate of liquor and wine down on the floor of a front train car in Trenton shortly after noon, immediately offering drinks to passers-by. A man with the New Jersey Licensed Beverage Association walked the train handing out homemade business cards that invited people to visit Car 12 for a free Bloody Mary. And at about 2:15 p.m., in Car 10, a bank lobbyist was overheard as he pointed to a pile of food and drink saying, "To make it look good, I put the sandwiches on top so we don't look like a bunch of alcoholics."

But with the country mired in recession and New Jersey's multibillion-dollar budget gap widening, the 72nd commerce trip had all the markings of austerity: fewer politicians, fewer lobbyists, fewer parties.

DeCroce and other Republicans separately blamed Corzine's handling of the state's economy for the downturn and smaller crowds. Sitting next to the bar car aboard the train and eating a ham and Swiss sandwich as people snaked by in the aisles, DeCroce said, "Believe it or not, it's not that crowded. In years past, you couldn't even move."

About 1,100 people had signed up for this year's trip, down from 1,800 or more in better economic times. The chartered train had 13 cars, down from as many as two trains pulling 22 cars in the trip's heyday.

"It's a little more sober, and reflective of where everybody is," said Joan Verplanck, president of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce.

Even the traditional preboarding breakfast at Pete Lorenzo's Cafe had lost its corporate sponsors and was charging $40 per person at the door for the first time.

But as a result, said Sharon Shulman, director of the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Richard Stockton College, people could actually meet, mingle and talk about issues.

"This is probably the most apolitical time I've been on this trip," she said.

New Jersey Citizen Action, a self-proclaimed watchdog group, was on train platforms in Newark and Trenton promoting its agenda, asking riders to nudge Congress to support a jobs and economic-recovery package for all New Jerseyans.

Most of the 80 members of the state Assembly, all of whom are up for re-election in November, were aboard.

Even the entertainment was scaled back. A tribute to New Jersey's citizen soldiers was replacing hired performers at a dinner Thursday evening. The chamber also was asking for donations to a grant fund for families of troops needing economic help.

During the trip, Corzine touted the states economic recovery plan put together in the fall, as well as $1.4 billion in budget cuts during remarks before dinner.

Saying he hoped to cash in on the state's share of the proposed federal stimulus package, he joked that he better not bring large suitcases of cash back to New Jersey.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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