McGreevey soothes critics at business conference Despite his low approval rating, a group hit by taxes greeted him warmly. A leader praised his openness.

Posted: December 05, 2002

WOODBRIDGE, N.J. — The groundwork was laid for what could have been an ugly day for a governor who has been having a lot of them lately.

The audience awaiting Gov. McGreevey yesterday was about as potentially hostile as there is: New Jersey businesspeople who gave him an approval rating that barely poked into the double digits.

They are people whose companies are feeling the pinch of a $1 billion corporate business tax increase this year.

"Who raises taxes in the middle of a recession? Nobody. Nobody," Philip Kirschner, executive vice president of the 18,000-member New Jersey Business and Industry Association, told the crowd. "You have to read these surveys to understand the intensity of these feelings. Businesses are struggling."

McGreevey's approval rating among association members was 11 percent.

Just before the governor entered the association's Public Policy Forum in Woodbridge, two Republican legislative leaders and their Democratic counterparts, acting as McGreevey's surrogates, sparred over his policies in a spirited panel debate.

The crowd was primed as the partisan fisticuffs wrapped up, moments after McGreevey's entourage flooded into the packed conference.

The response? A standing ovation.

Kirschner said the welcome reflected respect for McGreevey's office and his willingness to reach out to a group that clearly has issues with him.

"Last year, we made many difficult decisions to balance the budget," McGreevey said in a fleeting acknowledgment of the unpopular tax increase.

Otherwise, he steered clear of points at issue and focused on the importance of education and its relationship to business. He argued that having a strong research university as well as good vocational programs would deliver for the state's business community.

It all went over pretty well with his hosts, who had been considerably more critical an hour earlier.

"The governor's been very accessible," Kirschner said after the speech. "I think we all want the same thing in terms of a growing economy and jobs in the state. I think there's a desire to work with the business community in the future."

Fresh from being criticized for the personal use of state helicopters and a trade mission to Ireland that went over the top, McGreevey left what appeared to be a lion's den without a bite.

His spokesman, Kevin Davitt, sensed the tide turning toward the governor.

"We need to find better ways of getting our messages out," Davitt said. "We need to reemphasize our commitment to business in light of the tough economy."

Davitt also defended a speech that offered barely a hint of a short-term fix for the state's share of the nation's economic woes.

"You can't just look at the moment," he said. "You have to look at the bigger picture."

Contact Mitch Lipka at 609-989-8990 or mlipka@phillynews.com.

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