On the train, off the rails

In Trenton, travelers board for the Chamber of Commerce's annual trip to Washington and congressional dinner.
In Trenton, travelers board for the Chamber of Commerce's annual trip to Washington and congressional dinner. (MEL EVANS / Associated Press)

Reality can get sidetracked when N.J. pols and lobbyists head to D.C.

Posted: January 30, 2012

 WASHINGTON - Once a year, the people who run New Jersey take a walk to the nation's capital to hear the governor speak at a special congressional dinner.

Or do they?

At the annual New Jersey Chamber of Commerce dinner in Washington, reality isn't always what it seems.

Held Thursday and Friday for the 75th time, the annual event is the Garden State's version of the Pennsylvania Society gala in New York City, as politicians, lobbyists, business executives, union leaders, ntonprofit heads, and journalists schmooze, booze, deal, and wheel. It's one big smoky back room (except there's no smoking at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel).

The first reality check is the nickname for the event, Walk to Washington. The "walk" is done from coach to coach in the 12 cars of the chartered Amtrak train as it picks up the 800 attendees.

And even that isn't quite accurate. There's more squeezing than walking. The narrow aisles create a social lubricant so attendees can exchange business cards and collect schwag that bears no connection to its sponsors: Hand sanitizer from Elizabeth Mayor Chris Bollwage, a chocolate bar from the Mechanical Contractors Association of New Jersey, a bottle opener from the New Jersey Lawsuit Reform Alliance.

The most crowded car was, as always, the bar car, where large men from the Licensed Beverage Association held court. Nearby, one of the state's major developers searched for a microphone so he could belt out "Fly Me to the Moon."

The drinking, it should also be noted, begins long before the ride, with parties sponsored at each stop. At the brunch at the Philadelphia stop, hosted by Burton Trent Public Affairs, at least one Johnnie Walker, neat, was served before noon. The new Assembly majority leader, rising star Louis Greenwald (D., Camden), on his 16th trip, opted for a sandwich. He got a shoeshine at 30th Street Station (he's a 50 percent tipper) before boarding the pol train.

Talk on the train runs from news (the exit of Rutgers' football coach) to business ("So, senator, about that bill on nursing.. . ."). Part of the tradition is also talking about how previous rides were more crowded (stronger economy) and fun (fewer ethics rules).

Eyes glance at ID tags, where ampersands abound: That means law firms, engineers, political consultants. Gossip flies. "And everybody is nice to each other," says Ingrid Reed, policy analyst and board chair of NJ Spotlight. "I've never heard anybody fight on this train."

The Canadian Consulate General charmed the crowd talking "aboot" the need for more state exports to Canada. Others spoke of "the front office" - code for Gov. Christie.

As a candidate, Christie dismissed the trip as "politics as usual." He didn't ride this year but made the keynote speech in Washington, skipping the dinner. Whispers were that he dined at The Palm instead.

His fiery diatribe about the Democrats' misdirected effort to distract him with "social issues" (gay marriage) was the only speech. More reality: At this "congressional dinner," Christie's nemeses - Democratic Sens. Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez - were not invited to speak this year, bucking decades of tradition.

So the state's entire Democratic congressional delegation skipped the congressional dinner, though up-for-reelection Menendez was seen working the lobby beforehand. Only three GOP congressmen showed; a fourth, Jon Runyan (R., Burlington), came by the hotel lounge late-night and folded his large frame into a leather seat.

Many state legislators were also absent from the dinner and gubernatorial speech. Another reality: Real politicos don't actually go to the dinner that the whole trip is supposed to be about.

Instead - much like the Pennsylvania Society - lobbyists and businesses that make money off government and politics throw their own parties around town, stimulating the D.C. economy. One lawmaker was said to have 12 on his agenda.

It can be reported that the hotel bar was still bumping at 3 a.m. To get around last call, Lenox Consulting-sponsored mini bottles of Jameson made the rounds before drinkers went upstairs via American Water-sponsored elevators.

By Friday morning, a final wet brunch was held, courtesy of superlobbyists Princeton Public Affairs. And with that, the powers-that-be piled back on the train to go back to running the state. The ride home was more subdued, as they called home to their spouses and napped.

Contact staff writer Matt Katz at 609-217-8355, mkatz@phillynews.com or @mattkatz00. Read his blog, "Christie Chronicles," at philly.com/christiechronicles.

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