Chamber in the News
- Thursday, January 26, 2012
- (The Star-Ledger)
TRENTON — For New Jersey’s power brokers, the annual chamber-sponsored schlep from Newark to Washington is a time-honored exercise in extreme networking.
For John Prato, Canada’s Consul General in New York, it’s a secret weapon.
Where else can he sell industry leaders, lawmakers and lobbyists — about 800 in all — on the virtues of doing business with America’s neighbor?
"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 virgin — who stood tall as fellow riders teetered to keep their balance — on his first foray.
He emphasized Canada’s economic importance to New Jersey during the three-and-a-half-hour trip with talking points — and a table in a dining car stocked with "Connect 2 Canada" pens.
"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.
Hours after the 12-car train pulled into Union Station here today, hundreds gathered for the Congressional Dinner, but this year there was a twist. The chamber invited only Gov. Chris Christie to address the crowd and cut the usual comments from the state’s two Democratic senators, Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez, and the dean of the congressional delegation, U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R-4th Dist.).
Although Menendez showed up for the cocktail hour, only Smith, U.S. Reps. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-11th), and Leonard Lance (R-7th) stayed for dinner. Their Democratic colleagues were nowhere to be found, however, since the dinner coincided with a House Democratic retreat on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
"We’re now going to Washington to hear the governor speak as opposed to hearing the congressional delegation speak," said Mayor Chris Bollwage of Elizabeth, a Democrat. "I think the train could just go to Trenton. I’m surprised that we’re going to Washington for this."
State Sen. Joseph Kyrillos (R-Monmouth), a friend of Christie’s who is challenging Menendez, saw the change differently and took a swipe.
"I think the Chamber surveyed its membership and they didn’t want a lot of long-winded speeches," Kyrillos said. "If the congressional delegation actually said anything that proved to be productive for the job-creating business community, they probably would have welcomed them back."
Christie, reprising his role as cheerleader, promised the business community he is focused on job creation and improving the state’s economy.
"There’s been lot of developments in Trenton this week and lots of hysteria about lots of different topics, and lots of people making pronouncements about what the most important priority for Trenton is," he said, in a veiled reference to the Democrats’ plan to pass same-sex marriage legislation. "I will not be distracted by the political games attempted to be played in Trenton. Our mission together is to put our people back to work."
The day began at a morning kick-off breakfast in Newark, where Gov. Brendan T. Byrne made cheeky reference to the dustup over the solo appearance of Christie, who had shunned the event in the past. "To make up for having only one speaker tonight they’re giving you me in the morning," he said. "I don’t know what kind of retribution that is."
Always a comic, Byrne riffed off the event’s corporate sponsor. "I bought the first Verizon cell phone a long time ago," he quipped. "It has Roman numerals."
Those who attended also got a reminder that they were privileged to make the pricey trek — chamber members paid $450 a ticket and non-members slightly more — when activists representing the have-nots staked out Penn Station.
One protestor from NJ Citizen Action, dressed as a skunk, handed out clothespins to protest potential cuts to New Jersey’s unemployment benefits.
"This is a place where VIPs come, they get on the train," said Phyllis Salowe-Kaye, the group’s executive director. "They have access. This is our way of having access."
By Jenna Portnoy and Matt Friedman / Statehouse Bureau