Protests, Questions Accompany Annual Train Ride To Washington

Newsday — Wednesday, February 1, 2006

Associated Press Writer

TRENTON, N.J. — When hundreds of New Jersey lawmakers, business leaders and lobbyists board a chartered train for their annual trip to Washington on Thursday, a watchdog group is planning protests from platforms in Newark and Trenton.

The overnight excursion, sponsored by the state Chamber of Commerce, is billed as "an unprecedented networking opportunity" for nearly 2,000 Garden State movers and shakers who ride the rails and then attend a dinner in Washington at which the governor and members of New Jersey's congressional delegation speak. A combination rail/dinner ticket costs chamber members $560; nonmembers pay $860.

Practically speaking, this grand meet-and-greet involves a fair amount of eat and drink. But government watchdogs say the socializing leads to an unfair amount of behind-the-scenes dealmaking.

"The greed train symbolizes exactly what is wrong with New Jersey's campaign financing system," said Phyllis Salowe-Kaye, executive director of the watchdog group New Jersey Citizen Action. "For too long, lobbyists have had the unfair advantage of influencing New Jersey's legislators through events like this."

The group planned to urge lawmakers to support public financing for elections and to remove the influence of special interest money from state and local politics. There will be no more than 20 demonstrators at each station because of restrictions on the number of people allowed to picket mass transit depots, said group spokeswoman Marilyn Carpinteyro.

The chamber train is officially called the "Walk to Washington" because no one stays in their seats, but instead wanders up and down the aisles. The train event began in 1936, when a group of 51 New Jersey businessmen traveled to Washington for an informal meeting with members of Congress. The event has been canceled only twice – during World War II and during the energy crisis of the 1970s.

The star attraction on this year's train will be Gov. Jon S. Corzine, who is to use his first ride as governor to push his agenda for growing New Jersey's economy.

"He understands that to solve the state's financial troubles we must not only cut spending but also attract private-sector investment," his spokesman, Anthony Coley, said.

Some activists have raised questions about how the new governor could be serious about instituting government ethics reforms and still ride the train.

"What's the difference between the chamber trip and playing golf with Jack Abramoff?" said Jeff Tittel, head of the New Jersey Sierra Club. He was referring to the former Washington lobbyist who recently pleaded guilty to felony charges involving his treating lawmakers to meals, trips, skybox seats and campaign contributions.

Coley said Corzine's economic goals for the state require private investment, and that the governor has demonstrated his commitment to ethics reforms. Though several members of Corzine's staff plan to accompany the governor to Washington, their expenses are not being footed by taxpayers, Coley said.

Chamber spokesman Kevin Friedlander also defended the trip.

"It's no different than any other event that takes place through the state on any given day," he said. "The only difference is they're on a train, not in a ballroom."

Lobbyist Pete Lillo, who has taken some 20 chamber trips, likens the event to a business retreat.

"Businesses have retreats or conferences, why shouldn't government have the same as a business retreat?" he said.

One public policy specialist said such events help members of the chamber who don't normally have the ears of legislators.

"I think the people who benefit the most (from the trip) are the ones who don't have daily access to lawmakers, lobbyists and decision-makers," said Richard A. Lee, founder of the Hall Institute of Public Policy.

Republican state Sen. Tom Kean Jr. planned to be on the train for the unofficial kickoff of his campaign for U.S. Senate, said Renee Trabert, a Kean legislative aide.

Democratic challenger Sen. Robert Menendez planned to remain in Washington and would not ride the rails, said his spokesman, Allyn Brooks-LaSure.

Menendez was scheduled to address the group at the dinner, and was planning to talk about the challenges facing New Jersey businesses and their employees. He was to discuss the rising cost of health care and ensuring a reliable transportation network, Brooks-LaSure said.

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