NEWARK — Whether it’s because of the snow, the economy or perceived signals from the new Republican governor, attendance at today’s Chamber of Commerce “Walk to Washington” train ride is lighter than past years.
About 750 people lobbyists, politicians and business leaders signed up this year for the 73rd annual trip, paying between $560 and $660 per ticket. That’s down 15% from attendance last year.
And the pre-ride breakfast held at the Hilton across the street from Penn Station was comparably sparse as well, although some latecomers reported having been held up by traffic on the way.
At issue is Gov. Christopher Christie’s spat with the Chamber of Commerce, detailed in a Sunday Star-Ledger story but downplayed by Christie and Chamber officials in public. Yesterday, Christie reiterated that he refused to attend the trip, which governor’s have traditionally participated in, because he was too busy, though he said the idea that the governor needs to attend was “silly.”
Chamber of Commerce Chairman Dennis Bone, who is president of Verizon New Jersey, acknowledged that Christie’s absence – and of everyone from his administration – probably played a role in the diminished attendance. But there were other factors as well, he argued.
“There are several factors. I’m not sure I can say definitively what it is,” said Bone. “The big elephant in the room is the economy. Verizon just announced their earnings a couple days ago, and you can see the challenges that we are having. I know the local chambers across the state are very stressed.”
But Bone, who co-chaired Christie’s economic development transition team, said he didn’t take offense at Christie’s absence.
“I don’t take it as a snub at all.… If you talk to business leaders here, we see a breath of fresh air with the governor and his economic policies,” he said.
Some Republicans did show up, among them Assembly Conference Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Westfield), state Sen. Anthony Bucco (R-Boonton) and Assembly Republican Whip David Rible (R-Wall).
Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo, a Democrat who is friendly with Christie and is seeking a third term in the county’s top post, showed up to the breakfast but, for the fifth year in a row, did not plan to take the train ride.
“I understand. I don’t know why people are making a big deal of it. [Christie] is only in the second week of his administration,” said DiVincenzo. “To me it’s about doing his job, about changing the tone of the State of New Jersey… He’s trying to get a hold of his job. He’s got a difficult task ahead of him. He’s doing the right thing.”
State Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Newark), who was about to board the train for the 22nd time, was more critical of Christie’s decision.
“I think it’s an important event, contrary to what some people try to depict in the media, primarily because these are people who are business community people, these are people who provide the jobs and opportunities. And sometimes you have labor on the train ride, too, who happen to be the workforce,” he said.
For now, Rice said he would take Christie at his word that he was too busy. But he hopes he reconsiders next year.
“I like to think that next year, as our governors have traditionally done – because I started with Tom Kean, Sr. – that he would participate with us. I just think it’s a good message when the leader of New Jersey comes to Washington and spends some time with the New Jersey delegation at the state level.”