Profile: New Jersey’s Top Lobbyist Is Ready for His Close-Up

Dale Florio heads up a multimillion dollar firm with a list of stellar clients -- and a choice location across the street from the Statehouse

Title: Managing Partner, Princeton Public Affairs Group

Age: 58

Why he matters: Florio has grown the group he started with a sole partner 26 years ago into the No. 1 lobbying firm on Trenton’s State Street, representing many of the key industries and interests in New Jersey. And with a mix of prominent partners — including a former Assembly speaker and a state congressman — success only begets success.

Dale Florio

How big: The firm in 2012 pulled in more than $8 million in lobbying fees from New Jersey clients, some $2 million more than its closest competitor. Clients come from healthcare, energy, manufacturing, and other industries.

Biggest clients: The biggest by receipts in 2012 included NRG Energy, Cablevision Systems, Newporte Associates Development Corp., Shieldalloy Metallurgical Corp., Meadowlands Hospital, and NJ Association of Health Plans. The Balloon Council (TBC), an industry organization whose job is to “educate consumers and regulators about the wonders of metallic and latex balloons” also is on the list of big spenders.

Salary: Florio made about $506,000 in salary and compensation in 2012, according to state lobbying reports.

What you may not know: Florio is a pretty good athlete, not only a notable high school basketball coach but also a cyclist known to have done a 100-mile “century” or two. He is currently assistant varsity basketball coach at the Hun School in Princeton, Before that, he served as assistant coach at Princeton High School and head coach at West Windsor-Plainsboro North, each for five years.

His coaching philosophy: “My focus is fundamentals and defense. All kids want to shoot the ball, but I always loved the kid who played defense well.”

Why cycling: Florio has had both hips replaced, a high school injury catching up with him, and the bicycle proved the best way to stay active and protect his body. “I needed some kind of aerobic activity,” he said. “It’s really been a lot of fun.”

His lobbying roots: After playing basketball at Somerville’s Immaculata High School, he didn’t pursue it at Allegheny College, opening the chance to spend a semester in Washington, D.C., and intern for former U.S. Rep. Millicent Fenwick. “Pretty much the die was cast,” he said of the experience. “Things have a funny way of working out.”

Early career: After working as a top lobbyist for the Philip Morris tobacco giant, he and partner Peter McDonough launched their own firm in 1987. The name came from the first office space that they could secure in Princeton. In 1990, the firm moved to its current site on West State Street, right across from the Statehouse.

Working both sides of the aisle: Florio is a well-known Republican and the former Somerset County GOP chairman, but he said his firm of a dozen lobbyists and 20 employees overall is pretty evenly bipartisan at this point. “They all have different expertise, all from different parts of the state,” he said.

Has lobbying much changed since 1987? The pay-to-play laws have taken a lot of the schmoozing out of the lobbying business, he said, something he believes has diminished some of Trenton’s collegiality. “The schedule is still the same, legislative days on Monday and Thursday, but a large contingent of folks would hit some of the local restaurants and that is where you really got to know people . . . If they wanted [in the new laws] to keep people apart and not let people get to know each other, they succeeded.”

A hint of regret: “Knowing what I know today, I’m not sure I would have started. I see the barriers to entry now, and am not sure what I was thinking.”

*What hasn’t changed: “At the end of the day, relationships still matter. You can’t do your job through Twitter or email, you need to build the relationship with individual legislators or staff people. If you need to disseminate information to a client, the best way is still to pick up the phone.”

Still a friendly place: Florio said the stalemate of Washington’s split politics hasn’t yet affected New Jersey, and that a Republican governor with a Democratic legislature actually helps the lobbying business. “When working with a split government, it gives lobbyists more opportunities to achieve their objectives.”

Christie administration benefits: “This administration is very organized. Here, when you have a meeting, you have the policy people and the assistant counsel in the same meeting, and you have a clear sense who you need to speak to. With some of the others, you were left guessing.”

Hometown and family: Montgomery, where he lives with his wife, Leslie. He has three grown children, none following in their father’s footsteps. “Not even close,” he said. “My two sons are in finance, and my daughter is in retail.”