Less crowded and more sober, Chamber train heads to Washington

The 83rd Walk to Washington train rolled to Washington D.C. on Thursday, with far less booze, far fewer passengers and a mood that was a far cry from the rowdy trips of years past that made it an emblem of what’s been called a toxic and misogynistic culture in New Jersey politics.

This year’s version of the annual lobbying and networking event, hosted by the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, comes in the wake of news reports and legislative hearings that have documented sexual assault and harassment of women working in and around government in the Garden State. Among the reports were allegations that the crowded cars of past Chamber trains were a frequent setting for groping and other inappropriate male behavior.

“I definitely do feel like the tone is different,” said Patricia Teffenhart of the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault, who has played a central role in efforts to reform the culture.

New rules were put in place for the 2020 trip, which starts in Newark and makes stops in Trenton and other locations on the way to the nation’s capital. A code of conduct was posted on every door. Hard alcohol was banned. Eight security guards in plain clothes were hired to keep a watchful eye out. And a hotline was established to report misconduct, the number printed on the back of every name tag.

“So the first and most important thing we worked on was establishing a code of conduct and making sure every registrant knew what was acceptable behavior,” Teffenhart said.

Attendance was down significantly Thursday, from 900 last year to 750. And the train itself was smaller, down to 11 cars from the 14 of prior years. A national sponsor also withdrew.

The trip has been considered one of the most important events of the year, a chance for business leaders, politicians and lobbyists to schmooze, talk politics and make deals. At $700, it’s a pricey ticket to rub elbows with the political elite.

“If there’re fewer people, what we want to say is, ‘this is not the time to be bowing out,’” Teffenhart said. “The behavior we’ve been discussing is all stuff we’ve known about for years.”

Participants offered their take on this year’s version of the trip.

“We’re seeing changes already,” said Sabeen Masih, vice president for public affairs with the Trenton-based Capital Impact Group. “You can see there’s a lot of personnel, I personally am seeing an increase of security.”

Former and present legislative leaders also weighed in.

“The Chamber has done a good job of putting things in place but, look, it all starts with recognition, everyone is here to do their job, everyone deserves to be treated with respect,” said Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin.

“I never saw any of the sexual stuff that’s been alleged, but there’s no doubt in my mind it went on because there’s plenty of drinking,” said Ray Lesniak, a former Democratic state senator. “And alcohol with boorish behavior with people who don’t have boundaries is like pouring kerosene on a fire.”

Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi of Bergen County also said she saw a difference.

“It does seem a bit mellow,” she said. “I know a lot of people ended up not coming on the train and I think that’s unfortunate. People may have taken other trains down, but are still participating.”

“I’ve been on this train now for at least 8 years and I’ve never felt uncomfortable or had anything occur,” she added.

As is tradition, the trip to Washington was scheduled to culminate with a dinner Thursday night, attended by Gov. Phil Murphy and the state’s Congressional delegation, which was to be preceded by a cocktail reception. The train trip home is scheduled to depart Friday morning.

Chamber of Commerce President Tom Bracken — who serves on the NJTV board — said he believes the changes put in place for this year’s trip were making a difference.

“We want to play a leadership role and I think we have,” he said. “We’ll know after today if there are any instances on the train. We have out hotline and security folks.”

“So far, we’re hearing it’s been very docile, which is wonderful,” he added. “We’re trying to use this event as a template for how bigger events can be done in the state.”

On Thursday morning, before the train got underway, a group of women activists and advocates gathered to protest in Newark.

“Just changing the rules with no alcohol doesn’t change the reality that what you are selling is the type of access that can only be bought with money and that doesn’t work for women of color for working-class women,” said Patricia Campos Medina, a political activist who was among the protestors.

The head of the state chapter of the National Organization for Women was also among the group.

“We need a structural change a culture change,” said Anjali Mehrota. “We need people to speak up when they see something wrong. We need a safe space for victims to speak their truth and we need people in power to listen.”