Grassroots protesters claimed they were being unfairly excluded as lawmakers and lobbyists, movers and shakers paid $600 to $700 a pop — news media gets a cut rate — to schmooze their way to Washington on the Chamber Train. This year’s extravaganza featured 14 Amtrak cars stuffed with 900 people, every one of them with a political agenda to promote. That’s one of several reasons activists protested at Newark Penn Station Thursday.
“It’s pay-to-play shenanigans. It’s the wealthy and the well-connected buying access. It’s the worst of insider cronyism or insider government,” said Analilia Mejia, executive director of New Jersey Working Families Alliance.
But the call for access and transparency transcended the train trip. Progressives said they’ve met with leadership in the Assembly and will meet soon with the Senate to push for changes in how lawmakers draft bills.
“The people of New Jersey have a right to know what is in legislation that’s being worked on. Proposed legislation and legislative action need to be made public a minimum of 72 hours before committee hearings or votes so that constituents can advocate on their own behalf,” said Lillian Duggin, co-founder of Westfield 20/20.
Meanwhile, New Jersey Citizen Action tried to get lawmakers’ attention while they queued up to board — handing out packaged magic tricks that made a penny disappear to illustrate their opposition to controversial corporate tax breaks granted by the state Economic Development Authority.
“Too much money has been disappearing. Tax dollars have been disappearing,” said New Jersey Citizen Action Executive Director Phyllis Salowe-Kaye.
“Starting next year, we’re losing out on about a billion dollars in revenue. A billion dollars that could go to fund the things we care about, things that will improve people’s lives,” Anne Vardeman, program director for New Jersey Citizen Action, said.
But people on the Chamber Train who were focused on the business at hand paid scant attention to the protests and defended the trip against charges of cronyism and exclusion.
“I wouldn’t view it that way only because we’re trying to promote Paterson. We’ve got to put it back on the map, so I have an opportunity to network with individuals, and as I learned from Lt. Gov Sheila Oliver, you have to cultivate your contacts,” said Paterson Mayor Andre Sayegh.
“We have nonprofits that always have shoestring budgets. They manage to have a couple dollars a year to make the Walk to Washington. We don’t give free tickets out, but it’s an open process. Anybody can come on the train,” said Michael Egenton, executive vice president of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce. “It’s a great networking event, a great avenue to meet people, so I say come on board.”
The Chamber Train’s a political institution in New Jersey, happening now for 82 years. But progressive groups say it’s time to put political access on a different track.