WASHINGTON (AP) — As President Donald Trump vows to “drain the swamp” in Washington, a swarm of 1,000 lobbyists, business owners and politicians traveled by train from the swamps of New Jersey on Thursday for a day of lobbying.
The state Chamber of Commerce’s 80th annual trip — nicknamed the “Walk to Washington” because rail riders generally pace the train’s corridors schmoozing and handing out business cards — comes after a national election that hinged in part on repudiating insiders and establishment politics.
Trump, whose job approval rating is in negative territory, rose to victory in part on a promise to “drain the swamp.” In his earliest days in the White House, he signed an order aimed at restricting administration officials from lobbying.
“There’s no populist message on the train. It’s networking on steroids,” said Dale Florio, a Trenton lobbyist and a longtime Republican who backed Trump.
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But Trump didn’t win New Jersey where voters are set to pick Republican Gov. Chris Christie’s successor in November. The two-term governor is term limited, and the event has a gravitational pull for many of the state’s biggest business and political players.
Still, Trump and the early days of his administration were the talk of the train.
“He’s doing fine,” said Bill Palatucci, a long-time Christie adviser and one-time Trump transition team counsel let go after Trump’s victory. “He got elected to facilitate change and that’s what he’s doing.”
But when asked for reaction to the early days of Trump’s administration, many were not positive.
“Volatile,” said Democratic candidate for governor Phil Murphy. Cardinal Joseph William Tobin, Archbishop of Newark, called Trump’s immigration executive order “very misbegotten.”
Michael Egenton, the chamber’s top lobbyist, said he expected by now the influential interest group would have heard from the administration on its plans for tax reform and the repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act, but it hasn’t. Asked how Trump was doing, he shrugged his shoulders. “It’s early,” he said.
Despite the trip’s members-only vibe, the event is a highlight of the year for many New Jersey officials.
“If I were a candidate for governor and a consultant advised me not to attend, I’d fire them,” Florio said.
The trip is a world removed from Trump’s populist message, with riders wearing business suits sipping coffee and cocktails and talking business development and local politics.
Some pickets sent the riders off, but the message was anti-Trump, even though they shared his anti-establishment tone.
Adam McGovern, 52, of Mount Tabor, carried a sign that read “Resist Trump.” He says he took time off from his job as a self-employed writer to tell the riders to oppose repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Specifically, he says members of Congress should hold town halls to hear from the public.
“We don’t send these guys and gals to Washington to hide from us,” he said.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jim Johnson, a former Clinton administration official, is spurning that advice. He said he’s not attending and that the trip doesn’t benefit the public.
“The Walk is another opportunity for lobbyists to rub elbows and curry favor with elected officials,” Johnson said.
Egenton doesn’t buy the swamp comparisons. He says networking is the pathway to relationships and new, better policies.
“I think the way I look at it: there always have to be safeguards to make sure you’re not giving special privileges (to business interest) but at the same time having that relationship is how things get done,” Egenton said.
In addition to Murphy, Democratic candidate for governor state Sen. Ray Lesniak was aboard. Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno also is running, but is not attending because she will be serving as acting governor with Christie out of the state at the event.
Christie is set to deliver the keynote address to the gathering. Democratic Sens. Cory Booker and Bob Menendez, along with Republican U.S. Rep. Chris Smith also are set to address dinner attendees.
This story has been corrected to show that gubernatorial candidate Assemblyman John Wisniewski is not planning to ride the train.