Corzine kicks off campaign on a train

January 29, 2009 5:51:43 PM PST
Gov. Jon Corzine marked the start of his re-election bid Thursday by hopping aboard a chartered train to Washington, D.C., for a four-hour ride long considered the kickoff to the fall campaign season. The Democratic incumbent was the only gubernatorial candidate on the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce's annual train trip. Republican gubernatorial candidates Chris Christie, Steve Lonegan, Rick Merkt and Brian Levine skipped Thursday's overnight trip, which fiscal conservative Lonegan dubbed "the tax and spend express."

Christie, the former U.S. attorney for New Jersey who some view as the Republican front-runner, said being on the chamber train would pre-empt next week's official announcement of his bid to challenge Corzine in the November election.

The trip, which has been slowly shedding its raucous reputation, is seen as an opportunity to forge business and political connections.

With the country mired in recession and New Jersey's multibillion-dollar budget gap widening, the 72nd commerce trip had all the markings of austerity: fewer politicians, fewer lobbyists, fewer parties.

"It's a little more sober, and reflective of where everybody is," said Joan Verplanck, president of the New Jersey Chamber.

About 1,100 people had signed up for this year's trip, down from 1,800 or more in better economic times. The chartered train had 13 cars, down from two trains pulling 22 cars in the trip's heyday.

Even the traditional pre-boarding breakfast at Pete Lorenzo's Cafe had lost its corporate sponsors and was charging $40 a person at the door for the first time.

New Jersey Citizen Action, a self-proclaimed watchdog group, was on train platforms in Newark and Trenton promoting its agenda: asking riders to nudge Congress to support a jobs and economic recovery package for all New Jerseyans.

Most of the 80 members of the state Assembly, all of whom are up for re-election in November, were aboard.

"They'll be working it," Verplanck said.

Even the entertainment has been scaled back. A tribute to New Jersey's citizen soldiers was replacing hired performers at a Thursday evening dinner. The chamber also was asking for donations to a grant fund for families of troops needing economic help.

Twice in recent memory, a new president popped into the dinner to thank New Jerseyans for their votes: George H.W. Bush appeared in 1989 and Bill Clinton in 1993.

No such luck this year: President Barack Obama had a scheduling conflict and was not planning to be in Washington on Thursday night.


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