(Cherry Hill) — The dust has settled on the 83rd annual New Jersey Walk to Washington Chamber of Commerce train trip where powerful political and business types schmooze and make deals. InsiderNJ was there for the ride down, the DC event + morning after, and the ride back home to New Jersey.
This year’s edition was relatively sedate and the actual event went off without any noticeable hitches. That’s surely a huge relief to the organizers. But some existential questions were raised on the way home about the event itself. Chiefly how can the #ChamberTrain stay relevant, especially in the #MeToo era.
I have some tips.
Learn from your Detractors
As this year’s #ChamberTrain rolled out of Newark, a chorus of protesters echoed in the distance (see pics.)
Patricia Campos-Medina is a veteran labor activist whose penchant for amplifying marginalized voices puts her in the crosshairs of anyone defending the status quo.
A long-standing critique of the #ChamberTrain (and events like it) is the Animal House vibe surrounding the train ride and the DC-based events.
“I joined about 40 women in the dance ‘A Rapist in Your Path’ which is a form of protest theater,” Dr. Campos-Medina told InsiderNJ. “There were about 20 others around us leafletting and supporting. The problem is that in NJ—and this goes for the Chamber Train and for the leaders of the ad hoc committee – there is a blind-spot when it comes to race and a fear of protesting the status quo.”
I believe the #ChamberTrain organizers should have invited a few protesters on board for a cup of coffee and heard them out.
No one’s rolling back centuries of misogynistic excess in one 15 minute meeting at Newark’s Penn Station. But there’s tremendous symbolism in basic hospitality. Simply telling someone “We hear you” is powerful for all sides.
I feel like not doing so was missed an opportunity, PR and otherwise, for the NJ Chamber of Commerce.
We asked Anjali Mehrotra, president of NJ’s National Organization for Women chapter, what she would have said if invited aboard.
“I would have thanked them and taken the opportunity to remind the riders that the bad behavior that’s synonymous with the trip comes from a culture of entitlement. Banning hard liquor or posting signs does nothing to change that,” Ms. Mehrotra told InsiderNJ. “For us to achieve equality, we need to remove barriers women face in New Jersey politics and create an environment where women feel safe and valued.”
Access is capital. Having face-time with powerful people in an informal setting is an amazing opportunity most people will never have.
And in the face of protests (like this one) and heaps of additional #MeToo-related scrutiny, this year’s #ChamberTrain was more mindful than ever about creating a winning environment for everyone. It showed.
But we’re not there yet.
“Before we start patting ourselves on the back for the minimal effort that has been made, we need to recognize that we have a long way to go in creating lasting change,” Ms Mehrotra added.
Patricia Campos-Medina and Anjali Mehrotra want to see the end of the #ChamberTrain and events like it. I’d settle for a drastic overhaul with some additional more superficial changes.
The Marriott Wardman Hotel in Washington DC is a venerable institution that’s seen presidents, diplomats, lobbyists, hookers, and tourists pass through its doors for many decades. Marriott Wardman has hosted the #ChamberTrain for all the years I’ve been coming around.
is this out of habit?
It’s a political trip so why not give The Watergate a spin? Or maybe a hotel somewhere along the newly gentrified refurbished waterfront in DC’s South-west quadrant, an easy ride from Union Station. And there’s always the gayborhood near DuPont circle. Why not stay there instead?
Nine months out of the year the best thing about the Marriott Wardman is the close proximity to the National Zoo.
February is not one of those months.
Speaking of which…
My first year covering the #ChamberTrain for InsiderNJ was a memorable meteorological adventure. I stayed at a guest house in Adam’s Morgan because it was super cheap and also close to the main event. The decor was crafty/country with lots of dolls throughout the house and in the shared bathroom. The dolls were a super creepy touch, but at $50/night the price was right.
When I arrived, the very nice lady checking me in asked did I want an umbrella. I don’t know did I? She thrust it towards me and so I took it.
As I pulled out my phone to check the weather, the wind began to howl.
It was truly startling when the front door burst open and dust and leaves and snowflakes and bits of trash blew into the lobby. By the time someone wrangled the door shut, the detritus-filled lobby felt like the inside of a snow globe.
I’m sure anyone who’s ever attended this event has their own anecdote about freezing their butts off because that’s what February is all about.
So why not pick another time of year instead?
Long and Boring
Back in 2017 I helped organize the Women’s March in Trenton and Garden State Equality’s annual Equality Ball. I’m pretty sure that in both instances, they invited me onboard for my relentless focus on the Run of Show.
When I tell you that Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman will take the stage at precisely 11:07am on the dot and that, after a 60 second pause for applause, the Congresswoman would speak for 4 1/2 minutes, you can set your watch to it. The DJ will play for 90 seconds while the choir sets up, a cushion if Bonnie goes long but she won’t. And you know know this because you’ve seen her speech and it’s tight.
If you’re neurotic about the Run of Show like I am, these details come easily.
At this year’s #ChamberTrain event, the speeches and intros went long right out of the gate and the audience began to drift in relatively short order. This despite VIP speakers including Governor Phil Murphy, Senator Cory Booker, and Congressman Chris Smith.
So maybe the NJ Chamber of Commerce should hire someone whose actual job is to be really engaging to emcee this event, preferably a woman. I’d suggest someone who’d sprinkle some good-natured roasting in with all the ass-kissing.
Jay Lassiter is an award-winning writer, podcaster, and videographer. He’s working overtime to get the Government out of your bong.