Lessons learned during 25 years at the state chamber: Q&A with Michael Egenton

By Anjalee Khemlani
Trenton | Mar 20, 2019 at 10:37 am
Q&A

Michael Egenton has been around the Trenton block for 30 years — 25 of which have been spent at the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce.

Over the years, he’s learned a few time-honored truths: Don’t think you’re going to get everything you want (you aren’t), never provide misleading information (it will damage your reputation) and don’t push too far (it could cost you access).

During a recent sit-down with Egenton, ROI-NJ asked him to compare and contrast governors of the past — and how he thinks current Gov. Phil Murphy is doing.

And we asked the man who has risen to the role of executive vice president, government relations, to sum up how he feels the chamber has been viewed by various chief executives.

“They’re all different,” he said. “They all have different personalities, different experiences.

“Over the years, I’ve been approached by various (state) treasurers to say, ‘Hey, look, can we meet with you, maybe some of your tax experts, to talk about how we’re going to deal with this (issue) going forward.’

“So, I think the organization has a great reputation and, hopefully, with my work, I build upon that.”

Here are some of Egenton’s thoughts and reflections (edited and condensed for space and clarity).

ROI-NJ: In all of the turnover in the cast of characters, the issues and the political winds that you’ve dealt with, what has changed the most in Trenton?

Michael Egenton: When I started lobbying back in 1993, there was a place still open called Lorenzo’s, a famous bar and restaurant that was located directly across the street from the train station. There were over a dozen Italian restaurants in that section of Trenton, but the reason I bring up Lorenzo’s is because that was a place where, whether it was at lunchtime or after a committee meeting, legislators from both sides of the aisle were there. It was a more relaxed atmosphere.

I think there was a lot more of that congeniality going on back in that era. Not to say that it doesn’t go on now, but I think a lot of the folks that have been around for a number of years truly do miss that.

ROI: Speaking of congeniality, who were the easiest governors to work with?

ME: I would say (Donald) DiFrancesco, (Dick) Codey and (Jim) McGreevey, because they all had their roots in the Legislature. So, I knew them when they were senators. I knew Don when he was Senate president.

ROI: Let’s skip forward to the present day. Politics has gotten significantly more divisive in recent years. What does the future of politics look like in New Jersey?

ME: The whole vindictiveness and nastiness and the way people talk to each other and everything (is disheartening). What I fear is that my kids, who are still relatively young, will see this and think that’s been the normal way to interact and talk to people, particularly about politics. It’s so polarized and divisive.

I think we need to get away from that and all work together and try to always think that the goal is how to work collaboratively together to better the state of New Jersey.

ROI: What about the politics of business in the state?

ME: A lot of the issues that we lobbied on and had concern with (during) the eight years of (Gov.) Chris Christie are coming to fruition now under Gov. Murphy. I think now we have to be more willing and able and strategic to work in the legislative arena, whether it’s minimum wage or paid sick leave or a new issue, like cannabis.

We have to make sure that we’re getting certain points across even more so in the Legislature, because, by the time that initiative reaches the governor, you’re hard pressed to get changes there.

ROI: What are your thoughts on Murphy’s attitude toward the economy?

ME: The governor has been very vocal about talking about a fairer and stronger economy. We’re respectful that the fair’s been done; it’s part of the governor’s agenda. But now, more so than ever, it’s time to push for the stronger side of the economy.

We need to show our members that better days are coming in, that there are initiatives that will come about to help them grow jobs and grow the economy. Because, as often as we say it, it’s so true that, without a stronger economy, you’re not going to pay for the fairer side of the equation — because the fair is going to be sustained by our members doing well and prospering and growing jobs and helping, with the overall economy in New Jersey.

ROI: Speaking of fairness. Let’s talk about the idea of paying your “fair share” — however you interpret that to be. Murphy wants to increase the tax on millionaires, many of whom are so-called job creators. What are your thoughts on this?

A lot of the issues that we lobbied on and had concern with (during) the eight years of Chris Christie are coming to fruition now under Gov. Murphy. I think now we have to be more willing and able and strategic to work in the legislative arena, whether it’s minimum wage or paid sick leave or a new issue, like cannabis. Michael Egenton

ME: I don’t want the millionaires to leave. I want them to pay their taxes in New Jersey. My fear is that the group has the ability and the mobility to leave to go to Florida or wherever. I want them to stay here. I wanted David Tepper to stay here because I want to him to pay his taxes to New Jersey.

(Millionaires staying) would help offset all the needs that we have here in the general treasury and the general fund and would supplement the issues that the governor wants to build upon. I don’t want to chase those folks away, nor do I like to chase away the corporations.

I love having Fortune 500 companies call their home New Jersey because we, overall, as a state, benefit from that.

ROI: Let’s turn to the chamber: How has its role changed over the years?

ME: Our mantra the last couple of years has been: ‘We’re looking for a seat at the table.’ We want to be able to sit down and discuss these issues.

But I don’t want to give anybody any false pretense, either, that we’re always going to get all of our issues addressed. I often say, if you could walk away with a half a loaf of bread, you’ve had a good day. Because anybody that comes in with this attitude, well, I have 12 items on my to-do list and I want all 12 done — and, believe me, there are people out there that really do think that — is being ridiculous. You can’t have that attitude going in.

There are certain principles, I guess I used to call them the 10 commandments of lobbying. You never mislead a legislator or try to pull the wool over their eyes and give them false information. You have to be accurate in your information, have a good standing with them, because your credibility is on the line. If you’re ever in a situation where you deliberately provide misinformation or what have you, that can be damaging to not only your reputation, but your credibility going forward.

ROI: So, then, how do you handle policy disagreements?

ME: It’s so important to work with the leadership, whether it’s chairs of committees or the two current leaders, because you want to have that constructive dialogue with them. I learned this, quite honestly, during the McGreevey era, when we took it to (where) it was all an all-out war.

We had a radio campaign (called) “Save Sally’s Job.” (When McGreevey was raising the corporate business tax, the campaign pushed the idea that, to absorb the increase, companies would lay off workers.) We went aggressive and we were cut off for a full year. They didn’t want to hear our opinion on anything. They didn’t give us the ability to interact with staff. The cabinet was told not to interact with us, so that doesn’t help my members.

I think, after that experience, we realized that you can mount opposition for something, but to what degree and to what level? You don’t want to do it where you cut yourself off and then you have no ability to make any change.

ROI: Final thoughts?

ME: I like working with the folks across the street (at the State House) and I think we all collectively do good things. We certainly look forward to continuing doing the right things for the state of New Jersey and making it a good state.

I want to continue my role as a cheerleader. I want to brag how great New Jersey is and why businesses should operate here. I keep to that theme and I think anybody that knows me, I always try to see the glass half-full, not half-empty. There’ll be times that I gripe and complain about something, but, for the most part, I still try to be very optimistic.

Anjalee Khemlani | akhemlani@roi-nj.com | AnjKhem