10 years at N.J. Chamber: Bracken looks back … and ahead

Tom Bracken has long lamented the fact that he and the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce feel the state is overtaxed — and a tough place to do business. Bracken, however, is bullish on New Jersey.

“I’m more positive than negative about what’s going on,” he said. “I’m cautiously optimistic that things are going in a direction that can really work, to the tremendous benefit of the state and all of its citizens. It’s there for the taking. There’s legislation out there that is moving in that direction.

“This is not about winners and losers, because everything we’re fighting for to build the economy helps everybody win. If we generate more revenue for the state, social programs get funded, people have jobs, all that good stuff. It’s there for the taking right now. We have a crisis staring us in the face. So, it’s the perfect scenario to start to take advantage of all that.”

Bracken, a longtime bank executive, has been involved with the state chamber for years — even serving as its chair in 2005-07. Tuesday, however, marks the 10th anniversary of when he assumed the role as CEO and president.

ROI-NJ caught up with Bracken to talk about yesterday, today and tomorrow. Here’s a look at the conversation, edited for space and clarity.

ROI-NJ: You became CEO after many years of working with the chamber. What was different when you took over the top job?

Tom Bracken: I will give you the answer that I’ve given many people. When I became CEO of the chamber in 2011, after 42 years of running banks all over the state of New Jersey and being involved very intensely in how business intersects with politics, I thought I knew everything about New Jersey. I didn’t. The biggest surprise was how much I needed to learn. In the first six months on the job, I learned more about New Jersey than I learned in my 42 years in the business community.

It was a matter of becoming aware and involved in what’s under the covers, versus looking at it from above. That was eye-opening then and continues to be eye opening today. When you’re on the board, you’re not intricately involved day to day in what happens in New Jersey. When you take a job like this, your involvement is dramatically intensified.

ROI: Give us another takeaway from the early days?

TB: It reinforced my thought of what a great state this is: The assets we have, the location we have, the demographics we have — it just reinforced that this is a state that has enormous potential.

ROI: Let’s talk about reaching that potential. When you talk to the business community you represent, what do leaders wish that had?

TB: They wish, as I do, that the business community was more engaged in developing the direction of the economy in New Jersey — and they really wish they had a seat at the table with the Legislature and the administration to bring ideas forward that could move our state to a higher level faster.

ROI: When did that change? It seems like, in past years, more of the state’s business heavyweights were more greatly involved.

TB: They played a bigger role, but it was kind of isolated. They were named to head commissions, but I’m not sure they were as intricately involved in developing an economic game plan for the state based on what we needed legislatively and economically. That’s the elusive seat at the table we’ve been after. We really want to sit with the administration and the Legislature and have constructive dialogue and try to develop policies that take advantage of all the assets we have, which could easily make the state better off economically, make things more competitive and maybe even make us more affordable.

ROI: Let’s talk government. Is it different when the same party controls the executive and legislative branches, as the Democrats do now — or when the power is split, as it was under former Gov. Chris Christie?

TB: There is different competition. When it’s all one party, the competition is between the administration and the Assembly and the Senate over who’s in control. When there are two different parties, the competition is in competing proposals that often are very different from each other and have very different beneficiaries.

ROI: Let’s talk philosophies. Conventional wisdom says the Republican Party is the part of business. Is that true?

TB: I think there’s no question that the Republican Party is more focused on business and the health of the economy. It’s not that the Democrats don’t have a concern for that, but they place more concern on social issues and the fairness portion of the governor’s fairer and stronger economy. If you really boil it down, I think that Republicans probably are more sided on the stronger and the Democrats are more sided on the fairer. Each side has concerns about the other, don’t get me wrong, but their emphasis is on different things.

ROI: Of course, at the chamber, you have to get results no matter which party is in control of which branch. Looking back over the past 10 years, what would you say was one of the biggest victories the chamber has had?

TB: Probably the biggest win we had from the standpoint of helping the citizenry was the elimination of the estate tax. And that was in conjunction with the renewal of the Transportation Trust Fund. We’ve always said that our infrastructure is the backbone of our economy. And without that Transportation Trust Fund renewal and a 23-cent increase in the gas tax, we would have been in trouble. Our infrastructure was in peril, and that would have dramatically impacted on business in New Jersey in a negative way.

ROI: Let’s talk today. In normal times, the state would be gearing up for the Walk to Washington, which the chamber runs. How much do you miss that?

TB: It’s the ultimate networking event in a state that is built on networking. It’s what New Jersey is all about. I miss it tremendously. It was by far the favorite thing I do every year, because it brings the right people together. There is a lot of good discussion and people get to see each other in a different light than they would normally get to see each other in the halls of Trenton.

I hope it comes back. We’re going to work hard to have that or something like that come back next year. Many people miss it, including myself.

ROI: Final question. Moving forward, where do you see the chamber’s role in the intersection of business and politics?

TB: I see us more involved with the formation of the state’s economic master plan, which we don’t have. I say that with the intent of being able to take advantage of everything we have here — and helping take our state to the place where we should be, which is one of the top business states in the country.

I think that goal is doable. I think it’s achievable. And I think it can be done while also making sure we have concern for the middle class and the working poor, because, at the end of the day, the stronger the economy is, the more everyone is going to be positively impacted.