Veteran riders and first-timers network on annual Walk to Washington

January 31. 2013 2:09PM

More than 900 business and political leaders are traveling to Washington, D.C., today to meet with members of the state's congressional delegation and receive an update on Sandy recovery from Gov. Chris Christie.

Assemblyman Albert Coutinho (left), Sills Cummis & Gross attorney Ted Zangari and Michelle Keenan Zangari traveled to Washington, D.C., today for the New Jersey State Chamber of Commerce's 76th annual Walk to Washington. (Sharon Waters, NJBIZ)

The New Jersey State Chamber of Commerce's 76th annual Walk to Washington serves as a massive mobile networking event, with attendees boarding a train at several stops along the Northeast Corridor this morning for a chance to meet leaders in business and politics as the train heads to the capital. The event will culminate with a dinner and keynote speech by Christie at the Marriott Wardman Park.

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The train ride is called a walk because attendees walk around between cars as they network during the trip. For most, the walk represents a one-of-a-kind networking opportunity.

Dennis Toft, an attorney with Wolff & Samson, said he's been on "too many (train trips) to count." He said he's looking forward to "renewing some connections and making some new ones." Meanwhile, Marilou Halvorsen — the new president of the New Jersey Restaurant Association — said she's attending for the first time this year, to meet other association heads and to push the messages that many Jersey Shore restaurants are open for business, and those that aren't need help.

"That's what drives the economic engine of New Jersey, the small businesses," she said.

The event also serves as a coming-out party for political candidates. More than 40 state legislators — including Christie's gubernatorial challenger, Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Metuchen) — will be in attendance, either on the train or at tonight's dinner. Both the state's U.S. senators and seven members of Congress are slated to attend the dinner.

Brian Levine, the mayor of Franklin and a candidate for state Senate this fall, is on his first Walk to Washington.

"I've always wanted to go, but things always came up," he said. "This year, I said, 'I'm going.' "

Levine, a CPA by trade, said the event helps inform all three areas of his professional life: the accounting world, local government and politics.

With so many people, there are plenty of new faces to meet, even for repeat attendees.

Angela Harrington, president of Harrington Communications, is on her fourth Walk to Washington. But, she said, she " still feel(s) like a newborn, not as seasoned as those around me."

Anthony Pizzutillo, of Smith Pizzutillo LLC, said he's here to talk about the revamp of New Jersey's business incentive programs. But he said the high concentration of people here will help him achieve another goal.

"I wanted to see if my flu shot worked," he said.

Like much going on in Trenton, this year's event has a Hurricane Sandy theme. The chamber has changed the name of this year's walk to the "Walk to Washington and Drive to ReNew Jersey." The chamber will be honoring Sandy "heroes" at the dinner tonight. The event comes on the same week Congress approved a $50.5 billion aid package for Sandy victims after delays that drew the ire of Christie and members of the New Jersey delegation.