The Master of Working the Room

Reprinted from NJbiz.com by Brett Johnson

Dale Florio

Dale Florio, left, speaks with Sen. Jennifer Beck and Jim Appleton, president of the New Jersey Coalition of Automotive Retailers, during a fundraiser at the N.J. Restaurant Association in Trenton. – (PHOTO BY AARON HOUSTON)

Dale Florio’s 60th birthday was filled with ceremony. None of it his own.

Last Tuesday may have marked a milestone for the founder of Princeton Public Affairs Group, but there’s no way the state’s most prominent lobbyist would miss Gov. Chris Christie’s budget address.

Every significant state figure in one place? Attendance is almost as much an imperative to Florio, who now officially has spent more than half his life as a lobbyist, as it is to lawmakers.

But, certainly, he has a different view of it than a politician does. So NJBIZ followed Florio around last Tuesday, to see the big event — and the day leading up to it — as he does.

8 a.m.

CommuteEvery day, Florio commutes down from Hoboken to Trenton.

This means his car becomes a secondary office for Florio, evidenced by the way he began Tuesday with a call to a client. He spoke with a national developer working on a large multiuse project in Central Jersey.

Not every correspondence that day was going to be about the address that encased Trenton with anticipation. Florio’s portfolio of clients is too diverse for that speech to dictate his entire day.

With the off-the-record call finished, he arrived at his firm’s building at 160 West State St. and entered his second-floor office for the first time.

9:30 a.m.

TrentonFrom his perch, you would be amazed at what Florio can see.

Whether fully ensconced in responding to the many emails awaiting him each morning or not, nothing escapes notice beneath his office’s windows, which give a bird’s eye view of Trenton’s Statehouse.

Sometimes he decides to swoop down on the street’s passers-by, evasive politicians or industry representatives who he’s been trying to get the ear of, though this requires a prompt and fairly swift flight down the office’s winding staircase.

Or he’ll just continue to gawk as the state’s powerful figures convene for chats right outside, especially gawking when he’s worried about what might be the subject of their conversation.

But Tuesday doesn’t offer much time for surveying the landscape; Florio’s assistant immediately swept him down the block to a fundraiser at the New Jersey Restaurant Association.

At the event, Florio met up with a client: Jim Appleton, president of the New Jersey Coalition of Automotive Retailers.

A former lobbyist, Appleton was once an adversary over Florio’s 30-year career span. But they’re on good terms now.

“Or at least we’d better be,” Florio joked.

Florio and Appleton mingled with the Republican representatives that moved through the space and its 20-some people.

The mission during a reception like that is getting a client in front of policymakers.

“And not all clients are based here in Trenton,” Florio said. “But I do think it’s important for clients to go to these events.

“It allows legislators to hear from the client directly. And clients can also get a better sense of what we’re hearing.”

Florio, after some private discussions, was hurried back to his Princeton Public Affairs Group base, once again roosting in his office for an imminent conference call.

11 a.m.

PhoneAfter being patched into the call, Florio gets to work persuading the leadership of one of the state’s medical schools to support a package of legislation his firm is lobbying for.

The 21-bill package, introduced by Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex) back in 2013, is meant to address the prescription opiate addiction crisis by initiating reforms. Florio said it’s seen as a positive by consumers, but the medical community is apprehensive about it.

In an effort to get a medical organization on board, Sonia Delgado, one of Florio’s 13 colleagues, spelled out the benefits on the conference call between Florio’s comments.

It was through an acquaintance that Florio was able to connect with this medical school leader.

“I’m often utilizing whatever contacts are available to me,” he said. “So much of what we do is what I call the LinkedIn model, or what we used to call the Rolodex model.”

But where a Rolodex might have once had a place on his desk is now a large M&M’s dispenser. Not one to have lobbyists’ gray stereotypes manifest in his workspace, colorful knickknacks and kitsch items such as these come in large quantities in his office.

His résumé is also made tangible in the office’s memorabilia: A vintage Philip Morris advertisement speaks for his time managing the cigarette company’s government affairs in the 1980s; sharing space on the wall is an old Somerset County Republican Organization poster from his 18 years with that group; scattered James Florio, Christine Todd Whitman and Chris Christie campaign buttons for his involvement with each of those governors.

After Delgado wraps up the conversation and confers with Florio about the plan of action on the opiate abuse legislation, Florio bounces back and forth between his phone and email for the next hour.

Think he’d answer the call of lunchtime around noon? Forget about it.

“Lobbyists don’t get a specific time for that, unfortunately; the day is usually too frenetic,” Florio said. “So we squeeze it in when it makes sense.”

12:30 p.m.

SchoolSo, with a smuggled pretzel stick or two, he goes downstairs to attend to an unexpected addition to his schedule. Members of K12 Inc., a for-profit online learning giant, have come to meet with him.

“This is sort of the nature of the beast,” he said. “You have to be able to adjust when things come up. And something will always come up.”

This client of Florio’s was responsible for Newark Prep Charter School becoming one of the first schools in the state to offer classes taught online. The company is trying to do something similar with an Elizabeth charter school.

The New Jersey Department of Education just denied an application to move forward with that plan, which prompted the need to meet.

Florio joined education-specialized colleague, Nicole Cole, in a postmortem discussion of how to proceed in the application process. They also in tandem provided advice on the best way to negotiate.

Besides that, Florio demonstrated here a quality that’s key to being a successful lobbyist: When the K12 Inc. leaders appear somewhat frustrated about the situation, he echoes their feelings.

Utilizing social cues, he’s an expert in conveying a message: We’re all in it together.

Then comes a knock on the door. It’s time for him to go.

He lets Cole take over before he rushes to a pre-budget legislative reception at the Wyndham Garden.

1 p.m.

GreetWhen everyone enters through one door — and when you have a vested interest in staying visible to key industry figures — it only makes sense that you embed yourself by that entrance like a statue.

At the Wyndham Garden reception held by the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, Florio never strays far from where he’s the first in line to greet attendees.

Those greetings inevitably turn to conversation, shorthand political insider talk. The kind of talk that gives you a pretty good idea of what the governor is going to say long before he reaches the podium.

And there was some off-the-record dialogue with notables on everything from natural gas to tobacco.

But there was just as much, if not more, discussion about sports, vacation plans and other less-than-political subjects — even on one of the biggest days in the year for Garden State politics.

“A good part of what I do is just talking, so it’s not just issues all the time,” he said.

He added that building these informal relationships may pay off later, when one of these industry figures wants to hire someone they know personally to lobby on their behalf.

At the same time, having a good camaraderie with an industry figure doesn’t mean they’ll cede on issues that run in opposition to your purposes.

“As any good lobbyist knows, really, these relationships provide us with no guarantees,” he said. “And I think that’s a big misconception held by those on the outside.”

When he’s through making the rounds, he leaves the venue and plots his course for the Statehouse.

2 p.m.

StatehouseBased on the same logic that influenced his statuesque position at the prior destination, it turns out that the security check-in at the Statehouse is a pretty good place to catch important people.

Even while emptying his pockets of change, Florio was glad-handing legislators and planting the seeds for follow-up discussions about matters he’s working on.

When he proceeded to the Senate floor as it was brimming with expectancy, his pace picked up significantly. He was hitting a record-setting 10 handshakes per minute in the claustrophobic room.

He actively searched out particular politicians in the midst of their shuffle for seats. He even held the ear of some, such as Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean (R-Union), for more than a few seconds.

But to name everyone Florio interfaced with would be to give a veritable roll call of state leaders.

Casinos, gas pipelines and health care issues — affairs he has varied levels of involvement in currently — were on the tongue of Florio in the limited time he had before finding a spot on the balcony to watch Christie talk pension, pensions and more pensions.

But all it takes is a single word from the governor’s lips; it just takes a passing reference to “health care,” or something else, to trigger something of tactical interest to Florio and his clients.

Even before Christie wrapped up his speech, Florio whipped out his phone and sent off two emails to clients who were responding to what the governor was saying, as he was saying it.

“What (Christie) said today may dictate the success or failure of other matters that on the surface seem unrelated,” Florio said. “What’s driving politics always has an impact on what may or may not happen (in the Legislature).”

Consistent with his formerly established pattern, Florio quickly makes for the place everyone necessarily must converge: the exit.

There, he successfully caught a few characters that he missed on the way in; people that he’s been meaning to speak with, such as Tom Bracken, CEO and president of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce.

He made small talk; he sprinkled in references to the big issues on his lobbying agenda. He made it all look characteristically easy.

No one totally dodged him. Those who didn’t have much time at least smiled and nodded in agreement to, “Hey, we need to sit down and talk sometime.”

There’s been worse times to be near the exit after a budget address in his Trenton career.

“Everyone leaves in a good mood when (the governor talks about) some bipartisanship,” he said.

Once the Statehouse had significantly emptied, Florio took his leave as well.

3:30 p.m.

Princeton HouseBack at the Princeton Public Affairs Group headquarters, the buzz of punditry was going strong.

Over the sound of opinions being exchanged about what the governor said, the television broadcast responses from the state’s Democrats. Florio watched the other side of the aisle’s take, making a furtive trip for a handful of pretzels during it.

Florio’s colleagues, who were occupied by a meet-and-greet with a Republican LGBQT group, agreed to postpone a more formal discussion of the budget’s implications until the following day.

Meanwhile, Florio felt the weight of emails building up. So he went upstairs, back to his office, to assess the damage.

He also needed to take an important step: following up with the many people he very briefly spoke with throughout the day.

Unglamorous as it may be, these calls and emails are essential to making something meaningful out of the fleeting conversations that transpired in the Statehouse, the Wyndham Garden or the Restaurant Association’s building.

6:45 p.m.

SunsetFlorio, who has a wife and three grown children, somehow eventually managed to escape his office for the long drive home.

“By no means have I convinced any of my children to go into politics,” he said. “But I’ll tell you, there’s nothing that’s more constantly different each day.”

Most nights, he’ll continue to pay heed to the stream of ever-flooding client emails. But he afforded himself a basketball game instead, a sport to which his passion for politics comes secondary.

It was his birthday, after all.

Email to: brettj@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @reporterbrett

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