By TOM SKEVIN
At Princeton Public Affairs Group, 30 is more than a number.
Of course, the award-winning firm commemorates the 30 years since the opening of its doors in 1987. But more than celebrating a milestone anniversary, PPAG is marking three decades of service to its clients as it builds upon its record of accomplishment throughout the Garden State.
The kind of success Princeton Public Affairs Group continues to enjoy is not built upon numbers and statistics – it is built upon people.
The professionals at PPAG use their expertise, knowledge and contacts to make sure that their clients have a seat at the table when it comes to public affairs and governance in New Jersey.
Those who follow public affairs, governance and politics in the Garden State have noticed the outstanding work of PPAG and recognize its prominent standing:
- New Jersey’s Election Law Enforcement Commission has ranked PPAG as the state’s No. 1 lobbying firm for the last 14 years.
- PolitickerNJ lists no fewer than four PPAG staff members among its Top 100 Influencers for 2016.
- Senator Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) annually celebrates the strong and successful New Jersey women “who continue to add cracks to the glass ceiling” – and recognized three such professionals from Princeton Public Affairs.
- NJBIZ’s annual ranking of the most powerful people in New Jersey business includes a mover and shaker from PPAG, and the publication also says the firm has “one of the top contract lobbyists in health care.”
- PolitikerNJ lists the top young up-and-coming political operatives in the state – its 30 Under 30 – and again a PPAG stalwart is recognized.
To mark the 30-year anniversary of PPAG, here’s a look at the “three generations” of people who make up the dedicated and distinguished staff at the Trenton-based firm.
Like most start-ups, it was one step at a time in 1987 for Princeton Public Affairs Group.
“I wish I had the vision in the beginning to think the firm would ultimately become best in class,” recalls founding partner Dale Florio. “Actually, the early thinking was really to be in business for myself, secure a few clients and be a professional contract lobbyist.”
Florio, a prominent Republican with deep roots in Somerset County, clearly knew what he was doing in the early years. One of the professionals who joined PPAG is David A. Smith.
“I accepted an employment offer from the firm and started on Jan. 2, 1995,” recalls Smith, a native Hillsborough now living in Hopewell Township. “Bill Pascrell III joined a few weeks later and the firm kept growing. Within a few years, we were the largest firm in the state and have grown into one of the largest state lobbying firms in the country.”
Pascrell, a Passaic County native widely and affectionately known as BP3, joined the firm to provide some political balance. “The people that have been part of this organization for the past 30 years are remarkable,” says Pascrell. “and that’s the strength of our firm.”
“Bill joined the firm during a period when we recruited several individuals with Democrat credentials to round out the firm politically,” Florio recalls. “It was important during our formative years that we have a bipartisan team that could navigate the state’s unusual brand of politics.”
Al Gaburo, also a GOP stalwart from Somerset County, is another longtime member of the firm.
“In the 14 years I have been a member of the firm, I have seen significant growth in our client base and personnel,” he says. “It has been very gratifying to be a part of PPAG’s growth over the years and a source of pride that we have been the No. 1-ranked firm in Trenton for 14 years in a row.”
Much has changed since Princeton Public Affairs Group started in 1987, particularly when it comes to technology, the internet and the media landscape. Yet, what counts the most remains the same for this firm.
“Nothing replaces building personal relationships with people,” says Patti McGuire, who prior to joining the firm was deputy chief of staff for Governor Jon S. Corzine. “Getting to know them in person vs the internet is a fundamentally more important element.”
“This is still a business that relies on relationships,” he says. “Sure, media’s evolution, along with technology, have made our jobs easier to generate grassroots support and extend our messages on behalf of clients.
“But at the end of the day, you need to know the elected officials and staff, and they need to know you – and more importantly trust you.”
Of course, that trust is earned over time.
“In the 30 years of our organization, we have held the highest ethical standards,” says Pascrell. “We have been able to avoid any conflicts or legal challenges, and I think that’s very rare for a company in our business. So that sets us apart from our competition – we can be effective while still operating with the highest ethical standards.”
PPAG also connects Main Street – in towns across New Jersey – with West State Street, where the state capitol building is located in Trenton. In the hustle-bustle of daily life in the Garden State, not everyone may realize how important public affairs and governance are, and how it affects their lives.
“I believe the importance is understated,” says Sonia Delgado, who joined PPAG in 1999 and is a former policy analyst with the New Jersey State Senate Democratic Office. “The last eight years have been especially difficult due to the state’s budget constraints; even our most vulnerable residents have been impacted by policy initiatives designed to mitigate the budget woes.”
Other first-generation members of PPAG include: Bradley S. Brewster, longtime managing partner; and Jack Collins (R-Salem), who holds the distinction of being New Jersey’s longest-serving state Assembly speaker; and the late John Russo (D-Ocean), who served in the 18 years in the state Senate.
As with most businesses, after the foundation is set, there is growth from there.
“I could be the most fortunate of the generational breakdowns,” says Kevin P. Hagan, a seasoned Democratic strategist and advisor to a number of statewide elected officials. “I have the ability to learn from the great success of Dale, Brad, and Billy [Pascrell], while at the same time being able and honored to help PPAG continue to grow and evolve in the future.”
There is the practice of passing along acquired information and knowledge.
“I have mentored PPAG members, legislative staffers and younger lobbyists for nearly two decades,” Smith says. “I was the beneficiary of several good mentors and try to pay it forward.”
According to Florio, the firm does not have an official mentoring program. “However, we remind our entire team to ask questions, to use each other and to rely on each other. The more senior folks recognize that they need not hesitate to guide and teach our less experienced colleagues when situations require it.”
One advantage Princeton Public Affairs Group has when it comes to lobbying and networking, is the deep roots its staff members have and enjoy in New Jersey.
“Not only does the firm represent residents, business owners, special interest groups, we are all residents ourselves, explains Lorna O’Hara, a resident of Middletown in Monmouth County. “Through our work at PPAG, for the most part, we think and hope we are having an impact on the landscape of the state but we all have a vested personal interest in our hometowns.
“In addition to building those relationships ‘across the street,’ we all have relationships with our local elected officials or we care about a certain issue or establishment in our towns.”
Any established team needs new talent joining the roster – and Princeton Public Affairs has plenty of it. The “newbies” at the Trenton office read like a who’s who of some of New Jersey’s best young professionals in public affairs: Christina Zuk, Sam Weinstein and Davon McCurry.
Working for a firm like PPAG was not something McCurry wrote about in his high school yearbook.
“When I was younger, I wanted to be a lawyer,” recalls McCurry, who was born and raised in Burlington Township. “As I got older, I became more interested in politics at the local, state and federal level. For me, government affairs and issue-advocacy work represent the best intersection between my interests in law, business, and government.”
Joining Princeton Public Affairs Group in 2015 was a logical move for Zuk.
“The first job I ever had was working in city hall in my hometown of Bayonne on a program for senior citizens living in public housing,” she says. “I was 16 at the time and stayed [with that job] throughout high school and part of college. Because of that job, I learned really early on that I loved helping people.”
Zuk, who served as political director on the 2013 gubernatorial campaign of then-state Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex), says PPAG is like a family – she feels supported and encouraged to further her professional and personal development.
Weinstein developed an early interest in politics and public affairs, which led him to an internship and then employment at PPAG.
“Growing up my parents emphasized reading and observing the political system,” says the native of Somerset County. “I was enthralled by the possibility of being an active participant in the political arena.”
PPAG welcomes as its latest member another active participant in the political arena: Al Barlas of Essex County. He recently served as chief of staff to state Sen. Kevin O’Toole and state Sen.-elect Kristin Corrado.
For a young person interested in entering that arena, Zuk offers her thoughts.
“My advice to college students is always to get involved politically, and to build a strong network.” She advises. “If you have an opportunity to work on a campaign or in a legislative office – even as an intern or a volunteer – take it. It may not be the most exciting work at first, but it’s really the best way to learn the process and get to know the players.”
And who knows?
That college student interested in public policy and how government works just might end up being part of the “fourth generation” at Princeton Public Affairs Group.
Princeton Public Affairs Group has been consistently named New Jersey’s Number One Lobbying Firm for the last fourteen years in a row.