On annual Chamber of Commerce train ride, #MeToo movement takes focus

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The annual New Jersey Chamber of Commerce train ride took state lawmakers, lobbyists and staffers to Washington, D.C. on Thursday.

The networking trip has faced controversy in recent months amidst the #MeToo era. There have been accusations that some women on the trip had been groped and harassed. The complaints have led to some changes on this year’s train ride.

“Inappropriate behavior is inappropriate behavior. And we should know as a society not to do that,” said Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz. “We shouldn’t have to get a memo.”

Before the train left Newark Penn Station for the nation’s capital, some things were the same. Elected officials mingled with business leaders and lobbyists. The mostly white and male crowd hobnobbed over bagels and coffee.

"The train trip which is something that I think has value in terms of getting people together,” said Assemblyman Craig Coughlin.

But a group of protesters gathered outside the train station shouting anti-rape chants. It was the same chants shouted outside the rape trial of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.

RELATED: Murphy announces legislation to overhaul state's workplace sexual harassment laws 
RELATED: Witnesses, public gather at meeting to address misogyny in New Jersey politics 

"I think it's a lot of entitlement. I think it's the idea of, ‘I'm in a closed space with people and there's a little bit of an excuse to be careless with my hands and my body,’ combined with a sense of, ‘Who are you to call me out about it?’ which is about power and entitlement,” says Patricia Teffenhart with the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

“I think there’s a sense that maybe they’re untouchable. That they control the situation. It is about power, any type of sexual situation is about power, and they have power over that person,” says Munoz.

The Chamber of Commerce says that changes have been made this year in response. Hard liquor has been banned on the train, security has been increased and there is a hotline to report improper behavior.

"We typically have 900 people on this trip. If there are a few bad apples, we want to make it so difficult for them and shine a light on them that they opt not to take the train trip,” says Mike Egenton, executive vice president of government relations for the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce.

"People have to accept that everyone is here to do a job and you can certainly make friendships and be cordial to people, but there are absolute parameters and barriers that should never even come to people's minds to cross,” says Coughlin.

Female leaders and women who have spoken out have brought the #MeToo movement to an event that has been ongoing in New Jersey for 83 years.

"I think what's happening in New Jersey in particular, is that we're changing the game. We're saying, ‘No, we're actually going to continue to be in the arena, and you have to change the way you've been playing the game all along,’” Teffenhart says.

Gov. Phil Murphy was not on the train, but did head to Washington to speak at the congressional dinner. Sen. Bob Menendez and 11 of New Jersey’s 12 House members attended.

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