NJBankers’ Team in Trenton
By Timothy E. Doherty
Editor’s Note: In the summer 2006 issue of New Jersey Banker, we interviewed the new leadership team at the New Jersey Department of Banking and Insurance. In this issue we focus on NJBankers’ government relations team in Trenton, Vice President and Director of Government Relations Robert J. Tartaglia and Legal Counsel Mary Kathryn Roberts of Riker Danzig, who have represented the association in Trenton for more than three years.
No one sets out to be a lobbyist. Please talk about your backgrounds and how you got to where you are.
Tartaglia: Actually, my background has nothing to do with where I am now. I would have never imagined I’d turn up here. I played professional soccer briefly and realized when the North American Soccer League folded that I needed to find a career. I ended up having a degree in political science and loved to be involved in campaigns, and that’s how it all started.
I worked in Washington, D.C., for Congressman Jerry Solomon for a couple of years. Then I came back to New Jersey and worked on the campaign for Sen. Peter Inverso, Paul Kramer and Barbara Wright in the 14th Legislative District, which is my hometown. I thought, wow, this is great, come home and do some things I like and am interested in. All three of them won thanks to Gov. Jim Florio and his tax increase, which was the impetus for a largescale switch in both houses of the Legislature at the time.
I ended up working with Sen. Inverso for a number of years and learned a great deal from him – my mentor so to speak, early on. From there I made the crossover to lobbying with the National Federation of Independent Business for about five years as a small business lobbyist and then ended up here, with NJBankers.
One of the hallmarks of your time as Sen. Inverso’s chief of staff was your direct involvement with helping him to get Megan’s Law passed.
Tartaglia: Yes, Megan’s Law was probably one of the most famous issues that I assisted Sen. Inverso on. He and I worked very closely with Maureen and Richard Kanka. At the time it was one of the most difficult things I had done, but I learned a great deal from that experience and feel that everybody is better for it.
So would you classify that as your most satisfying experience in government relations prior to arriving at NJBankers?
Mary Kay, how did you end up working with us?
Roberts: I was a political science and philosophy major at Boston College …
So you and Rob share a common political science background?
Roberts: Absolutely. I ended up speaking with one of my father’s best friends who was a sitting assemblyman at the time. He said, “You really should come to Trenton and see government work firsthand.” So I started interning in Trenton in the Assembly Democratic office.
While going to school in Boston, which is certainly a hotbed of politics, I worked for Mike Dukakis and John Kerry in their offices. I ended up going to law school in Washington, D.C., after graduating from Boston College, but that prior summer I worked for Congressman Frank Pallone (D-6) on his first congressional campaign out in Monmouth County with a few political operatives who were out in Trenton. I kept in close contact with them when they first got back to Washington after that first successful campaign and now Frank Pallone is one of the longer standing members of New Jersey’s congressional delegation, certainly on the Democratic side.
While I was in law school at American University, I worked for the U.S. Marshal Service out of the Department of Justice and did a number of investigations. Then I came back to New Jersey and clerked for Presiding Chancery Division Judge Anthony Gibson in Atlantic County, who was often ranked by lawyers across the state as being the most fair and reputable judge.
It was a terrific experience and I ended up coming back to Trenton to serve as legislative liaison initially under Jeff Connor in the Florio administration. That position escalated to regulatory officer, public information officer and ultimately chief of staff while keeping up with my legislative duties.
Gov. Florio then lost the election and I worked with Department of Banking Commissioner Liz Randall for a brief period of time before joining Riker Danzig in the Government Affairs group. I’ve been at Riker Danzig since 1994, becoming a partner in 2000, and have managed the Governmental Affairs group for the past couple of years. I started serving as general counsel to NJBankers in the spring of 2003.
And a few months later Rob joined the Bankers Association.
Roberts: Yes, we actually worked with Rob to join the association. I had been working with Rob for a number of years in his capacity as chief of staff for Sen. Inverso and at NFIB. Not only were we colleagues but we became fast friends and really had a joint understanding in terms of our ability to work well together and with the Legislature.
Tartaglia: When you’re working with someone new in this field in Trenton and working with the Legislature, you have to understand the facets and intricacies of being in Trenton and moving bills through. We both understood that process and have been around a number of years so it made the connection between us move quickly.
Roberts: Also Rob’s a Republican and I’m a Democrat, so we have a good team effort in which to serve the bankers well in terms of the contacts that I have, coupled with Rob’s contacts. Certainly it’s worked well for us in terms of the changes in administrations. We’ve been together through the McGreevey administration, the Codey administration and now we’re working our way through the Corzine administration.
Can you talk about a project, a piece of legislation or something that you’ve worked on that’s a good example of how having contacts on both sides of the aisle worked to the benefit of the Bankers Association?
Roberts: I would certainly say that we’ve had a wonderful working relationship through the identity theft legislation. FinCrime (NJBankers’ Web-based financial crimes reporting, alerting and tracking system) played an important role, which Rob and I were able to present as one of the tools that the bankers have been using to combat identity theft. Because the product worked well and we were able to present that to some of our key contacts on both sides, we were successful in securing some changes (to the legislation). Ultimately the bankers were able to make an onerous legislation palatable to the banks and we know this has been viewed across the country as model legislation.
Tartaglia: Legislation that was unworkable for the banks and would have been very costly. We helped mediate a lot of the cost components to that legislation.
What are some of the other more interesting issues that you’ve worked on in the three years you’ve been teamed together?
Tartaglia: It’s funny because mostly in our jobs we work directly with the Legislature and cabinet officials, but we were fortunate enough to actually engage the Supreme Court on IOLTA – Interest on Lawyer’s Trust Accounts – which was something that took planning and trying to understand the process to a whole new level because of the players that were involved. The Supreme Court was not a willing participant at first, but with the help of then- Assembly Speaker Albio Sires (D-33) and then- Majority Leader Joe Roberts (D-5), along with the help of then Acting Gov. Codey’s office, we were able to prompt the court to sit at the table. Ironically, we weren’t allowed at the table, which made it a challenging but satisfying experience.
Roberts: And the legislative leadership really took the ball and ran with it. We pointed out that there were problems. They were willing to take up a legislative solution, but we suggested that they get the parties around the table and hear the story from all sides. While Rob and I weren’t at the table ourselves, we were certainly behind the scenes working with the legislative staff under the leadership of Assemblyman Roberts and Sen. John Adler (D-6).
Tartaglia: We can’t forget Assemblyman Neil Cohen (D-20). Early on Neil kept the pressure on and had written one of the first letters to Chief Justice Poritz about his concerns.
Roberts: And it was a bipartisan approach. Rob was critical in getting the Assembly Republican staff and the Senate Republican staff to equally have seats at the table along with participants from the Department of Banking on our behalf so that we had good leadership and input from the banks.
Tartaglia: I don’t know if it’s okay to say this, maybe it is now. The irony in all this was we were charged with setting up this working group internally. We were never allowed to be part of the original working group. We had one of our bankers, Dennis DiLazzero, appointed and he did an unbelievable job …
Roberts: … in trying to broker a compromise.
So that was an interesting example of a super effort in coordination really, and perhaps it would be fair to say that it was an unusual situation in that everyone managed to come together at the same table with the goal of finding a workable solution.
Tartaglia: Some unwillingly, but they did.
Roberts: It was completely unprecedented; we were dealing with three branches of government at once and the banks. And the ones that were getting hurt the most were the banks. Admittedly to the benefit of those who benefit from IOLTA funds, but nonetheless the solution that they had originally come up with several years ago was very burdensome for the banks.
Tartaglia: The phrase we coined was that it was a “fun summer project” that we worked on.
Roberts: It’s rare that we’re able to take up a cause and support something. We fight in many instances against legislation to require additional security measures at ATMs, onerous ATM surcharge legislation and financial privacy legislation that’s sweeping the country and taken hold certainly on a national level.
We’re trying to balance the needs of an association that has both small and large banks and keep up good relationships in the Department (of Banking and Insurance); with our key legislators; with the chair of our Assembly Financial Institutions and Insurance Committee, Neil Cohen; the chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, Nia Gill (D-34); and certainly with all their staff – they’re very bright and the issues are often extremely complex and it takes some special handling.
It’ll be nice to switch gears and look to things that we’d want to promote like financial literacy and changes to the cash management fund.
Tartaglia: That’s a good point Mary Kay brings up about financial literacy. Our president, Stu Cameron, is going to be meeting with Terry McEwen, the new banking director, to kick off an October program for financial literacy and look for bank sponsorships. That’s something that we firmly believe in. I met with Jane Ellen Duffy, policy advisor for Gov. Corzine. The governor has a great interest in this as well.
Roberts: Yes, Gov. Corzine has had a long- standing interest in it and it was very much one of his cornerstones when he was in the Senate. Thus far, his staff has been very responsive, and I know that there’s an upcoming meeting with Gary Rose (chief of the Office of Economic Growth) to talk about the economic impact of the industry.
We remain vigilant on the property tax issue because of any concerns that there may be changes to the uniformity clause in the (state) Constitution that could adversely impact business. And certainly banks are one of the major growth sectors in this economy and it’s an industry that needs to be protected.
Tartaglia: Absolutely. The uniformity clause can’t change. That would send the wrong signal at a time when businesses have just seen some of the more onerous taxes passed on. The alternative minimum assessment from the corporate business tax, that’s gone; the net operating loss suspension is gone. These heavy taxes that have been in place for so long … that would send the wrong message.
Do you find that you have a problem in reminding anybody that you talk to, whether it be legislator or regulator, that banks are businesses too, just like any other business, that they’re not special and that they’re not a public utility?
Tartaglia: Part of the difficulty is that we are banks. So when you’re in a state that’s having economic difficulties at this time and you represent banks, there is sometimes the perception (that) we’re holding all the money. But at the same time, we do run a business and we are heavily regulated, federally and state, and we have to remind a lot of the state legislators of some of the hoops we have to jump through on the federal level, especially our federal charters, and we do have both (kinds of charters).
Roberts: And we often fight against legislation that would be duplicative of things that are already in place at the federal level that we don’t need to have necessarily on the state level. (And we are) consistently pointing out that standards already exist on the federal level and that would cause banks to be subject to significant regulatory burdens.
One of the things under Rob’s leadership, that the two of us of have really tried to work hard at, is increasing the awareness of banks as players, as interested parties, at the table. Rob, under the leadership of Chairman Mike Quick, has launched a series of what we call Action Bankers Council meetings and these have been very successful.
In addition, (Rob has spearheaded) efforts to increase revenue for JebPac – and it’s reached record levels – but compared to other interest groups around Trenton, the funds aren’t there. That’s primarily due to the fact that there’s a prohibition that’s existed since the late 1800s preventing banks, and other regulated industries, from giving corporate money directly. But we try to increase the perception and the understanding of our issues and an awareness that we are players in Trenton even in the absence of those funds.
Tartaglia: The Action Bankers Council is nothing more than bankers meeting with legislators. You have an industry that for the most part to many legislators they don’t understand. It’s very complex; all they know is that they have savings accounts and checking accounts and provide other services. But (the ABCs) gave us an opportunity to go meet with the leaders of the state and to have informal discussions about what it is we do and what some of our issues are.
Roberts: It’s been a great platform in which to discuss with them the issues that they should be interested in, and remind them that they should think about the banks as interested businesses across the state, major employers across the state, as well as the fact that this platform gives them some action items to come back with, some issues they may want to tackle as legislators. We’ve met on a bipartisan basis with a number of legislators including Assemblyman Lou Greenwold (D-6), Assemblywoman Jennifer Beck (R-12) and Assemblyman Joe Cryan (D-20).
Tartaglia: We’ve met with staff – A. J. Sabath, Senate President Richard Codey’s chief of staff, and we have Bill Castner, the executive director of the Assembly Democrat Majority Office, coming in the fall. We have folks reaching out to us now – I can’t schedule them quickly enough. But this has spurred more interest in our Pac development. I think once some of the bank members got out and saw what it was like to meet some of these leaders, it got them thinking, “You know what … they’re talking to their own employees and showing a stronger interest in the government relations program and what it means to their industry.” And it’s helped.
Roberts: And I think the wisdom of our government relations chairman, Tom Holt, has been invaluable. Tom has been very supportive of Rob’s and my efforts, and certainly being able to work with guys like Tom and Tom Bracken, who is now chair of the New Jersey State Chamber of Commerce, for the immediate future is terrific. We’re able to work closely with some of the other business trades to really expose the banks to more and more information and also, in turn, expose the Legislature and the administration to more banking-related issues.
Tartaglia: Mary Kay brings up good points. None of this could be done without the involvement of our bankers – Chairman Michael Quick and Past Chairmen Jim Hyman and Ted Bessler. Michael Quick is who I started the Action Bankers Council with when he was chair of the Government Relations Committee. Tom Holt has followed it through and he built upon Michael’s achievements and we’ve been doing well ever since. It’s a very important part of our association, member involvement, because the association belongs to our members. We try to create value added benefits for them. I think one of the best in a while has been the Action Bankers Council.
Roberts: We get out a significant amount of information about what’s happening in the Legislature and in the regulatory world to the committees that serve the association. They serve as a wonderful resource to Rob and me. As things come up very quickly, we get input back in terms of a piece of legislation. We’re able to turn around amendments that we’re then able to get to a legislator.
It’s critical to have direct bank input on those issues because Rob and I can speak about banking until we’re blue in the face, but if we can actually turn on a particular issue and say we’ve heard from five members and this is how it’s going to negatively impact them, it makes a huge impact.
And then, in turn, for a banker to pick up the phone and actually call a legislator, like (Union Center Bank President and CEO) Jack Davis did when it came to identity theft and (through) his long-standing relationship with Joe Cryan be able to really talk about it from his perspective as a local business person – that gave Rob and me credibility and certainly stature on the issue, I would say.
Certainly NJBankers doesn’t go it alone in Trenton.
Tartaglia: We work very closely with The New Jersey Business and Industry Association, The Chamber, The Retail Merchants and the National Federation of Independent Businesses. These are organizations that are very proactive.
Do you have a philosophy behind what you do?
Roberts: It’s a challenging climate in which to be doing what Rob and I do for the clients. Certainly in tough fiscal times business is always put up against the wall, but we’ve managed to remain part of the process. I think we’re respected as a result and we don’t tend to cause too many fire drills or “Chicken Little the sky is falling” scenarios, so when we come to testify in opposition it’s serious and something that we can’t work out. (The legislators) know we’re only there for one reason and that’s to make our viewpoint known and try to be a helpful resource to legislators who might have an issue with a local bank or might have a more global issue such as where they want to help veterans. We were able to come up with a good solution with Assemblyman Gordon Johnson (D-37) for some veteran issues.
Tartaglia: A lot of the things that do happen and the way they’re couched is really due to Mary Kay’s philosophy that the sky is NOT falling. Mary Kay brings a balance and perspective that I’ve learned from because at NFIB, a lot of what we had done was “the sky is falling” type of events – very grassroots. Mary Kay has taught me a good balance of perspective in approaching some of these individuals so she has been invaluable to NJBankers – invaluable in many, many ways.
Roberts: And, likewise, Rob really does provide a good conduit for the members and has a good sense of what issues need attention at what time and he has that laid back approach that really brings common sense and an old-fashioned, old way of doing things. It’s created a good team to serve the association and its members and, knock on wood, we’ll continue to have successes in the future.