By Melissa Daniels | PA Independent
New York City is a big, dirty place, and on a rainy December weekend, it kind of becomes a big, dirty mud puddle.
But it appears some sort of magic barrier exists between Park Avenue sidewalks and the revolving doors at The Waldorf Astoria, where marble floors are spotless and sparkling, and no one seems to drop or spill anything, anywhere, ever.
This is where the indulgent side of Pennsylvania’s power brokers comes out to play, one weekend a year, for the Annual Dinner of The Pennsylvania Society.
The four-day weekend features dozens of party throughout midtown Manhattan and the Upper East Side. Many events, including last weekend’s namesake dinner, are held at the Waldorf, as has been the case for more than 100 years.
Titans like Andrew Carnegie, Charles Schwab and Andrew W. Mellon were early members of the Society, pioneering its traditions and exclusivity. But as times change, so has the event. The executive director, for the first time in the organization’s history, is a woman — Carol Fitzgerald, who has a long history of running events, campaigns and conventions in Pennsylvania.
These days, the state’s top elected officials, lobbyists, business owners, and political operatives make up the crowd — and they’re a more diverse bunch than you might expect. They’re young and old, men and women, Republicans and Democrats.
Their common interest, apparently, aside from being Pennsylvanians: Celebration. Swanky parties are a bipartisan affair, for somebodys and hoping-to-be-somebodys alike.
Inside the party rooms at the Waldorf, the drinks were free and the attire was formal cocktail. Dim lighting cast a dreamlike glow on the room’s gilded trim, wall scones, ornate carpeting and Versailles-inspired color palette.
As Friday evening turns into early Saturday morning, the parties grew bigger and drink lines longer. It was a bit like a college party — only with top shelf booze — as everyone sauntered up to the bar. They inadvertently bumped and elbowed one another as they passed by, stopping to chat with old friends or attach names to new faces.
But with all these influencers and influencees in attendance, the events are a prime time to collaborate, drumming up any number of future deals in government or business.
Just as annual as the event is the criticism it draws — for being too decadent, too indulgent and too insular.
Eric Epstein, founder of Rock the Capitol reform group, hosts a counter-party the same weekend, bringing pizza to security guards at the Pennsylvania State Capitol.
Epstein said when the economy is what it is, it’s bizarre to have state leaders reveling in “$40 chocolate martinis.”
“It’s hard to justify the extravagance,” he said.
Maybe so. But no one seems to mind. Tis the season, after all.
Ask attendees how they feel about being in a formal setting, and some will tell you it’s not their scene, as if they are here out of a sense of obligation. Others seem fueled by splendor, soaking up every moment and opportunity for another party, another drink, another conversation.
Regardless of why they come to Pennsylvanian Society, attendees freely give the gift of gab.
This year, the main gossip centered around the speculation of who would run in the Democrat gubernatorial primary in 2014, with potential contenders U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz, D-13, and Treasurer Rob McCord in attendance.
Former Department of Environmental Protection Secretary John Hanger, who already announced that he’s running for governor as a Democrat, held a fundraiser in the MetLife building down the block from the Waldorf on Friday afternoon, one of many off-site events that offered candidates a change to mingle intimately with potential donors.
At the Pennsylvania Society, where the parties are grand and the mood is decadent, the pool of money to tap into is not shallow. One fundraiser for Gov. Tom Corbett, held a private residence, cost $5,000 per couple. Tickets for the annual dinner were priced at $350 per member.
On Saturday morning, it was time for some policy talk at the posh Metropolitan Club, which sits on the corner of 60th Street and Fifth Avenue. The reception room was abuzz as a few hundred attendees milled in and out of a closed-curtain lecture hall where Gov. Tom Corbett, Democrat Sen. Bob Casey, Republican Sen. Pat Toomey, Attorney General-Elect Kathleen Kane and others were giving speeches.
In attendance were many past and present leaders of Pennsylvania’s most powerful companies, as well as former elected officials including Gov. Dick Thornburgh.
As far as a setting for the who’s who goes, it’s tough to top this elite private club. A towering Christmas tree stood in the corner of the cathedral-height room. Above, red stained glass windows loomed over the double-sided staircase, on which maroon carpeting was bordered by cascades of poinsettia plants and framed by icicle lights all the way up the banister.
After Corbett spoke, he took some time to meet with reporters. Speculation swirled that Corbett would give details on a transportation plan during his speech, but those specifics won’t be public until the plan is unveiled sometime before February.
At that point, it was clear the Pennsylvania Society wouldn’t offer much in the way of news. But it does give everyone a chance to pat themselves, and each other, on the back, while brandishing whatever muscle they plan to assert in the new year.
Corbett also told attendees about pension reform and liquor privatization plans — again, not giving specifics, but acknowledging future plans for two of the state’s most high-profile issues.
For Corbett, who suffers low approval ratings and criticism for a of leadership, the event was a prime chance to show tho the people whose support could make a big difference in his next campaign that he’s got big plans for second half of his first term.
Corbett wouldn’t say much about those who were mulling a run against him in 2014. Instead, he deflected the question by affirming his own leadership.
“I’ve got to worry about running the state,” he said.
But while he has all the burdens of state on his shoulders, Corbett said the weekend gives people a chance to speak to him while he can “give them an open ear.”
Beyond that: “It’s fun to see everybody,” Corbett said.
He told reporters that his favorite moment of the weekend up to that point was, rather serendipitously, running into U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia at the Carnegie Club. The event was private, but Scalia had unknowingly swung by, hoping to smoke a cigar, Corbett said.
They then shared a drink, cigars and conversation — an “only-in-New York” moment for the Pennsylvania governor and the longest-serving sitting Supreme Court justice.
Later that night, partygoers filled more than 300 tables inside the Grand Ballroom at the Waldorf, where honorary speaker and Philadelphia native M. Night Shyamalan was the guest speaker for the evening.
The black-tie hallmark event of the weekend is the grandest of them all. Tuxedo-clad men and women in glittering ball gowns filtered into the reception room to enjoy cocktails before taking their seats at the elegant tables.
Come Sunday morning they headed back to Pennsylvania, by car or train or plane, taking with them the memory of mingling, socializing and deal-making in some of the finest settings Manhattan has to offer, a tradition of the Pennsylvania elite unlike many others.
Contact Melissa Daniels at [email protected]
— Edited by Kelly Carson, [email protected]