Pennsylvania Society Draws Politicians, Business Leaders To Manhattan For Annual Gala

Allentown Morning Call

Still suffering from a case of election fatigue? You’ll love this: The (unofficial) 2014 campaign for Pennsylvania governor begins now.

As Pennsylvania’s politicians, pundits and their hangers-on descend on Midtown Manhattan this weekend for the 114th annual Pennsylvania Society celebration, would-be Democratic challengers to Republican Gov. Tom Corbett will hold coming-out parties of their own.

Former state Environmental Protection Secretary John Hanger will hold a reception at 2 p.m. Friday in the Park Avenue offices of a law firm in the iconic MetLife building. Hanger, of Hershey, is the first Democrat to formally declare he’s challenging Corbett.

Two hours later, retiring state Auditor General Jack Wagner of Pittsburgh holds a 4 p.m. reception at party central at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel.

At 5 p.m. Friday at the Four Seasons, state Treasurer Rob McCord holds his own fundraiser. And, Saturday night, Montgomery CountyCommissioner Josh Shapiro holds a reception at the Kimberly Hotel on East 50th Street.

Republican Corbett gets his own reception at 4:30 p.m. Saturday.

Events hosted by businesses and politicians started Thursday and wrap up Sunday morning. It’s impossible to attend them all. The goal? See and be seen. Make new connections and build on old ones.

“It’s an important first step for anyone who wants to be taken seriously as a candidate,” veteran Democratic consultant Dan Fee of Philadelphia said. “Most of the people who can help you raise money and spend it efficiently will be there.”

Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski, who’s also been mentioned as a potential gubernatorial challenger, said he’ll only be pursuing issues this weekend related to his hometown.

“My only goal,” he said, “is to be the best mayor of the city of Allentown and serving my citizens.”

The gala races its roots to the turn of the 20th century, when prominent Pennsylvanians living in Manhattan would invite family and friends to a dinner at the Waldorf Astoria for pre-Christmas socializing. After dinner, the state’s senior power brokers would pick slates of candidates for the coming year.

Now more formalized, the dinner also honors the contributions of a prominent state resident or other luminary. The society’s first guest, in 1900, was future British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. This year, it’s filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan.

Government reformers often criticize the Society weekend for the cozy relationship it fosters between powerful corporate interests and the politicians who regulate them. Others have complained that the dinner should be moved from the Big Apple to Pittsburgh or Philadelphia — to keep the money spent on hotels, tuxes, dresses and lavish meals at home.

“It demonstrates how out-of-touch the political elites are with the common man,” said Eric Epstein, of the good government group Rock the Capital. “It’s the wrong thing to do and the wrong time of year to do it.”

Organizers and attendees have proven remarkably immune to such criticisms, arguing that the weekend has a rich history and serves a vital role in the civic life of the state. They also say the fact that it’s out of town is part of its charm.

“There’s something about celebrating being a Pennsylvanian in a place that isn’t Pennsylvania,” said Republican consultant Charlie Gerow of Harrisburg, who’s been attending since 1977.

“I think it [the Society weekend] would lose a significant amount of its luster,” Gerow said, if it wasn’t held in Gotham.

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