Pa. Society Gala Will Mix Wining, Dining And Political Jockeying

Philadelphia Inquirer

Publicly, they may be clinking glasses, breaking bread, and swapping political gossip.

But make no mistake. Behind the social niceties will be relentless political maneuvering on what nearly everyone in Pennsylvania politics has been talking about since last month’s election: who will challenge Gov. Corbett in 2014.

That will be the scene this weekend at the Pennsylvania Society’s annual gathering of Pennsylvania politicians in New York City. Yes, there will be a smattering of government-like forums, but mostly it will be a time of back-slapping, networking, fund-raising, and, of course, wining and dining.

Inside the marbled halls of the Waldorf-Astoria — site of many of the weekend’s receptions and cocktail parties — all eyes will be on who is attending what events, and what that means for political alliances and intentions.

“The buzz this year is going to be, who’s running for governor,” said political pollster and analyst G. Terry Madonna, who will also be migrating north for the weekend’s events.

The centerpiece — though not always the highlight — of the four-day gathering is Saturday night’s Pennsylvania Society dinner, a black tie and ball gown affair. This year, a Philadelphia-area resident again is being honored with the gold metal: film producer, director and screenwriter M. Night Shyamalan, who has set many of his films, among them The Sixth Sense, in Pennsylvania.

But the annual gathering also includes a long list of other events, including parties hosted by lobbying firms (most with a huge stake in the political discourse inside the Capitol) and receptions thrown by those running for office or thinking about running for office.

On Friday afternoon, for instance, there is a reception for John Hanger, who was secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection under Gov. Ed Rendell. Hanger is the first Democrat to formally announce he will run against Corbett in 2014.

Also on Friday: a fund-raiser for state Treasurer Rob McCord, a Democrat whose name has been mentioned as a possible challenger to Corbett, and a fund-raiser for Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, who has said he does not intend to run against Corbett but whose intentions nonetheless remain a source of speculation.

Other possible Corbett challengers in the Democratic column include U.S. Rep. Allyson Y. Schwartz of Philadelphia, York businessman Tom Wolf, and Philadelphia millionaire Tom Knox.

On the GOP side, many will be watching closely to see where Montgomery County Commissioner Bruce L. Castor Jr. pops in over the course of the weekend. Castor sent the political world into a tizzy this week when he spoke of taking on Corbett in the Republican primary in two years.

“I think Bruce Castor saying he’s seriously considering a challenge to the governor is significant. He’s credible and he’s an officeholder,” said Democratic consultant Larry Ceisler. “People are going to be watching him closely.”

As they will Corbett himself.

The governor’s first two years in office have been anything but smooth. And his job approval numbers have paid the price, dipping below 30 percent over the summer in one poll, although they now hover at 40 percent or in the low 40s, depending on the survey.

His closest political advisers for months have been urging him to raise his public profile, and the Pennsylvania Society will give him another opportunity to do that — not to mention raise money. Saturday afternoon, for instance, will find him at a $5,000-per-couple fund-raiser at the Fifth Avenue residence of New York businessman John Catsimatidis.

While the price tag for that event may be out of most people’s reach, Ceisler argued that the oft-criticized Pennsylvania Society weekend is not a gathering of the elite. Anyone can walk into the Waldorf, stand in the hallway, and run into Pennsylvania’s top politicians.

“That doesn’t happen very often,” said Ceisler, who will also be in New York this weekend. “And I don’t think I’ve ever seen a politician brush someone off at one of these things. I think it’s a great exhibit of democracy.”

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