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The Pennsylvania Society can be every bit as luxurious and decadent as the Manhattan Waldorf Astoria hotel where it takes place every year. The dress code is black tie for many of the events, and parties last until late in the night when any number of people might show up, Pennsylvania or otherwise. Recent guests have included Joe Biden and Bill de Blasio. Over a century ago Winston Churchill made an appearance.
But this annual gathering can also be like any standard trip to New York City. One staffer for a Pennsylvania assemblyman took a Bolt Bus last year. Rather than stay at the Waldorf or any hotel, the staffer slept on the floor of a family member’s home: “I think it just really depends on who you are and what kind of money you have.”
The 117th rendition of the Pennsylvania Society is happening this weekend, punctuated Friday by a fund-raising luncheon featuring Donald Trump. But Billy Penn thought we’d take a step back and look at what the Pennsylvania Society is really about, and why this year’s bash might lack some of the gravitas associated with the event, thanks to that pesky, five-months-late budget.
So what is the Pennsylvania Society?
Basically a massive party/networking event. The Pennsylvania Society itself is a non profit club with more than 2,000 members ranging from lawyers to politicians to businessmen to doctors and beyond. The only official part of the weekend associated with the club is a Saturday cocktail hour and dinner. This event, which is also called the Pennsylvania Society, honors someone each year with the Gold Medal for Distinguished Achievement. This year the recipient is Ed Rendell. The rest of the weekend is filled with events thrown by businesses, non profits and politicians.
Bob Jubelirer, a former state senator and lieutenant governor, has been attending the Pennsylvania Society most years since the late 60s. Back then, he said there weren’t nearly as many parties and fundraisers. Those are now the main selling points of the weekend. Jubelirer said many people skip the dinner — the original point of the Pennsylvania Society (along with quite a bit of wheeling and dealing).
But what about that budget?
Several politicians — all of the House Republicans, for instance — have said they will not attend Pennsylvania Society festivities if the budget has not been completed. The Governor has done the same. Tom Wolf’s press secretary, Jeffrey Sheridan, said the governor’s attendance depends on what happens these next couple of days with state budget. If the budget gets done and Wolf chooses to attend, he’ll plan to come only for the Saturday night dinner honoring Rendell.
As of of this morning, no budget had been completed, and the prospect of finishing something in the next couple of days seems unlikely but not impossible. Larry Ceisler, a longtime political strategist and principal the eponymous Ceisler Media, said politicians’ reticence to attend boils down to optics. They don’t want to be seen drinking fine wine and eating steak while hanging out in a hotel synonymous with the gilded age.
In reality, no tax money is spent on the weekend, and hanging out with each other informally in New York might not even be a waste of time for lawmakers.
“Maybe it would be good if the governor and legislative leaders were out of Harrisburg talking about the budget,” Ceisler said. “I don’t think anybody would have a problem if they did their deal in New York.”
The atmosphere in New York is much more relaxed than Harrisburg, with partisan bickering largely forgotten. In 2003, Rendell’s first year as governor, the budget had not been completed before the Pennsylvania Society weekend. Unlike this year, attendance did not become controversial. Most politicians took in the festivities like they would any other year. Stephen Miskin, spokesperson for the House Republicans, told The Morning Call at the time that the Pennsylvania Society was more important in 2003 than other years when a budget had been completed.
Even without members of the state House and Senate, the atmosphere should . In modern times, the Pennsylvania Society has been more for the kids, anyway.
Yes, the young politicos and young business people. The networking part of this weekend really matters to them. The Pennsylvania Society presents nearly unfiltered access to established politicians, lobbyists, non profit leaders, prominent lawyers and so on. They’re all hanging out at the Waldorf and in many cases getting drunk (often for free!) at the same events. Because it’s a big ol’ party everyone’s guard is down. Like really down. A prominent Republican strategist entered a party during the PA Society not long ago with “like these three hookers on his arm.”
Minus handlers and minus pressure, young people get an opportunity to create connections that would be nearly impossible to make at any other time of the year.
Why is it in New York City?
Tradition and because New York City is New York City. Back in 1899, it started as a celebratory dinner for Pennsylvania’s industry titans, who were invited by historian James Barr Ferree, and has been in New York at the Waldorf since. This will be the 117th Pennsylvania Society dinner. Countless articles have bemoaned the fact that Pennsylvania Society brings an estimated $20 million to the New York economy rather than somewhere in Pennsylvania. But Ceisler believes the anti-New York people are missing an important point: Nobody would want to go if this thing was in Pittsburgh or Philly or Harrisburg.
“Philadelphia and Pittsburgh are not New York,” he said. “They’re just different types of cities. The lore of it is it’s in New York, and it’s a tradition, and it’s the Waldorf Astoria.”
Can I go if I’m not rich or politically-connected?
Absolutely. Some of the events are cost-prohibitive. Donald Trump’s controversial luncheon/fundraiser will set you back at least $1,000. The big dinner on Saturday night is $450 per person. Most everything else is “invitation only.”
The good news about “invitation only” is that it usually means nothing. Reach out to hosts of a party in advance to secure a spot. Or just show up. If you’re dressed for the occasion, you’ll most likely be able to find a way in without any trouble.
Consult PoliticsPA for a full list of events.
And take the Bolt Bus up if you’d like. You won’t be the only one.