Pa. Society bash in NYC bigger this year

Posted: December 12, 2010

NEW YORK - Pennsylvania power brokers have made their holiday pilgrimage to Manhattan for those four days of networking, glad-handing, and elbow-rubbing known as the annual Pennsylvania Society gathering.

Since Thursday, politicians and lobbyists, lawyers and business leaders have trolled the halls of the posh Waldorf-Astoria hotel and other venues, where lavish receptions with open bars, live music, buffets, and other largesse have awaited them.

Some have come to give, many to receive. The payoff could be political donations, government funding, or contracts and favorable legislation.

The reason hundreds of Republicans and Democrats trundle out of state to celebrate Pennsylvania? In a word: tradition.

The venue was picked more than a century ago by rail, steel, and coal barons who exploited the Keystone State's resources and operated their headquarters in New York. Despite a few halfhearted calls to move the bash to Pennsylvania, few were willing to break with the past.

Barry Kauffman, executive director of the watchdog group Common Cause in Pennsylvania, said he never understood why the state's most flamboyant political gathering occurred outside its borders.

"Not only are we sending our cash to New York City for our biggest political event, it's also an event than can only be afforded by our biggest political contributors," said Kauffman, who did not attend.

Most guests "are people who are doing business regularly with the state and seeking favors," he said.

With seismic changes in the political landscape that soon will result in Republican control of the U.S. House, state legislature, and governor's office, many here have sought the ears of the new wave of leaders. The GOP's parties have been jammed.

"There were a lot fewer people last year," said Robert Gleason, chairman of the state Republican Party, surveying the crowd at the state committee lunch Friday.

Most of the talk has been about Gov.-elect Tom Corbett, his possible cabinet choices, and his agenda.

"People are here because they want to hear which way the governor is going to take the state," said G. Terry Madonna, a Franklin and Marshall University pollster.

For some who rely on state funding, the Pennsylvania Society event is about nurturing ties with the political establishment when budget dollars are precious.

In July, Drexel University's $750,000 state appropriation was slashed to zero. "We can't go any lower than that," said Brian Keech, vice president for government and community relations.

Waiting for speeches to begin Saturday at the Pennsylvania Manufacturers' Association forum at the Metropolitan Club, Keech said his message this weekend was "Drexel, Drexel, Drexel."

"It's about relationship-building . . . teaching people about higher education and its relationship to the economy and health care and jobs," he said.

Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, which spent $250,000 lobbying this year, threw a party at the Waldorf on Friday night to honor Gov. Rendell, an outgoing benefactor, and someone positioned to become a new benefactor: U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent (R., Pa.), just named to the House Appropriations Committee.

Hospital officials say that among their top issues in 2011 will be preserving Medicaid funding and legislation to combat distracted driving.

For eight years, the Broadband Cable Association of Pennsylvania has hosted one of the weekend's inaugural receptions - a Friday fete to which hundreds of lobbyists, lawmakers, and their staffs flock. This year, the association reserved two floors at a Times Square sports bar.

Brian Herrmann, the group's spokesman, said it hoped to remind legislators how important the industry is to the state and how damaging higher taxes would be.

"Our primary mission is to keep taxation away from technology," Herrmann said.

The new power player here is the Marcellus Shale Coalition, which represents more than 130 drillers, contractors, engineers, law firms, and others seeking to benefit from the state's burgeoning natural-gas industry. There is no industry with as much at stake in Harrisburg.

The group hosted its first society reception Saturday night at the W Hotel. At the Waldorf earlier in the evening, dozens of people with anti-Corbett and anti-drilling signs paraded outside a Pennsylvania Society gala.

They were members of Frack Action, a band of anti-shale-drilling groups in New York, where drilling is not yet approved, and Pennsylvania, where there have been cases of well-water contamination.

"We want to show these enemies of the common good that we don't approve of what they're doing," said Patrick Walker, who lives within a half-mile of a drilling rig in Factoryville, Pa.

A proposal to tax the industry to address environmental and infrastructure damage has stalled in Harrisburg. And Corbett, who took roughly $1 million from gas drillers in his campaign, has said he would oppose new taxes.

At least five law firms with deep roots as lobbyists and state contractors, and millions of dollars in government work at stake under the new administration, have hosted receptions.

Duane Morris, which billed the state more than $1.3 million in 2009, according to government records, expected 300 people Friday night at the famed 21 Club.

Stephen Schachman, managing director of Duane Morris Government Affairs, said the firm had started the party tradition about seven years ago not to lobby but to thank clients. "We are not there with a specific agenda," he said.

But many say such events highlight the fact that, bottom line, politics is about money. The recently formed Genevieve Society, whose goal is to encourage women to run for public office, held a modest reception at the Waldorf.

Asked why the state has so few female elected officials, the group's president answered simply, "Money."

"Women don't give money, they don't contribute to women, or they still think they need to get permission from their husbands," said Eleanor Dezzi, a political and business consultant from Philadelphia. "If you want to become part of the process, you have to raise money."


Contact staff writer Amy Worden at 717-783-2584 or aworden@phillynews.com.

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