With an eye on 2014 races, Pa. pols head to NYC

In 2011, Gov. Corbett spoke at the annual Pennsylvania Society dinner in New York. This year a fund-raiser Friday afternoon for Corbett, who is seeking reelection, will begin festivities.
In 2011, Gov. Corbett spoke at the annual Pennsylvania Society dinner in New York. This year a fund-raiser Friday afternoon for Corbett, who is seeking reelection, will begin festivities. (HILLARY PETROZZIELLO / File Photograph)
Posted: December 14, 2013

HARRISBURG - For the last two decades, Manhattan billionaire John Catsimatidis has opened the doors of his Fifth Avenue apartment, overlooking Central Park, at Christmastime to toast the biggest names in Pennsylvania politics.

This year will be no different.

Catsimatidis is hosting a fund-raiser Friday afternoon for Gov. Corbett to start the weekend-long festivities of the Pennsylvania Society, the annual gala for Pennsylvania politicians, who travel to New York City to talk policy, raise cash, and, of course, indulge in wining and dining.

With an election year ahead, the focus of the weekend is the 2014 governor's race.

No doubt there will be high-stakes wagering on whether Corbett, facing historically low public approval numbers, will manage to beat back the large field of Democrats angling to make him a one-term governor.

A scene for the politically weary, this is not. But Pennsylvania Society weekend has never pretended to be anything but a society affair. The weekend's official centerpiece is Saturday night's Pennsylvania Society dinner, where the men wear black tie and the women don ball gowns. This year, Vice President Biden is being honored with the society's gold medal.

"One of the things that gives it merit is that it gets all of the Pennsylvania leaders and public policy stakeholders on neutral ground. That's the benefit of having it in Manhattan at Christmas," said David Taylor, executive director of the Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association, sponsor of a Saturday morning forum at the Metropolitan Club at which candidates and top elected officials are scheduled to speak.

Professor and political pollster G. Terry Madonna said the weekend is traditionally a time for showcasing the governor - and in this case, gives Corbett "a chance to be front and center and reinforce that he's running for a second term."

The society's origins date to 1899, when native Pennsylvanian and historian James Barr Ferree, living in New York City, invited 55 other transplanted Pennsylvanians to dine at the Waldorf-Astoria.

They feasted on oysters and Delmonico steaks, and decided to form what was then called the Pennsylvania Society of New York, according to the society's official history. The goal was to unite Pennsylvanians "at home and away from home in bonds of friendship and devotion to their native or adopted state."

It also gave the captains of industry - who largely controlled the General Assembly at the time - direct access to lawmakers. "They gave them their marching orders for the following year," Taylor said.

The idea caught on.

Soon, the industrialist Andrew Carnegie was joining the gathering. So was a young British journalist and member of Parliament who regaled diners with his adventures in the Boer War, Winston S. Churchill.

These days, a Pennsylvania Society weekend involves a dizzying array of events and gatherings. And the streets around the Waldorf are packed with as many Pennsylvanians as New Yorkers.

According to a list of soirees compiled by the political news website PoliticsPA - which also throws one of the weekend's big bashes - many of the events are being hosted by lobbying firms with interests before state government.

In many ways, Catsimatidis' party is a throwback to Pennsylvania Society past: a gathering of wealthy New York businessmen with financial stakes in Pennsylvania.

Though not a native Pennsylvanian, the Greek immigrant billionaire makes no secret of having what he called "big business" in Pennsylvania.

That includes the United Refining Co., a large oil refinery in Warren County in the state's northern tier that also distributes to hundreds of retail outlets.

In an interview this week, Catsimatidis said he had thrown parties for Govs. Ed Rendell and Tom Ridge, as well as other big-name Pennsylvania politicians - in part because of his business, but also because "I like to get my friends together for the holidays." He said it doesn't matter whether they are Democrat or Republican.

"We love people. You know how Greeks are," said Catsimatidis, who lost the Republican primary for New York mayor this year.

He said this year's gathering for Corbett will be a fund-raiser. Asked how much it costs to attend, Catsimatidis said, "Whatever they want to give. . . . It can be $1,000, it can be $5,000."

Expected to attend this year: about 100 guests.


acouloumbis@phillynews.com

717-787-5934 @AngelasInk

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