NEW YORK – Pennsylvania Society this year had all the traditional trappings – the same big crowds gathered around open bars listening to politicians pitch themselves while swapping gossip carried from back home and picked up here.
But it was all somehow different. And a little off-putting for some.
The 119th soirée was uprooted from its ancestral home at the Waldorf Astoria hotel, a place where attendees could revel in the gilded splendor tracing back to the titans of industry like Andrew Carnegie, who started it all.
Instead, the party was relocated to a Hilton that opened near Times Square in 1963, a midcentury monolith that former City Controller Jonathan Saidel derided as “Stalinistic.”
Still, politicians being politicians, they did what they do.
Gov. Wolf, seeking a second term next year, showed up after skipping the last two years due to protracted state budget battles in Harrisburg.
National news on Friday and Saturday frequently drew attention away from the festivities – the plea deal struck by President Trump’s former national security adviser, Mike Flynn, and the U.S. Senate nearing completion on a tax-cut package.
Vice President Pence, the main draw for a Pennsylvania GOP fund-raiser Friday morning, had to cancel in case he was needed to cast a deciding vote on the tax bill. Instead, donors were treated to a speech from Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel.
Sens. Bob Casey and Pat Toomey were also stuck in Washington for the vote, so the candidates for Pennsylvania governor took center stage for much of the weekend.
In an interview, Wolf took a not-so-veiled swipe at State Sen. Scott Wagner, the York County Republican vying to set himself apart as the front-runner in his party’s four-way primary election to be the nominee to take on Wolf.
Wagner has previously portrayed himself as Trump’s man in Pennsylvania, the right person to carry forward the populism that helped swing the state for the Republicans in the 2016 presidential election.
To Wolf’s view, that hasn’t aged so well, especially the embrace of Wagner by Steve Bannon, Trump’s former White House adviser and strategist of nationalist politics who has now returned to the conservative website he ran before the campaign.
“I think it’s going to be tough to step away from something you said or an endorsement from Steve Bannon,” Wolf said.
Wagner, standing at the door to his reception and greeting each visitor with a handshake, conceded that his ties to Trump and Bannon could be more problem than propellant by next year. But he quickly tagged Wolf as well.
“Last weekend Gov. Wolf participated in a very secret conference in California with [House Democratic Minority Leader] Nancy Pelosi and [New York billionaire] George Soros,” Wagner said. “So, I think that’s going to come back to bite him.”
That was a reference to the Democracy Alliance’s conference last month, a gathering of left-leaning donors, where Wolf, Pelosi, and Soros all spoke.
Wagner also delivered a bombastic review of his Republican competitors at the usually wonky Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association event, knocking them for not having the experience he has in starting and building a business.
“What I said in there is, Pennsylvania is a patient bleeding on the table, it’s bleeding to death. We need a surgeon, someone who has the skills,” Wagner said after the private gathering. He has a successful waste-hauling company.
State House Speaker Mike Turzai, the most recent Republican to enter the gubernatorial race, joins two others from Allegheny County, Paul Mango and Laura Ellsworth. Does that give Wagner, the lone candidate from the center of the state, an advantage?
“I don’t think it’s about geography,” Turzai said. “I think it’s about the vision.”
Asked what he told business and political leaders at the manufacturing association event Saturday, Turzai said he was a “reformer with results.”
Referring to his rivals’ wealth, he added: “I’m the only candidate who can’t write a personal check. I can relate to everyday people.”
For his part, Mango, a Pittsburgh businessman, argued he brings “a much deeper sense of obligation and commitment” to the race than his GOP primary rivals. “I think I’m the only one who actually left my prior job to do this,” he said in an interview at the Metropolitan Club, near Central Park.
Ellsworth blasted what she derided as Harrisburg’s short-term budget gimmicks and lamented that instead of growing the economy, “we are ever more dependent on hoping more and more of our citizens drink and smoke and gamble and smoke pot.”
“What have we become?” she asked.
More than a few people who traveled to New York said the new venue, necessary because of renovations at the Waldorf Astoria, left them wanting. A few looked at the windowless walls and patterned rugs of the event rooms and said it felt more like an everyday casino than a swanky affair.
Sean Reilly, a Philadelphia lobbyist, recalled the railroad barons who launched the Pennsylvania Society.
“Can you imagine those guys in top hat and long tails coming in and saying, ‘The Hilton?’ ” Reilly asked. “It’s a different vibe.”
Saidel, who has been traveling to New York for the event for a quarter-century, said the changes felt like “an out-of-body experience.”
“It is quite strange,” he said. “I walk outside, I still can’t find my way back here.”
Call it muscle memory. Many attendees were so accustomed to wandering the halls of the Waldorf, attending the same events in the same ballrooms every year, that a new hotel’s layout could be confounding.
But a party is a party – and for former Trump advisers David Urban, Jim Schultz, and Anthony Scaramucci, a reunion of sorts at Scaramucci’s restaurant, Hunt & Fish Club.
Mayor Kenney made his dutiful stop at Friday’s Metropolitan Caucus, where leaders from Philadelphia and the surrounding counties talk about playing as one big team. The topic this year was pulling together to lure Amazon to build its new, second headquarters in Southeastern Pennsylvania.
But Kenney read the room – which featured one of the first open bars of the weekend. His speech clocked in at 59 seconds, flat, after Montgomery County Commission Chairwoman Val Arkoosh struggled in vain to be heard.
While there was plenty of grumbling, there didn’t seem to be much enthusiasm for relocating the event to Pennsylvania. That prompted more questions than solutions. Would it be in Philadelphia? Pittsburgh? Alternating year by year?
But as with all perennial events, a certain optimism was built into the next attempt.
“The space is antiseptic, and the bar isn’t quite as good,” said Lawrence G. McMichael, an attorney with Dilworth Paxson LLP in Philadelphia. “But the Waldorf will be back.”