New digs, fewer parties and a dash of uncertainty — will they come?
For those who have trekked to New York City year after year for Pennsylvania Society — the annual, glitzy schmooze-and-booze fest for politicians and the well-heeled special interests that want something from them — there are behind-the-scenes whispers about whether the event will draw its customary big crowds.
Not because of a crisis of conscience over persistent criticism that the event blurs the lines between government and politics. But because of an identity crisis of sorts.
This year, Pennsylvania Society is getting a forced, albeit temporary, makeover. The marbled halls and gilded ballrooms of the iconic Waldorf Astoria hotel, which for more than a century have anchored many of the weekend’s biggest parties and events, are closed for renovations this year – and possibly next year, too.
Instead, this year’s gathering is being moved north a few blocks to a Hilton one attendee privately described as a gargantuan model of two Lego pieces snapped together by a child.
Further breaking with tradition: Pennsylvania Society has for years been held on the second weekend in December. This year, it’s on the first.
Such disruption of tradition and routine has been disorienting.
“That threw off a lot of schedules,” said former Gov. Ed Rendell, who said he senses far less interest in the event than in years past. “So I think you’re going to see reduced attendance and not a lot of parties compared to the past.”
First World problems, to be sure.
Organizers and longtime supporters of the event have tried to quell any talk of jitters, promising a great time to all who attend.
“We think it will be just as good as years past,” said Julien Scranton, the newly minted executive director of The Pennsylvania Society, a nonprofit whose annual Saturday night dinner has traditionally been the centerpiece of the weekend. This year’s honoree is the Sheetz family, the namesakes of the Altoona-based convenience store chain that blankets much of the state.
Added Carol McC. Fitzgerald, the former and longtime executive director of The Pennsylvania Society: “We are all looking forward to another spectacular weekend.”
At least in years past, Pennsylvania Society events have been a critical place to see and be seen for anyone running (or even thinking of running) for higher office. In big election years, politicians and candidates — and reporters — flock to the city to attend receptions, shake hands and, more importantly, raise campaign cash.
Two years ago, then-candidate Donald Trump, eager to win the Keystone State, was the featured speaker for a Friday morning gathering of Pennsylvania Republicans at New York City. (Protesters also managed to interrupt the closed-door event.) This year, Vice President Pence will address the same gathering.
The state has several major races in play in 2018 — including governor and lieutenant governor, all 18 congressional seats and the U.S. Senate seat now held by Democrat Bob Casey.
There are already four Republicans vying to replace Gov. Wolf: lawyer Laura Ellsworth, businessman Paul Mango, House Speaker Mike Turzai – all from Allegheny County – and state Sen. Scott Wagner of York County. Wolf, Wagner and Mango are all expected to host receptions in New York this weekend.
Still, the list of parties, compiled every year by the website PoliticsPA, appears far slimmer this year.
One event on hiatus is the PoliticsPA Governor Mifflin Society Reception, a Friday late-night favorite for the younger crowd at Pennsylvania Society. It was their one sure ticket to a good time during a weekend where “invitation only” typically bars the door.
“That’s what I feel badly about,” said Larry Ceisler, who has hosted the party for years with David Urban and John Saler.
He recalled one year when Roger Stone, an on- and off-again adviser to President Trump, showed up “with a couple of hookers. It was the weirdest thing.”
Another year, Eliot Spitzer, the former governor of New York, popped in – after the sex scandal that made him resign in disgrace.
Ceisler said the changes of venue and date this year created uncertainty about attendance.
Another popular party not on the list this year: one traditionally held on Friday night by Philadelphia labor leader John Dougherty. But Dougherty said Wednesday that he stopped throwing the bash a few years ago, because “the party got so big, it outgrew us.”
He said he is not going this year. And though his electricians’ union, IBEW Local 98, “will have a presence there,” he said it will be the smallest contingent he’s sent up to New York in a decade.
Still, some of the big-names in politics are still planning on showing, among them Gov. Wolf.
Even that is a break in tradition.
Wolf, a Democrat, has skipped the event since taking office in 2015 (although he did attend when he was governor-elect), instead donating money to food banks and the Society scholarship.
This year, Wolf, who is up for reelection next year, will be attending events in New York on Friday and Saturday, said Jeff Sheridan, Wolf’s campaign manager.
Rendell said he plans to travel to New York Thursday evening for a fundraiser he is co-hosting for Wolf and again Saturday for a Pennsylvania Manufacturer’s Association tribute to Frederick Anton III, the founder of the group that holds a must-attend event every Saturday during Pennsylvania Society. He won’t be spending the night.
The former Democratic governor said he will miss one tradition he treasured from Pennsylvania Society – the bacon served at breakfast events at the Waldorf Astoria.
“They have the best bacon in the world,” he said.