For more than a century, the annual Pennsylvania Society gathering has been a place for political and business leaders to see and be seen. This year, the New York City event -- and the constellation of receptions and parties that surround it -- was marked most notably by conspicuous efforts to be seen somewhere else.
The December gathering is an occasion for state elected officials, lobbyists and politicos to rub elbows, and occasionally achieve make deals and progress on policy issues. But with the state’s budget crisis causing panic in school districts and prompting layoffs at social service agencies, many politicians decided to stay home, rather than risk the bad PR of being photographed at the Waldorf Astoria in a tux while social workers clip coupons. Some made a show of not showing up: Gov. Tom Wolf, for one, spent Friday helping out at a Harrisburg soup kitchen. Joe Sestak, one of three Democrats hoping to challenge Republican Senator Pat Toomey next year, similarly handed out cold-weather clothing and other gear to Harrisburg’s poor, while issuing a press release decrying the fact that “so many of our public leaders are leaving town to attend festivities in New York .... while leaving behind people who are cut off from basic necessities.”
Mr. Sestak’s Democratic rivals, Katie McGinty and Braddock Mayor John Fetterman, did attend: In a sort-of concession to the business-attire dress code, he exchanged his Dickie work shirts for a printed tuxedo T-shirt, customized with a “Fetterman” campaign button printed on it. Despite the unconventional garb, Mr. Fetterman’s mere presence at the event offered further proof that in some ways, he is in some ways running a more typical campaign than Mr. Sestak.
Another no-show: Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala. Mr. Zappala announced his race last week just in time to create some buzz for the event, but didn’t appear at the event itself to capitalize on it: His campaign said Mr. Zappala, who previously told the Post-Gazette he was hoping to stay close to Pittsburgh during the campaign, had “holiday family stuff” to attend to. (Montgomery County Commissioner Josh Shapiro, who is widely expected to run for AG himself, was on hand, though he would not disclose his intentions.)
Very few state legislators came to the event at all, and almost none from the state House, which last week torpedoed an apparent budget deal made between Mr. Wolf and state Senate leaders. The absence of legislators became a running topic of conversation: At a Saturday morning event, Congressman Pat Meehan joked that, “It’s nice to be in a legislative body that’s ALLOWED to be in New York.” Regulars said that in general, events seemed more subdued -- though on the bright side, a few noted, without so many legislators around, it was easier to get a drink at the bar.
It’s easy to make fun of the Society gathering: it’s a Pennsylvania event held in New York, where elected officials feast on hors d'oeuvres and liquor at parties hosted by some of the state’s biggest special interests. But David Taylor, the president of the Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association, lamented the absence of Mr. Wolf and other leaders.
Especially in a time of partisan rancor, he said, “One of the things of value this provides is that it’s shared territory.” Historically, the Pennsylvania Society gathers in New York because it was established by Gilded Age industrialists who lived far from their factories. “But it’s also good for [politicians] to be on neutral ground.” Mr. Taylor’s own event, for example, drew Republican and Democratic governors alike: Tom Corbett, Tom Ridge, and Ed Rendell all passed through the lobby of the Metropolitan Club Saturday morning, seeing old friends.
But this year, even the choice to show up had partisan implications. When Mr. Turzai cancelled a planned House session in Harrisburg, state Democrats accused him of “putting any budget agreements on hold so Republicans can have a good time in New York City.” In fact, House Republicans were almost entirely absent from Society events: The most prominent Republican legislative leader on hand was state Senator Jake Corman, who hosted a noisy event at the sports-themed 40/40 Club Friday afternoon. The Senate, he told reporter John Micek, had done its job.
Reporters scrounged for news as best they could, but there were few fireworks outside the Friday Republican fundraiser with headliner Donald Trump -- and even that event was perhaps most notable for the leaders who didn’t show up and the protesters who were forcibly tossed out. Pittsburgh-area Congressman Tim Murphy was on hand, and willing to talk up the prospects for his legislation overhauling mental-health care: Noting that House Speaker Paul Ryan “continues to say that we have to do this,” Mr. Murphy said he hoped to see it voted out of committee next month.
Mr. Toomey, meanwhile, spoke with business leaders and reporters alike about his concerns about the Obama administration’s nuclear-arms agreement with Iran. Mr. Toomey said the regime could not be trusted, and that although the Senate could do little to prevent sanctions from being lifted as part of the nuke deal, “The last thing we should do is be silent.”
Still and all, reporters could be heard lamenting the relative dearth of material. And for your Early Returns correspondent, a first-time attendee, the whole event was a powerful reminder of a lesson learned in high school: Any time I’m showing up at a party, that party is sure to be a dud.