Highbrow events in NYC are All-Star weekend for PA politicos
By Eric Boehm | PA Independent
HARRISBURG — If Pennsylvania politics can be equated to baseball, this weekend is the All-Star Game.
Beginning Thursday, the Keystone State’s political elite descended on New York City for a nearly four-day, non-stop schedule of luncheons, cocktail parties and fundraisers.
It’s all built around the Pennsylvania Society dinner Friday night at the Waldorf Astoria hotel, a tradition that traces its history to Andrew Carnegie and his “robber baron” friends, who lived in New York but did business in Pennsylvania.
And like the major league All-Star Game, the tickets to the dinner and most of the more than 40 satellite events are expensive.
For those at the top of Pennsylvania political class, the weekend is a social engagement that brings together lobbyists, lawmakers, staffers and industry executives.
For others, it is proof that deep pockets and special interests control politics.
“If you want to know who controls Pennsylvania’s government, go to New York City this weekend. You’ll see all the politicians and the corporate interests sitting at the same table,” said Gene Stilp, founder of Taxpayers and Ratepayers United, which protests the involvement of corporate money in politics.
The Pennsylvania Society began in 1899, when Pennsylvanians living in New York City began gathering annually at the Waldorf Astoria to discuss affairs in their native state.
Today, the Pennsylvania Society Association is a charitable nonprofit not affiliated with any political party or interest and claims more than 2,000 members.
One of those members is Frederick Anton III, president of the Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association, or PMA, a prominent conservative voice in Harrisburg. Anton is a former president of the Pennsylvania Society Association and member of its board.
PA Independent rents office space in a building owned by PMA, but receives no financial support from PMA.
For Anton, the weekend is a social event, which he compares to a political convention. Ideas and policy are discussed, but no back-room deals occur.
“In other words, there are many who go to the conventions of the various political parties, and they are not going to make decisions there, but they are gathering with others who have the same interest and sharing ideas,” Anton said.
Of all the satellite events that have popped up along the main course — the dinner itself — the PMA luncheon hosted by Anton on Saturday afternoon is perhaps the most prestigious.
The list of high-ranking Pennsylvania politicos — Democrats and Republicans — scheduled to speak at Anton’s event include Gov. Tom Corbett, state Supreme Court Chief Justice Ron Castille, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and Pennsylvania U.S. Sens. Pat Toomey and Bob Casey.
Leaving out the 99 percent?
In a time of economic uncertainty and increased skepticism about the marriage of money and politics, the costs of this gathering may raise some eyebrows. Tickets to the PMA luncheon, like many of the weekend’s events, are by invitation only, and tickets to the Pennsylvania Society dinner begin at $350.
“There is a real pay-to-play mentality in Pennsylvania politics,” said Stilp. “This dinner is the biggest political crime going on in Pennsylvania, where influence is literally bought and sold every year in New York City.”
In protest, Stilp has been organizing a counter-event in the East Wing Rotunda of the Pennsylvania Capitol every year while the politicians are out of state. He said his Pennsylvania People’s Dinner is about the “little people versus the people who run Pennsylvania government.”
Why New York?
Perhaps the oddest thing about the event is its location. Every bottle of wine and filet mignon consumed this weekend will not help the state’s bottom line.
So why not have the event in Philadelphia or Pittsburgh?
“It was originally in New York, because that’s where the industrialists from Pennsylvania went to live, and travel was not as easy in those days,” Anton said. “The glamor and mystique of New York is very important to this.”
There have been attempts to move it. After taking office in 2002, then-Gov. Ed Rendell, a former mayor of Philadelphia, tried for several years to move the dinner to the City of Brotherly Love.
In 2005, the Philadelphia City Council passed a resolution calling for the event to be relocated there.
Both attempts failed.
Moving it to Pennsylvania would simply not be the same, said David Patti, president of the Pennsylvania Business Council, which helps elect pro-business politicians.
“It’s been 110 years, get over it,” he said. “In New York, we are all tourists together, and you can put aside being a Philadelphian or a Pittsburgher or a Democrat or a Republican. It’s a neutral location, and you can get things done more cooperatively than you normally can.”
The Pennsylvania Business Council is hosting another of the prominent events on the weekend’s calendar — a Republican senatorial debate Friday afternoon at the Plaza Hotel.
Stilp said the state’s ethics laws do not help the Pennsylvania Society’s image.
He casts a harsh eye toward the natural gas companies that helped bankroll Gov. Tom Corbett’s campaign and will play a key role in the expansion of the natural gas industry in Pennsylvania.
Attendees disagree, saying the event is a social occasion and a chance to learn about policy, not pass favors.
“There have been reasons for people to attend the Pennsylvania Society weekend long before anyone knew about shale gas,” said Kathryn Klaber, president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, which represents gas drilling companies operating in the state and is hosting an event this weekend.
Lawmakers and all public officials are subject to Pennsylvania’s ethics laws, which require disclosure only if an official receives more than $250 in gifts from the same source in a single calendar year.
Lobbying firms must disclose their expenses to the state every quarter — if their total expenses exceed $2,500 — including operating expenses, gifts and entertainment, said Rob Caruso, deputy executive director at the State Ethics Commission.