Sunday, December 11, 2005

Philadelphia Inquirer | 12/11/2005 | The annual gathering of the Pennsylvania Society

Philadelphia Inquirer | 12/11/2005 | Pa. pols just can't resist N.Y. bash: "Posted on Sun, Dec. 11, 2005

Pa. pols just can't resist N.Y. bash

The annual gathering of the Pennsylvania Society has attracted plenty of powerful folks, as usual.

By Marcia Gelbart and Carrie Budoff

Inquirer Staff Writers

NEW YORK - Manhattan at Christmastime was very special last year for John Perzel.

Attending Pennsylvania's premier out-of-state political party as the State House speaker, Perzel saw a $55,000 reception thrown for him by a paving contractor, a billboard giant, and 10 other politically connected companies.

And this weekend it occurred all over again - not for Perzel this time, but an equally powerful cast of political bigwigs.

With all the recent talk about ethical lapses in the Capitol corridors and Philadelphia City Hall, the drive for cleaner government has not reached New York - site of the annual Pennsylvania Society gathering of more than 1,000 politicians, business executives and lobbyists, which will end this morning.

During this three-day-weekend affair, Republican U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum will be feted twice; the state auditor general, the state House majority leader, and the Allegheny County executive will throw their own soirees; and legions of other public officials will be courted by special-interest groups.

It's the unofficial start of next year's big political season - which will include Gov. Rendell's run for reelection and Bob Casey Jr.'s race against Santorum. And with six of the possible mayoral candidates in attendance, it foreshadows that race in 2007.

"I doubt anyone gets bought there for the price of a shrimp cocktail," said Zack Stalberg, executive director of the Committee of Seventy watchdog group. "But it's that old-fashioned, and now questionable, conviviality between the people who run things and the people who run the government."

While the event is based at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel, many lawmakers and lobbyists admit that one of the star attractions is New York itself: the Fifth Avenue shops, Rockefeller Center, and Broadway musicals.

All that money doled out in restaurants, hotels and shopping inevitably leads to the perennial debate over whether the Pennsylvania Society weekend belongs in... Pennsylvania.

Harrisburg activist Gene Stilp - who helped lead the successful grassroots movement to repeal the pay raise lawmakers gave themselves in July - planned to counter the high-end partying in New York with a bare-bones bash yesterday in the Capitol.

"Please bring a potluck item," Stilp wrote on the invitation. In an interview, he said, "Working-class Pennsylvanians can't even relate to the Pennsylvania Society dinner. We want to start a new tradition for the average person: the Pennsylvania People's Dinner."

Senate President Pro Tem Robert Jubelirer (R., Blair) defended the weekend: "This is not class warfare - just an opportunity to let your hair down a bit."

In Philadelphia, City Council unanimously passed a resolution Thursday to bring the affair within the state's borders. The vote took place during the same week that Leonard N. Ross, a friend of Mayor Street's, became the 18th person charged in the ongoing City Hall corruption investigation.

"Look, I'm not trying to mess up anyone's vacation here," said Councilman Frank DiCicco, who sponsored the resolution and has never gone to the affair. "It's just business."

Rendell doesn't hold out hope.

"It can never happen because this has become too important a social trip for people across the state who don't get the same opportunity as Philadelphia does to come to New York," he said between handshakes Friday at a well-attended ESPN Zone reception hosted by the Pittsburgh Steelers, consulting firm Ceisler Jubelirer (one partner is the son of the senator.) and others.

The Pennsylvania Society was formed in New York City at the close of the 19th century, offering neutral ground for the state's industrialists to talk politics, charm politicians and, according to lore, give their marching orders for the coming year.

In some ways, not much has changed.

Instead of robber barons, the benefactors serving breakfast mimosas and late-night apple martinis are such corporations as Sunoco and Waste Management, and lobbying firms such as S.R. Wojdak & Associates and Buchanan Ingersoll. But the goals are largely the same.

"We look at this as a way to celebrate the captains of industry in Pennsylvania," said Jim Welty, a lobbyist for the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry. "We talk about where Pennsylvania needs to go."

"This is a unique event," said Street's spokesman Joe Grace, who was in New York yesterday along with Commerce Director Stephanie Naidoff, City Solicitor Romulo Diaz and Housing Secretary Kevin Hanna. "It's an opportunity for us to listen to what people are saying" about Philadelphia.

Street did not attend the weekend's events because of a family matter, Grace said.

With a governor, U.S. senator, and much of the legislature up for reelection next year, followed by the Philadelphia mayoral contest, a lot of talk focused on who showed, who was up, who was down, and who might be out.

"I wanted to make sure the players who are there know that I'll be out raising money for my congressional fund-raiser," said NAACP Philadelphia chapter president J. Whyatt Mondesire, who is very publicly considering challenging U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah (D., Pa.) next year.

Casey, who agreed yesterday to debate his Democratic primary opponents in the coming months, raised $50,000 Friday at the Harvard Club for his Senate race - and ended up in a room next to where Santorum attended a reception hosted by Louis Appell, a prominent York County businessman and GOP fund-raiser.

They didn't cross paths. Neither did Casey and Rendell, who dropped by the Appell event but skipped Casey's fund-raiser. The governor cited tight scheduling.

Santorum hosted his own $1,000-a-head fund-raiser Thursday night at the Waldorf-Astoria, collecting $46,000 for his reelection committee and $130,000 for the state GOP election fund.

A short while earlier, Santorum, giving a speech at a Chester County event honoring him, asked the crowd to read his book, It Takes a Family - and not believe its critics.

"Just like everything else the Democrats do, they lie and distort," Santorum said.

From the back of the room, Democratic City Councilman Michael Nutter yelled, "Hey, senator, tone that down."

Santorum then amended his words, adding "except Michael Nutter," eliciting laughs from the bipartisan audience.

Nutter was one of the potential 2007 mayoral candidates who attended some events this weekend. But one of his potential rivals, electricians union leader John Dougherty, did more than just pop into receptions. He hosted his own party, complete with a band and "Johnny Doc 2007" Christmas tree ornaments, in a Waldorf-Astoria ballroom.

One weekend attendee, Ken Davis, chairman of the Montgomery County Republican Party, was shopping around his candidate for lieutenant governor, Montgomery County Commissioner Jim Matthews.

"I don't know anybody who's been bought at Pennsylvania Society," Davis said. "Rented, maybe - but not bought.""

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