THE LEGENDARY, and kinda crazy, political consultant Neil Oxman likes to say that Philadelphia has long been run by and for the same 300 insiders.
He's challenged me over the years to expose those insiders, to show their connections in our power constellation, and we try to do that in these pages. He says I should know them. "You're one of them," he says, spitting out the word. "You're nothing but a bald dilettante."
OK, so he's right about the bald part. And, as I was preparing to make my way to New York tonight for Pennsylvania Society weekend, the annual party-a-thon for Philly's 1 percenters, it dawned on me: More than most years, this swanky soiree of our power elite just feels kinda icky, at a time when the zeitgeist has (finally) begun reflecting the gap between our haves and have-nots.
Is Oxman right? Am I one of them, masked in "People's Paper" clothing?
I decided to call one to find out. Larry Ceisler is the ultimate insider, both in Philly and statewide, a communications strategist, networker and dealmaker who is to Philly what Kevin Bacon is to other actors: if he was the kind of guy who inspired drinking games (he's not, trust me), his would be called Six Degrees of Ceisler. (Imagine doing a shot every time you ran into a balding portly white guy in a suit represented by Ceisler; you'd stagger home). He hosts one of the big-ticket parties tonight at the Waldorf-Astoria. Despite all that, he can actually be thoughtful.
"You guys in the media have made Pennsylvania Society out to be a Roman orgy of everything that's wrong with government and corporate America," Ceisler told me. "To me, it's really one of the greatest examples of accessible democracy in action. You can be from a small nonprofit in the western part of the state representing some left-wing point of view, and if you walk into the Waldorf in a suit, you'll be able to talk with the governor or a member of his Cabinet. I've watched it happen."
I hadn't looked at it like that. It's true that everyone at Pennsylvania Society is buying and/or selling on Philadelphia's influence market - me included. I'm there because I want to know what's going on, what the stories behind the headlines are, and I want those in the know to call me with their information so I can share it with you. Guilty: I'm a story whore. Hopefully, it's in service of a good cause. Then again, no matter their agenda, that is likely what everyone at Pennsylvania Society tells themselves.
Maybe Ceisler has a point. Maybe this gathering of all our lobbyists, lawyers and pols is, for all its unseemliness, a kind of democracy in action. Of course, that doesn't justify the lameness of the actual parties. They consist of essentially the same group of people - those 300 that Oxman shouts about - shuttling from one ballroom to another, from Blank Rome's party to Duane Morris'.
They consist of countless conversations in which the person you're talking with is looking over your shoulder, already in search of his next conversation. And, what's worse, you find yourself doing the same damn thing: spotting someone from across the room who might have a morsel of information for you, so you check out while the very nice candidate for attorney general in Delaware is droning on and on about tax law.
But I'll go tonight, and I'll have some laughs at Ceisler's expense, (literally, since he's throwing a party), and, hopefully, I'll get some leads on outrages or oddities that our intrepid reporters will soon entertain you with. But I'll also hope that the young idealists in today's cover story, as they rip power from the clutches of the usual suspects in this town, figure out a way to close the ever-widening gap between those who have and those who don't. And I'll hope that, when they do take over, they throw better parties.