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John Baer: Let Pa. rich set an example: Ax the big NYC party

SINCE ONE joy of journalism is annoying the rich and powerful, and since the economy is in the toilet, I offer some suggestions certain to sour several swells.

SINCE ONE joy of journalism is annoying the rich and powerful, and since the economy is in the toilet, I offer some suggestions certain to sour several swells.

Cancel next month's Pennsylvania Society weekend in New York City, or curtail it, or work on moving it to its home state.

In the worst economy since the Great Depression, with 1.2 million jobs lost this year, with state unemployment at 5.7 percent, the highest rate since right after Gov. Rendell took office in '03, with the city facing job cuts and a $1 billion shortfall, it just strikes me as a tad unseemly to, you know, party hearty.

Or contribute to another city/state economy.

For the uninitiated, the weekend is an annual exercise in excess during which Pennsylvanians deliver a boatload of dough to Manhattan.

A couple of thousand pols, lobbyists, lawyers, corporate types and wannabes invade NYC for a three-day orgy of spending, gorging and self-celebration.

Rounds of parties sponsored by law firms, businesses and candidates are anchored by a black-tie $300-a-pop supper for 1,500 in the elegant, tiered ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.

(Sample menu: marinated baby-artichoke tart; Parmesan herb salad; fire-roasted pepper coulis; tournedos of beef with brandied demi-glace; sautéed winter asparagus; Park Avenue chocolate bar with passion fruit and chocolate sauces.)

Many attendees hit pricey Broadway shows (some with lobbyists' tickets) and/or Fifth Avenue stores, stay in $500- to $700-a-night hotel rooms, pay for cabs and limos, tips, meals and travel, and generally redistribute their wealth - to another state.

I guess the president-elect would be proud.

Why do they?

Tradition. Dec. 13 is the society's 110th dinner. It started with state natives with businesses in New York. Guys named Carnegie and Mellon among them. It was canceled only a couple of times, during world wars. But little else stops it. It was even held in 1929 - Henry Ford was the honoree.

"This is a time for Pennsylvanians to gather together in friendship and sociability away from their daily cares," says society executive director Carol Fitzgerald.

She tells me that "not one person" has suggested canceling or cutting back, or moving the event to Pennsylvania. "Where would we have it?" she asks.

She notes that this year's honoree, Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, will donate a "substantial gift" from the society to Pennsylvania charities of his choice.

She won't put a dollar figure on "substantial" but says that the society does this every year, "something that is overlooked by the press [I can tell by her tone she means me] in their rush to malign us."

All right, charities are good, and society honorees are interesting: Andrew Carnegie, Dwight Eisenhower, Joe Paterno, Arnold Palmer, even (oddly, to me) Chris Matthews.

But I've gone to this gig for decades (back when each place setting at the ballroom dinner included a mini-pack of cigarettes) and mostly stand in the same places seeing the same faces, enduring traffic, crowds, costs and often weather best described as punishing.

A lobbyist and former attendee tells me: "I quit a few years back. It became repetitive and tiresome." Another says: "Why go up there to get drunk with people from Scranton?"

(I should mention that people from Scranton, except for immediate members of the Casey clan, are traditionally among the liveliest attendees.)

Fred Anton, head of the Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association and host of a popular event on society Saturdays at the posh Metropolitan Club, agrees with Fitzgerald that the weekend should go on and stay in New York.

"It's like a convention," he says, "and you need a place more exotic, and that place is New York City in the Christmas season. The dinner is magnificent. If it were in Philadelphia it would just be another dinner."

A fair point, but it's still an awful lot of home-grown green to spend away from home.

As to where in the state it could be held?

Rendell says through spokesman Chuck Ardo that he's "a long-time advocate of moving the event to Pennsylvania and rotating it among cities that can accommodate it."

I know that's unlikely and, yeah, the weekend's funded by the wealthy, not tax dollars. But, hey, a little guilting the rich in bad times? A little annoyance? What could it hurt? *

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