NEW YORK - Call it the anti-Occupy movement.
That, in many ways, is Pennsylvania Society, the annual gala for Pennsylvania politicians who travel to New York City for some government-like forums but mostly for schmoozing, networking, fund-raising, backslapping, wining, dining, and deal-making.
Here, Pennsylvania's political elite congregate annually in the marbled halls of the Waldorf-Astoria and venture out for a weekend of dinners, receptions, and cocktail parties (many invitation-only) hosted by law firms, lobbyists, and others with a financial stake in government and politics.
It is Harrisburg's version of prom night, where the burning question often revolves not around policy or best practices but what to wear, where to eat, what gossip is hot, and who was seen with whom.
The official centerpiece of this four-day event - though not always the highlight - is Saturday night's Pennsylvania Society dinner, where the men wear black tie and the women don ball gowns. This year, a Philadelphian is being honored with the society's gold medal: former astronaut Guion S. Bluford, an Overbrook High School alum who became the first African American to travel in space.
The scene is not for the politically weary.
This is where you come to see and be seen. If you are thinking of running for office, you come here. If you are running for office, you come here. If you are in office, you come here. And if you want something from all of the above, you come here.
Tim Potts, of the Harrisburg advocacy group Democracy Rising PA, calls the gathering the "epitome of aristocracy."
"I can't think of a single thing that this contributes to the well-being of the citizens of Pennsylvania," said Potts, a former legislative aide and frequent critic of Capitol conduct. "In fact, it's not even held in Pennsylvania."
Those who attend yearly, or even once in a while, call such criticism tired, predictable, unimaginative.
State Rep. Mike Vereb (R., Montgomery) said Manhattan offers neutral territory - a place where Democrats and Republicans can put party stripes aside and have a conversation about politics or policy without the distractions of the Capitol.
"The atmosphere is one of less stress," Vereb said Friday night at a reception in the Waldorf thrown by Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware). "There are no protests in the Rotunda. No one is calling you to caucus. . . . You can actually talk to someone for more than five minutes."
The event harks back to 1899, when native Pennsylvanian James Barr Ferree, living in New York City at the time, invited 55 other transplanted Pennsylvanians to dine at the Waldorf-Astoria.
They feasted on oysters and Delmonico steaks, and they decided to form what was then called the Pennsylvania Society of New York. The goal: to unite Pennsylvanians "at home and away from home in bonds of friendship and devotion to their native or adopted state."
It quickly became a hit.
Soon, Andrew Carnegie was breaking bread with the group. So was a young British journalist and member of Parliament who regaled diners with his adventures in the Boer War. That would be Winston Churchill.
By the fourth annual dinner, the party had moved to the Waldorf's grand ballroom, and the souvenirs included miniature imitation hods, or buckets, of Pennsylvania's pride: anthracite coal. Desserts were served in the hods.
These days, a Pennsylvania Society weekend involves many more events than one person can attend. According to a semi-complete list of soirees (some events are always kept hush-hush), the majority of bashes are being thrown by lobbying firms representing everyone from big energy to big insurance to the Catholic Church.
Those firms, according to disclosures filed with the state, spent at least $1.7 million in the first nine months of 2011 lobbying politicians in Harrisburg and beyond.
A sampling of Friday night's agenda began with two politically hefty Philadelphia law firms. Cozen O'Connor sponsored a reception at the 21 Club. Blank Rome had one at the InterContinental.
For those favoring blue-collar over pinstripe, Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers was wiring the night at the Waldorf with a bash featuring disc jockey Jerry Blavat.The room was packed: There was State Treasurer Rob McCord, grooving on the dance floor. Here was U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, holding court with a large group of elected officials.
The drinks flowed freely and the crowd was thirsty. At one point, a man who had overindulged was seen clinging to the door frame of the reception room while security tried to pry his fingers open and escort him out.
Gov. Corbett and Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley, meanwhile, were a few floors up, making the rounds at a party hosted by a number of business and lobbying firms, including Ceisler Media & Issue Advocacy.
Corbett nursed a beer while sharing stories about his two Airedale puppies, Harry and Penny, and showing off a photo of his 2-month-old grandson.
Sponsors of Saturday's receptions included Wojdak & Associates, one of Harrisburg's busiest lobbying firms, and the law firm Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney.
After the main Society dinner, the natural gas drillers' Marcellus Shale Coalition was throwing a swank reception at the W Hotel.
Any mention of Marcellus these days arches politicians' eyebrows, particularly as legislators continue to try to hash out an agreement to impose a long-debated impact fee on natural gas extraction.
As it stands now, Pennsylvania is on a path to close the year without such a deal, making 2011 the third straight year in which the industry, on record as supporting a fee, has not had to pay one.
Then again, as the environmental advocacy group PennFuture quipped Friday in its newsletter: "Perhaps legislative leaders, the governor and the gas drillers will resolve their differences this weekend in the Big Apple."