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Millennials flock to ritzy Pa. Society to be seen, schmooze

Albert Eisenberg took a bus and two subway trains to get from Philadelphia to Manhattan for the swankiest political event in Pennsylvania politics.

Albert Eisenberg talks to Rose DeFelice at the Reception Honoring Speaker Mike Turzai at The Waldorf-Astoria in New York on Friday, Dec. 9, 2016.

Albert Eisenberg talks to Rose DeFelice at the Reception Honoring Speaker Mike Turzai at The Waldorf-Astoria in New York on Friday, Dec. 9, 2016. SE1YOUNG11PRead more(Stephanie Aaronson for the Philadelphia Inquirer)

Albert Eisenberg took a bus and two subway trains to get from Philadelphia to Manhattan for the swankiest political event in Pennsylvania politics.

Eisenberg, 25, communications director for Philadelphia's Republican Party, isn't making the kind of money that would allow him to stay in the $500-a-night hotels in the area, so he's crashing with friends in Brooklyn.

"The fact is, behind the suits are a lot of younger people who are probably sleeping on someone's fold-out tonight," Eisenberg said. "I'm here because it's a good networking opportunity, and the political landscape is more open now than in a generation. I think there's a really big shift afoot in both parties, so it's fun to put on a suit and shake some hands and see what's out there."

As the Pennsylvania Society's annual dinner turns 119 this year, its cocktail-sipping crowd is getting younger. The average age of attendees still hovers around 50, but more millennials are making the trip to schmooze with the party elite, to staff events for politicians they work for, or to seek out clients for newly formed businesses.

The weekend affair at the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan - meant to bring together Democrats and Republicans from around the commonwealth in a neutral space - includes $100,000 parties, and lavish breakfasts and luncheons, all culminating in a Saturday night black-tie dinner in the hotel's Grand Ballroom.

"It can be difficult. It can be awkward, but Pennsylvania Society is one of those opportunities to get face time with a lot of people who are traditionally more difficult to access," said Dan Siegel, deputy regional director at J Street, a pro-Israel organization.

Lobbyists go to Washington to find their members of Congress, Siegel explained.

Philadelphians go to the Waldorf.

"It's hard to call up and get formal meetings with members of the congressional delegation, so to be able to go up to that person and say, 'Hey, this is who I am. This is the organization I'm with, and we'd love to schedule a formal meeting, . . .' a 'yes' there means you can schedule that."

At the Governor Mifflin Society Reception on the fourth floor of the Waldorf around 11 p.m. Friday, Mustafa Rashed looked ready for the evening to end as the crowd swelled and voices grew louder.

"In four hours I just got done three months of meetings," said Rashed, who heads his own government-relations firm.

The Mifflin party is one of the largest, runs the latest, and brings in the most millennials of any event.

Upstairs, Philly 3.0, a political action committee, held a more intimate gathering for people to meet six of the more junior state representatives.

"It's not as stuffy up here," said State Rep. Jason Dawkins, 32, sipping out of a Solo cup. "Folks think there's some sort of magic word or code to getting involve in politics," Dawkins said. "You just need to start talking to people. The door's wide open. You just have to be wiling to walk through."

In a weekend that includes 42 cocktail receptions, dinners, luncheons, or speeches, getting in the door is relatively easy.

"If you're dressed appropriately and you walk in confidently, no one questions you," said Michael Bronstein, 37, a political consultant.

Bronstein traces how far he's come in the last 10 years in Pennsylvania Society terms.

"When you're younger, you have to sneak in and you rent a tux, and when you're older, you're invited and you own a tux. That's a large difference between what was going on 10 years ago and today."

Bronstein said oftentimes the more established politicians welcome a chat with someone younger. The whole environment is meant to be disarming - a dozen open bars will do that.

In terms of political relevance, "you've passed the first hurdle just by showing up," Bronstein said.

But for all of its usefulness, there are those who hate the forced mingling as well as the contradiction that an event for Pennsylvanians, put on by Pennsylvanians, is held in New York City.

"It's just a strange place to be," said Patrick Christmas, sipping a beer apart from the hundreds of people mingling beneath crystal chandeliers.

"I think it depends on your personality type - if you are a relationship-building, cocktail-hour kind of person, this is definitely in your wheelhouse. If you're more of a policy wonk and like to roll up your sleeves and dig into spreadsheets, this is not your weekend," said Christmas, who is the policy program manager for the city's good-government group, the Committee of Seventy.

The cost and location can be particularly prohibitive to younger attendees. The main event Saturday night ran $500 to $1,000 a seat, and it's one you can't sneak into. That causes a mass exodus Saturday morning.

Jason Tucker, 32, a real estate developer with the Goldenberg Group and board member with Young Involved Philadelphia, has never attended.

"I know there's a reason that everyone goes to New York - it just doesn't smell right," Tucker said.

He's not the only one who answered with an eye roll, when asked for an initial reaction to the event.

"People definitely feel kind of held at arm's length from the political process in Philadelphia," Tucker said. "There's a chasm between young leadership and existing leadership, so the idea that the existing leadership takes a social trip out of the city to have a networking party over the course of a weekend seems to confirm everything the young folks feel about them being kept out of the room where it happens."

An alternative event, the Pattison Leader Ball, started five years ago in Philadelphia to cater toward younger people. This year, Gov. Wolf, who has not attended Pennsylvania Society for the last two years, was keynote speaker at the Pattison Leader Ball.

Kellan White, who organizes the ball along with his wife, Nicole, gets criticism from those who see the night as "the anti-PA Society." White says he often attends both events (he did this year) since both serve a purpose.

"At PA Society, you have an opportunity to talk with people you're never likely going to talk to again. Our event, we're catering to that same idea, but instead of you networking the vice president of that company, you're networking with the young person who is very much the future of that company," he said.

"That's a connection that in 10 years is going to be more valuable."

215-854-5506 @juliaterruso