NEW YORK - Some travel to the annual Pennsylvania Society event to test the waters for political campaigns, some come to seal deals or buttonhole lawmakers. Gov. Corbett came this year - midway through his first term - to establish himself as the de facto leader of the state and position himself for a second term in 2014.
Speaking to 500 people - most of them business leaders - in the ornate ballroom of the historic Metropolitan Club on the upper east side, Corbett said he would soon present long-awaited plans to deal with pension costs, liquor privatization and overhauling the state's transportation system.
He provided no details or even a specific timetable on fixing hundreds of miles of crumbling roads, decaying bridges and aging mass transit except to say the plan would be tied to his February budget address.
"The proposals are coming, we have a lot of options," Corbett told reporters after his speech at the Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association breakfast.
But just the very mention of a transportation plan in the works was enough to generate instant press releases from business groups and relief from GOP leaders in the General Assembly who have been frustrated at Corbett's lack of leadership on major agenda items.
"The governor has to be out front, he's the leader of the state," said House Majority leader Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny), adding that Corbett's speech on Saturday "was a good starting point. "But we need the concrete proposals. Because without them you will not be able to develop a consensus."
As the buzz around real and potential Democratic challengers in 2014 grows, Corbett again declined to say whether he would run again. But he did offer that he "not going to break the tradition" of Pennsylvania governors serving two terms.
Traveling to New York City at Christmastime has been a tradition for the who's who of the Commonwealth's political and business scene since before the turn of the last century.
Every year since 1898 the "captains of industry," along with lawmakers, lobbyists, judges and others who want to connect with them, have come together at the Waldorf Astoria for the three-day-long meeting of the Pennsylvania Society.
The impetus in the early days was the fact that many industrial titans, like Andrew Carnegie and Henry K. Frick, reaped their riches in Pennsylvania while maintaining headquarters in New York.
Today the round-the-clock activities - from early morning breakfasts and road races to post-midnight dessert parties - provide opportunities for networking, fundraising and lobbying. For three days the Waldorf's famed lobby, known as Peacock Alley - so named as the place where the high society crowd has strut their feathers for generations - is overrun with Pennsylvanians.
At one moment a reception hall off Peacock Alley is filled with people waiting in a receiving line to pay their respects to Senate Majority leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware). Two hours later, disco music blaring, the same room is the setting for a cheek-to-jowl dancethon hosted by electricians union chief John Dougherty.
Among the bold-faced names spotted mingling in the crowds were Sen. Casey, Mayor Nutter, Attorney General-elect Kathleen Kane, U.S. Reps. Pat Meehan, Charlie Dent, Jim Gerlach, former Gov. Ed Rendell and Bill Shuster whom Corbett took a moment to note was just named chairman of the House Transportation Committee, the post once held by Shuster's father, U.S. Rep. Bud Shuster.
Announced Democratic gubernatorial candidate John Hanger, the former secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection, and potential candidates, U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz and state treasurer Rob McCord, were also on hand.
One need only park oneself along the alley to see and be seen by all.
Bill Ryan, a lobbyist for Einstein Healthcare Network, planted himself near the main entranceway to the hotel, alternately hugging old friends who walked by and doling out remarks to others.
As former Philadelphia controller Jonathan Saidel breezed past, and teased him about Ryan talking to a reporter, Ryan called out in jest, "I was just telling them you'd be a great candidate for governor."
Ryan said while he enjoys the reunions with old friends, and comraderie of Pennsylvanians gathering en masse in the heart of New York, he doesn't shy away from talking health care policy, which looms as a major issue in the coming years, over hors d'oeuvres.
"I live and breathe this stuff," he said.
The event's highlight is the annual dinner on Saturday with an expected attendance of 1,400 this year, which honors an individual for distinguished service. Past honorees included Dwight D. Eisenhower and Bill Cosby.
This year's winner was the filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan, who was raised outside of Philadelphia and still calls the area home. His acclaimed movie "The Sixth Sense," among others, was set in Philadelphia.
"He's a dedicated person and an advocate for Pennsylvania as a prime film and TV location," said Carol Fitzgerald, executive director of the Pennsylvania Society.
The award's $50,000 prize will be donated to Springboard Collaborative, a Philadelphia organization supported by Shyamalan that provides summer education programs for low income children, Fitzgerald said.
For his part, Corbett said Pennsylvania Society allows him the opportunity for facetime with other government leaders and business executives in one setting.
"This is a chance for a lot of people to remind me of what their interests are and for me to give them an open ear, and to listen to them," he said.
One of the highlights of the weekend for him, he said, was a chance encounger with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia Friday night at one of the society events at the tony Carnegie Club.
The two shared a drink (Corbett had a gin and tonic) and a cigar, and bantered about the federal health care law known as Obamacare and the origins of the Pennsylvania Society.
Scalia, not knowing there was a private event going on, "crashed the gate," Corbett said, adding that the justice stopped at the Carnegie bar because it is one of the few places left in largely smoke-free New York where you can smoke a cigar indoors.
"It was just serendipity," said Corbett. "Often times it's the unplanned that's the most entertaining."
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