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Wolf in spotlight as Pa. Society gathers

The annual event is about politicians getting together and discussing what's going on.

Pennsylvania Governor-elect Tom Wolf. (Tom Gralish / Staff Photographer)
Pennsylvania Governor-elect Tom Wolf. (Tom Gralish / Staff Photographer)Read more

HARRISBURG - When Gov.-elect Tom Wolf heads to New York City on Friday for the annual wining, dining, and networking extravaganza known as the Pennsylvania Society, he will be the man saying No-Thank-You in the land of Thank-You-Very-Much.

With many high-profile staff and cabinet positions yet to fill, Wolf will be a main attraction as he joins scores of officials, lobbyists, and political strategists at cocktail receptions and parties hosted by the well-heeled and well-connected.

The difference is that Wolf has built his reputation as an anti-politician of sorts, a man with a low tolerance for handouts, freebies, and any of the trappings that come with the job. And he expects the same for his staff.

"I don't want to take this to a foolish extreme," he said this week, "but the idea is that the people of my administration are not there to feather their nest."

The Pennsylvania Society weekend is all about the trappings, starting with the main gathering spot: the gilded rooms of the Waldorf-Astoria.

Steve Miskin, spokesman for the Republicans who control the House of Representatives, said the weekend is about "tradition" and "a place to discuss the issues of the day."

Eric Epstein, cofounder of the government reform group Rock the Capital, had a different perspective, likening it to a "frat party on steroids."

"It's where power, privilege, and the wealthy go to make deals," he said.

Though Wolf and his incoming administration will dominate much of the weekend's talk, there will be several sideshows. There will be jockeying (and much fund-raising) among the growing field of candidates running in next year's race for Philadelphia mayor. And speculation about who might challenge Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey in 2016.

Also a hot topic of discussion: the fate of Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane, who is awaiting a decision soon by a statewide grand jury investigating if she or anyone in her office violated secrecy rules by allegedly leaking investigative information to discredit enemies.

Kane, who at last year's Pennsylvania Society was considered a rising star, plans on making the trek north, spokeswoman Renee Martin said.

Also attending the weekend's events: legislative leaders from both sides of the political aisle, as well outgoing Republican Gov. Corbett and several members of his administration - some of whom will be trawling for new jobs.

Still, Wolf, who some in the Capitol have privately nicknamed "Mr. Clean," will likely be the closest-watched politician on the Society weekend circuit.

So far, the York businessman has said that while he intends on attending some events, he's going to forgo hosting his own reception. Instead, he is donating the money he would have spent on such an event to food banks.

In real dollars, that translates into $20,000 this year, said Jeff Sheridan, Wolf's transition spokesman.

Wolf did the same last year - to the tune of $17,000 - when he was just a little-known candidate in a sea of many vying for the Democratic nomination.

After he was elected, one of the first announcements he made was that he would impose what he's calling a "no-thank-you" rule on his appointees and executive staff employees. That means no gifts, whether free tickets to a ball game or lunches and dinners, where the tab is picked up by someone with an interest in state government.

How that will play out this weekend in Manhattan, where free food and drinks are staples at most events, remains a question mark.

The Pennsylvania Society was formed in 1899 to help New York-based business barons maintain political and social contacts in Pennsylvania, where their interests - mainly coal, oil, steel, railroads, and merchandise - were located. Among the names dotting the early event programs were Mellon, Carnegie, Wanamaker, and Strawbridge.

These days, it's a dizzying array of dress-up parties, fund-raisers, and galas - anchored by the Pennsylvania Society dinner on Saturday at the Waldorf.

For his part, Wolf said in the interview that he wants there to be a "reasonableness" to the rule.

"If you are at a party and the host offers a drink, is that a gift?" he said. "I guess technically it is, but I don't think I look at that and say, that is a quid pro quo."

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