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Pa. politicians to mingle for votes, money and contacts

WASHINGTON - For the Pennsylvania political class preparing to engorge on food, drink and gossip at Saturday's annual Pennsylvania Society gathering in New York, the political buffet offers many options.

Braddock Mayor John Fetterman and wife Gisele discuss his Senate campaign. He will attend the event.
Braddock Mayor John Fetterman and wife Gisele discuss his Senate campaign. He will attend the event.Read more(MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)

WASHINGTON - For the Pennsylvania political class preparing to engorge on food, drink and gossip at Saturday's annual Pennsylvania Society gathering in New York, the political buffet offers many options.

Several high-profile primary races, including for two Congressional seats and maybe the attorney general's office, loom in what promises to be a rollicking election year.

But the big headliner is Pennsylvania's U.S. Senate race, among the most closely watched in the country, and featuring a three-way Democratic primary in a contest that could help decide control of the Senate.

Two of the Democrats running to challenge incumbent Republican Pat Toomey will be in New York: Katie McGinty and John Fetterman, who will be making his first trip to the event as he tries to leap from the mayor's office in tiny Braddock (pop. 2,100) to the nomination for a critical statewide race.

McGinty, who ran for governor last year and until this summer served as Gov. Wolf's chief of staff, is familiar to many of the political and media figures who flood the parties at the Waldorf Astoria.

Fetterman, who launched an upstart campaign in September and leads a small borough outside Pittsburgh, is less widely known. But it should be hard to miss the 6-foot-8 goateed and tattooed mayor as he moves among the elite at the luxurious hotel.

"We've already circulated his photo with the Waldorf security team so he's not stopped in the lobby," a Fetterman spokeswoman wrote.

Another Democrat running as an antiestablishment figure, former admiral and Delaware County Congressman Joe Sestak, will not attend, his campaign said. Sestak will be in Pennsylvania "focused on other issues."

After running for Senate in 2010, Sestak is also a known quantity to many in the Commonwealth.

For candidates - particularly those like Fetterman, who are trying to build their networks - the event offers a chance to meet political players from across the state.

Several regular attendees called it a "one-stop shop."

"Pennsylvania is a large state, so this is the only time that a lot of the movers and shakers are in the same place at the same time," said Christopher Nicholas, a veteran Republican consultant.

Laying groundwork

The weekend is unlikely to mean much to regular Pennsylvania voters. Few, if any, of them will be found at a New York event catering to insiders and reporters.

But for those on the ballot, the three days of handshakes, panels, and speeches - slicked with food and drink - offer a chance to lay campaign groundwork.

Some people expect this year's gathering to be somewhat subdued, given the long budget stalemate casting a shadow over state politics.

But if you're seeking endorsements or donations, it's an easy way to meet face-to-face and plan follow-ups, Nicholas said. Unreturned messages might get a call back after a few minutes of personal conversation.

"If you're on first you can get to second or third, then you get closer to being able to consummate the deal," he said.

For members of Congress who might typically connect only with those in their region, the gathering provides a chance to branch out.

For those running statewide, it saves time.

"In one place, you can get people who are Philadelphia, people who are Pittsburgh, people who are mid-state, people who are Scranton and Erie," said Rep. Brendan Boyle (D., Pa.).

And there will be a wide variety of players under one roof.

"There might be government leaders there, but there are donors, constituency group leaders. There are nonprofit leaders. So it really is a place that offers an opportunity to talk to a lot of people in very rapid succession," said Dan Fee, a Democratic consultant from Philadelphia. "As long as you don't go and spend more money than you make, it has a value."

Seeking money

Of course, in a locale that screams money, hopefuls seek donations.

Democratic Sen. Robert Casey Jr., up for reelection in 2018, will raise money for that race.

Toomey hosts a fund-raiser each year and will do so again next weekend. He'll also speak at an event hosted by the business-friendly Pennsylvania Manufacturers' Association.

The Democratic contest to challenge him is still in its early stages, though some outlines are emerging.

McGinty is the establishment pick, racking up prominent endorsements. Sestak is thumbing his nose at the Washington and Pennsylvania establishments, counting on grassroots support and a busy campaign schedule.

Fetterman has emerged as an outsider promoting his work in a borough struggling with poverty and job losses.

But that's not the only race grabbing attention and sure to heat up as the calender turns and candidates eye April's primary.

There's also a Democratic primary fight shaping up in Philadelphia as four hopefuls jockey to challenge Rep. Chaka Fattah. In that overwhelmingly Democratic district, the primary winner will almost certainly go to Congress.

In Bucks County, Republican Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick's pending retirement has brought a national focus to one of the country's few true swing seats. So far, two members of each party are running.

And there are rumored bids in both parties to replace embattled Attorney General Kathleen Kane.

Overshadowing them all is the raucous presidential race, whose GOP front-runner - Donald Trump - will headline a Pennsylvania Republican party dinner and fund-raiser.

Locally, a new administration still is taking shape in Philadelphia City Hall.

Fattah will attend the event but said his main plan is attending breakfasts hosted by the University of Pennsylvania and Temple, not politicking.

He didn't put much stock in how an event in Manhattan will factor into his reelection fight in Philadelphia.

"When you write the story the Wednesday after my election," he said, "I don't think it's going to have much to do with Pennsylvania Society."