NEW YORK – For the second year in a row, Pennsylvania's political elite got dolled up and came to Manhattan for the state's biggest bash –though the weekend found some meandering through the countless soirees and receptions feeling disconnected from the glamour of years past, when the event was anchored in the marbled halls of the Waldorf Astoria.
Still, this year's Pennsylvania Society, as the annual trek to Manhattan for elected officials, lobbyists, and others is called, managed to combine some intrigue — will Sen. Bob Casey really wade into the 2020 presidential election? — along with more farcical moments, such as the presence of a blow-up photo booth at one of the more raucous late-night parties.
And the weekend's annual Saturday morning seminar and luncheon, hosted by the Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association (PMA), together with the University of Pennsylvania's breakfast and reception, even focused a bit on policy.
Yet, as was the case last year, there was an undercurrent of yearning for a time not so long ago when the weekend's events were held at the Waldorf, which has closed for multiyear renovations. As attendees flitted around the far less grand Hilton Hotel in Midtown, glasses of wine in hand, the refrain was universal: It's just not the same.
"The Hilton's nice, but it's not the Waldorf," said former Gov. Ed Rendell, as he made the rounds at the PMA event Saturday morning, and reminisced about how the Waldorf, beyond its glitz, also served up the best bacon. "The Waldorf was one of the things that made it a special weekend. It was such a grand hotel, unlike really anything that we have in Philadelphia."
Rendell said he attended a party Thursday night held by the New York billionaire John Catsimatidis, who owns an oil refinery in Pennsylvania. They'd hoped to recognize the four new Democratic women elected to the U.S. House from Pennsylvania last month: Mary Gay Scanlon of Delaware County, Madeleine Dean of Montgomery County, Chrissy Houlahan of Chester County, and Susan Wild of Lehigh County. They're known in some state political circles as the "Fab Four."
"It was in honor of the Fab Four, but the Fab Four were stuck doing caucuses down in Washington, so they connected by Skype," Rendell said.
The weekend's marquee event — although by far not its highlight — is the annual society dinner, where this year, Comcast chairman and CEO Brian L. Roberts was to be honored.
But attendees come up mainly for the schmoozing, and as in most years, Pennsylvania did not disappoint.
On Friday night, Mayor Kenney was spotted mingling at the various cocktail receptions.
Was he campaigning or deal-making or a little bit of both?
"We have an opportunity to interact with our regional representatives, elected officials. We have lots of bulk issues that mean a lot to all of us, like transportation and other issues," Kenney said when asked at the Metropolitan Caucus Reception, which was packed with pols, lobbyists, and the region's top executives. "It's nice to maintain relationships with them and strategize for what's going on in 2019 when the governor gets sworn in again."
Asked about his reelection campaign and his challengers — former City Controller Alan Butkovitz (real) and State Sen. Anthony H. Williams (potential) — the mayor had this to say before wading back into the sea of people waiting to get his ear: "I'm worried about 1,200 opioid deaths, gun violence, and everything else we're facing. Neither of them are on my mind."
With all 17 seats in City Council up for grabs next year, Council members Kenyatta Johnson, Derek Green, Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, Blondell Reynolds Brown, and Jannie Blackwell all made appearances at various events — as did a crop of younger Philadelphians who want their jobs. Spotted in the crowd were Lauren Vidas, who is challenging Johnson, as well as Eryn Santamoor and Isaiah Thomas, expected to run for at-large seats.
Between the various parties, there were more intimate gatherings. Ballard Spahr held a private dinner featuring, according to one attendee, Rendell, Scanlon, Comcast executive senior vice president David L. Cohen, Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick, and City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart, among others.
There were also panels, like the one hosted by PMA, that brought Democrats and Republicans together. In a spirit of bipartisanship, Democratic Lt. Gov.-elect John Fetterman and his unsuccessful GOP challenger, Jeff Bartos, shared the stage at the PMA for a speech.
Bartos, a Lower Merion real estate developer, confirmed that people have asked him about next steps. He wants to stay engaged in politics, and will be focused in 2019 on helping county parties win local races.
After that, who knows? He said he "loved" the opportunity to run in this election cycle, "and I hope I'll have another one."