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Corbett drops some hints at Pa. Society

NEW YORK - Some travel to the annual Pennsylvania Society event to test the waters for political campaigns, and some to seal deals or buttonhole lawmakers.

Gov. Corbett talks with guests during the Pennsylvania Society meeting at the Waldorf Astoria in N.Y. ASHLEE ESPINAL / For The Inquirer
Gov. Corbett talks with guests during the Pennsylvania Society meeting at the Waldorf Astoria in N.Y. ASHLEE ESPINAL / For The InquirerRead more

NEW YORK - Some travel to the annual Pennsylvania Society event to test the waters for political campaigns, and some to seal deals or buttonhole lawmakers.

Gov. Corbett came this year - midway through his first term - to assert himself as the state's de facto leader and position himself for a second term in 2014.

Speaking to several hundred people, mostly 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-store privatization, and the state's transportation system.

He gave no details - not even a specific timetable on fixing decaying bridges, aging mass transit, and hundreds of miles of crumbling roads - but said the plan would be tied to his February budget address.

"The proposals are coming; we have a lot of options," Corbett told reporters after speaking at the Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association breakfast.

But just the mention of a transportation plan in the works was enough to generate instant news releases from business groups, and relief on the part of GOP legislative leaders frustrated by what they see as Corbett's lack of leadership on major items.

"The governor has to be out front. He's the leader of the state," said House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny). He said Corbett's speech "was a good starting point. But we need the concrete proposals. Because without them you will not be able to develop a consensus."

As buzz about real and potential Democratic challengers grows, Corbett again declined to say if he would run again. But he did say he was "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 commonwealth's political and business who's who since 1898.

And since the start, the venue for the elite and those who want to connect with them has been the Waldorf Astoria.

The impetus in the early days was that many industrial titans reaped their riches in Pennsylvania while maintaining headquarters in New York.

Despite the formality of the annual soirée, Pennsylvania Society had its low moments this year, including a bar fight that broke out between a group of Republicans and a man who was out with some members of the powerful Local 98 electricians union.

According to one person involved, the two sides got into an argument late Friday night inside the swanky bar of the W Hotel that led to mostly shoving and pushing -- but a few punches were also thrown. And the group was summarily bounced from the club.

Frank Keel, a spokesman for Local 98, said the man - who he would not name - was not an actual union member or consultant. Rather, said Keel, the person was just out with Local 98 members, who were also at the bar inside the W Hotel.

Boldface mingling

Today, the three days of round-the-clock activities - from early-morning breakfasts and road races to postmidnight dessert parties - provide opportunities for networking, fund-raising, and lobbying. The Waldorf's famed lobby, known as Peacock Alley, and reception rooms are overrun with Pennsylvanians, some waiting in a receiving line to pay respects to Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware), others cramming into a dance party hosted by electricians union chief John Dougherty.

Among the mingling boldface names were U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, Mayor Nutter, Attorney General-elect Kathleen Kane, U.S. Reps. Pat Meehan, Charlie Dent, Jim Gerlach, and Allyson Schwartz, state Treasurer Rob McCord, and former Gov. Ed Rendell.

One need only park oneself along Peacock Alley to see and be seen by all.

Bill Ryan, lobbyist for Einstein Healthcare Network, planted himself near the main entrance, alternately hugging old friends and doling out smart-aleck remarks.

As former Philadelphia Controller Jonathan Saidel breezed by, and cracked wise about Ryan's talking to a reporter, Ryan joked: "I was just telling them you'd be a great candidate for governor."

Ryan said that while he enjoys the reunions with old friends and camaraderie of Pennsylvanians gathering in the heart of New York, he isn't shy about talking health-care policy, a looming major issue, over hors d'oeuvres.

"I live and breathe this stuff," he said.

The society's highlight is the annual dinner Saturday with an expected attendance of 1,400 this year, honoring a person for distinguished service.

A dedicated advocate

President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Bill Cosby were past winners. This year's was filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan, who was raised outside of Philadelphia and still calls the area home. His acclaimed 1999 movie, The Sixth Sense, 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 the Pennsylvania Society was an opportunity for face time 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.

For Corbett, one highlight was a chance encounter with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia on Friday at one of the society events at the tony Carnegie Club.

Scalia, not knowing of the private event, "crashed the gate," Corbett said, adding that the justice stopped at the Carnegie bar because it is one of the few spots left in mostly smoke-free New York to smoke indoors.

The two shared a drink (Corbett had a gin and tonic) and a cigar, and bantered about the federal Affordable Care Act and the origins of the Pennsylvania Society.

"It was just serendipity," said Corbett. "Oftentimes it's the unplanned that's the most entertaining."

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