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Dems worried about COVID, Republicans wary of restrictions as a slimmed-down Pa. Society kicks off in NY

The big gathering of politicos is back this year, but still taking a hit from COVID-19.

Guests mill about during cocktail hour at the New York Hilton Midtown before the start of the Pennsylvania Society’s 121st Annual Dinner in December 2019.
Guests mill about during cocktail hour at the New York Hilton Midtown before the start of the Pennsylvania Society’s 121st Annual Dinner in December 2019.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

Pennsylvania Society, that posh parley of politicos that occurs every December, returns this weekend to Manhattan at less than half-strength, trying to rebound from last year’s cancellation and a politicized pandemic.

Clout found COVID-19 is a strong factor in the sluggish return, with Republicans and Democrats staying away for very different reasons.

Some Republicans abhor New York’s requirement to show proof of vaccination to enter indoor venues. Some Democrats are concerned about virus variants on the rise, including omicron’s arrival in the United States.

A sampling:

Kathy Barnette, a Republican from Montgomery County running for the U.S. Senate, told Clout she is “not interested in showing my papers as if I’m in Nazi Germany to get access to anything.” She says she plans to spend the weekend campaigning at farms in Susquehanna and Lehigh Counties.

Kevin Baumlin, an emergency medicine doctor running in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, told us: “I don’t love the idea of an unmasked large indoor event. It does seem a bit premature until we know more about omicron.” He’ll campaign in Philadelphia and York this weekend.

Clout hears state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, the Democratic front-runner for governor next year, and Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, a Democratic contender for the Senate, are staying home.

State Sen. Sharif Street, a Philadelphia Democrat and vice chair of the party’s state organization, said he might show up for a bit but won’t be spending the night. He’s exploring a run for the U.S. Senate.

The Pennsylvania Republican Party, which usually holds a Friday lunch event in Manhattan, will instead host a dinner next week in Warminster with South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem as the speaker. Clout hears that decision was driven by a reluctance to make people show vaccination status in New York. The party declined to comment on that.

The University of Pennsylvania and Temple University are not holding their popular breakfast meetings.

Many other cocktail parties, receptions, campaign fund-raisers, exclusive private dinners, and other schmooze-fests have fallen off the calendar this year. The website, which pulls together a Pennsylvania Society schedule each year, listed 35 events in 2019. That list was down to seven this year.

Only 450 tickets — at $600 a pop — have been sold for the swanky black-tie dinner Saturday, down from pre-pandemic norms of 750 to 1,000 attendees. And even some of those sold seats will be empty.

Edward Sheehan Jr., president of the council that oversees Pennsylvania Society, said some members purchased tables for the dinner, which run from $6,000 to $7,200 even as they said they didn’t plan to attend. Still, Sheehan is optimistic for the weekend and for future events.

“The real heart to the Pennsylvania Society weekend is the dinner,” he said. “And I’m very confident that next year more and more receptions will return.”

Ala Stanford, founder of the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium, will be honored at the dinner with the Society’s gold medal for distinguished achievement. Her group, which provided virus tests and vaccines to underserved communities, opened a clinic in October in Swampoodle.

Sheehan said the organizers have not experienced any pushback from would-be attendees about the requirement to show vaccination status before entering.

“I think people, if they’re not vaccinated or don’t believe that’s the appropriate thing, are showing their sentiments but just not buying tickets to go to the dinner,” he said.

The always well-attended Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association seminar returns to the opulent Metropolitan Club on Saturday morning, where candidates usually make pitches to a bipartisan audience. U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb, vying for the Democratic Senate nomination, will be one of several speakers there.

PMA president David N. Taylor said attendance is off this year, with some regulars staying away since so many other events are not being held.

“It was inevitable that we would not come back immediately at full strength,” Taylor said. “I think this is something that will build back.”

Clout has heard plenty of Pennsylvania Society grumbling since 2017, when the event shifted from the gilded ballrooms of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel to the blank and blocky architectural monolith known as the New York Hilton Midtown.

Pennsylvania Society was started in 1899 by New York-based business barons to help maintain political contacts important to their interests in the Keystone State’s coal, oil, steel, and railroads.

The Waldorf Astoria has been undergoing extensive renovations, with a portion of the famed hotel being converted to condominiums. Sheehan said Pennsylvania Society expects to return to that art deco icon in 2023, which could draw renewed interest to the event.

On the lookout at Pa. Society

Does Mehmet Oz, the celebrity television doctor from New Jersey who just entered the Pennsylvania Republican primary for Senate, show? What about Connecticut-based David McCormick, a leader of the world’s largest hedge fund, who is being courted by Pennsylvania Republicans to enter that race?

Will any Democrat look for attention with a potential challenge to Shapiro, the only contender in his party’s primary for governor? And will the crowded Republican primary for governor keep adding candidates?

We’re also curious which Philadelphians will use the weekend for positioning in the 2023 race for mayor.

Team Clout for Pa. Society

Hear something juicy at Pennsylvania Society? Clout is running a three-player zone defense for the weekend in New York. Follow us on Twitter for details and DM us with your tips.

Chris Brennan: @ByChrisBrennan

Julia Terruso: @JuliaTerruso

Sean Collins Walsh: @sbcmw