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From the archives 2021

Vaunted Pennsylvania Society weekend loses luster among politicos

by Angela Couloumbis of Spotlight PA |

Guests attend the Cozen O'Connor cocktail reception at the 21 Club in Manhattan, an event for the annual Pennsylvania Society.
HEATHER KHALIFA / Philadelphia Inquirer

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HARRISBURG — For years, Pennsylvania Society has been the marquee event for the state’s politicians and the well-heeled special interests that want something from them: a long weekend in New York City featuring back-to-back swanky fundraisers, black-tie soirees, and after-hours parties.

Good-government groups have criticized the event as the epitome of garish largesse at best — and everything that’s wrong with politics at worst. But anyone who is anyone (or wanted to be someone) in state political circles wouldn’t dare miss the annual pilgrimage every December for three days of backslapping, power-brokering, and, far less frequently, policy-making.

But this year, Pennsylvania Society (scheduled for this weekend) is expected to look and feel far different, organizers, attendees, and others say. Attendance will be down, and long-standing events such as receptions thrown by law firms and business groups have been merged or canceled outright.

One reason for this year’s scaled-down version, organizers say, is the pandemic, which has curbed interest in travel and crowded indoor gatherings.

COVID-19 concerns are why Democratic candidate for governor, Attorney General Josh Shapiro, isn’t attending, a spokesperson told PennLive. Several Republican candidates for the executive office, however, will make the journey, including Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R., Centre) and former U.S. Rep Lou Barletta.

Another reason for lower attendance is the shift in the event’s main location in recent years, from the storied ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria to the far more sober party rooms of the Midtown Hilton. Since the Waldorf closed for multi-year renovations, attendees have openly grumbled that Pennsylvania Society has lost its allure.

A larger, more existential question looms over the venue change and pandemic adjustments, though: Is Pennsylvania Society an anachronism?

Edward J. Sheehan Jr., its president, doesn’t think so. In an interview, he said unity underpins the society’s work and mission.

“We seek diversity and inclusion,” said Sheehan, who also is president and CEO of Concurrent Technologies Corporation, an applied scientific research and development organization based in Johnstown. “One way to do that is to bring people together to talk … and exchange ideas.”

Pennsylvania Society dates back to 1899, according to the organization’s website. That year, Pennsylvanian James Barr Ferree, living in New York City at the time, invited 55 other transplants to dine at the Waldorf-Astoria. His goal: to unite Pennsylvanians “at home and away from home in bonds of friendship and devotion to their native or adopted state.”

They met for dinner every year at the same time and place, and were initially known as The Pennsylvania Society of New York.

The gathering grew over the years and saw big names join in, including Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, and Dwight D. Eisenhower.

In modern times, that dinner, while technically the centerpiece of the weekend, has been overtaken by invitation-only fundraisers, receptions, and other events that have sprung up around it, turning the gathering into a whirlwind, three-day schmooze fest — and earning the derision of good-government activists.

Eric Epstein, cofounder of the nonpartisan good-government group Rock the Capital, called the event a “glorified pay-to-play winter carnival.”

“We need less self-interest and more common good, and we need to focus on Pennsylvania problems and not New York parties,” said Epstein. “We need to put the Society on ice, and thaw out democracy.”

Sheehan disagrees.

He said that the New York dinner is one of the biggest fundraisers for the society, and that its proceeds allow the group and its partners to award college scholarships to Pennsylvania high schoolers.

Sheehan also noted that the society annually honors exceptional service by a Pennsylvania resident with its Gold Medal award. This year, Philadelphia surgeon Ala Stanford is the recipient.

That spirit of inclusion, he said, defines the society’s mission and event.

“The dinner is really the heart of the weekend,” he said.

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