“I love individuals, but I hate groups of people,” the late, great comedian George Carlin once said. “’Cause pretty soon they have little hats. And armbands. And fight songs…I dislike and despise groups of people, but I love individuals.”
I was reminded of Carlin’s take when I swept into the ornate lobby of New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Friday night and was greeted by a throng of our city’s elite. They were dressed to the nines, spilling out of a ballroom where the IBEW 98 union—John Dougherty’s electricians—was throwing a gala. Doc, wearing hipster eyewear and a suave suit, stood in the center of the room, and everything seemed to revolve around him. He wasn’t surrounded by laborers so much as rich people; yes, on this, the Friday night of Pennsylvania Society, the annual power bacchanalia our state’s movers and shakers have held in New York since 1899, it seemed like Doc and his crew were partying with a bunch of people with whom, under most other circumstances, they’d be in combat.
“What are you doing here?” State Senator Daylin Leach asked me. “You hate this, don’t you?”
Not hate, exactly. But I’m definitely ambivalent about it. And I’m not alone in that. “This is the first year I’ve brought my two young kids,” Leach said. “I figure it’s time they learn how to have meaningless five hundred-word conversations with people. That’s an important skill.”
Pennsylvania Society is a place for insiders to talk to insiders, make contacts, and get backroom deals in motion. Mostly, though, it’s the place where conventional wisdom gets formed.
The weekend consists of a dizzying lineup of cocktail parties and fundraisers, culminating in Saturday night’s black tie dinner. The whole gaudy thing started 115 years ago so New York’s titans of industry could keep tabs on our state’s business and political elite. Now it’s a Pennsylvania tradition—never mind that the estimated $20 to $50 million in economic impact enriches Gotham’s economy instead of ours. (Governor Rendell is among those who have long called for relocating the weekend gala to Philadelphia.) It’s a place for insiders to talk to insiders, make contacts, and get backroom deals in motion. Mostly, though, it’s the place where conventional wisdom gets formed and disseminated, where whispered speculation turns into commonly accepted articles of faith.
My wingman on this night was Penn Deputy Chief of Staff Leah Popowich, an old friend, and one of her New York girlfriends. Later, Comcast honcho David L. Cohen, upon being introduced to Leah’s friend, would say, “She’s your friend and you brought her to Pennsylvania Society? Why would you do that to her?” It should be noted here that this was Cohen’s 27th Pennsylvania Society weekend, and he usually carries around a slip of paper listing every party—making it a point to appear at them all.
Everybody’s ambivalent about the weekend, even as they trudge off to attend it. In the past, I’ve tried working through my distaste for it by writing about it. Larry Ceisler of Ceisler Media, a consummate insider, once told me: “You guys in the media have made Pennsylvania Society out to be a Roman orgy of everything that’s wrong with government and corporate America. To me, it’s really one of the greatest examples of accessible Democracy in action. You can be from a small nonprofit in the western part of the state representing some left-wing point of view, and if you walk into the Waldorf in a suit, you’ll be able to talk with the governor or a member of his cabinet.”
Theoretically, I see his point. But I don’t see a lot of truth being spoken to power at Pennsylvania Society. It’s more like power gossiping to power.
Look, I love a good party. But, for me, the weekend is another sign of our disconnect, a harbinger of our collective denial. We have real challenges here—a failing school system, a city with the highest tax burden and poverty rate in the land—and yet… our business and political leaders come together, in New York, no less, for three days of—essentially—gossip. It feels like a tacit endorsement of the status quo.
Once we were in the lobby, we started to hear the buzz. How outgoing Corbett and Nutter officials were making the rounds, looking for their next gigs. How finally someone had said what every one had been thinking when mayoral candidate Lynne Abraham smacked down Council President Darrell Clarke for torpedoing the Gas Works deal and for playing Hamlet on Broad Street when it comes to jumping into the race for mayor. “Stop being reluctant,” she scolded the day before Clarke was to hold a fundraiser in New York. “…It’s another fundraiser for him to decide if he’s going to decide.”
Finally, someone was telling it like it is, some said. I ran into one dissenter, though: “It’s a little hard to say you’ll be better able to work with Council than this mayor if this is how you talk about the Council president.” Maybe, but it sure felt good to hear a candidate say what so many of us had been saying amongst ourselves.
Pennsylvania Society parties in New York were abuzz with mayoral candidate Lynne Abraham’s taunting of Council President Clarke.
Upstairs at the Governor Mifflin reception, hosted by, among others, Ceisler, Montgomery County Commissioner Josh Shapiro, with a new close-cropped haircut, was shaking hands by the elevators, saying all the right, circumspect things about whether he’d run for U.S. Senate. Inside, former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer glad-handed while Joe Torsella, former head of the Constitution Center and U.S. Representative to the United States for Management and Reform, received congratulations for having already raised nearly $1 million for his forthcoming campaign for state treasurer. Mayoral candidate Ken Trujillo worked the room, telling his story.
“This is a different crowd than other years,” Leah observed, and she was right. Downstairs, the average age seemed to hover somewhere around deceased, but at the Mifflin party, more young people than ever before were doing the schmoozing, including Kellan White and Nikki Allen, who the next night—back in Philly—would be hosting the second annual Pattison Leader Ball at the Bellevue, an alternative to the stuffy $400 a head dinner at PA Society.
Twenty six percent of Philadelphians are young adults, and we lead the nation in percent of growth among the millennial population. If half registered to vote, let alone mobilize, they could change the city in countless ways—and this doesn’t even count the impact Gen Xers could wield. Trujillo, a virtual unknown until recently, seems to realize this. He skipped the deadly dull dinner Saturday night and returned to Philly to not only attend the Pattison Leader Ball—the only mayoral candidate to do so—but also to throw its after party at Pennsylvania 6. “We wanted to signal that Ken prioritizes spending time with young, engaged Philadelphians,” said Jane Slusser, his not coincidentally young, engaged political director.
The Ball, named for the two youngest governors in state history, featured roughly 200 of them coming together at $65 a head Saturday night, lending the Pattison Leader Ball a distinctively different vibe than what was happening 90 miles up the NJ Turnpike. Part of that was due to the spinning stylings of DJ Royale. “I did this event last year, and after some speeches, people got down,” he said. It’s a little hard to picture David Cohen busting a move. Go ahead, try it. See?
But the tenor of each conversation differed, as well. Here was Lisa Miccolis, one of our Citizens of the Week, whose Monkey & The Elephant pop-up coffee shop, which hires those who have aged out of the foster care system, would be the recipient of tonight’s proceeds. She may be about to close on a store lease, she said excitedly. Here was former Council aide and current lobbyist Lauren Vidas recounting the fate that awaited her client, UIL, in its attempt to buy the Gas Works, courtesy of Council President Darrell Clarke. “I was devastated as a citizen, more than anything else,” she said. Here was Nick Marzano, who ran for committee person and won, but who, upon attending his first committee meeting, felt like he was in a foreign land. “I was like, ‘Wait, did we just vote?’” he recalled. And here was a racial mix that looked more like Philly than anything you could see at the Waldorf or, for that matter, at most places of privilege in our town.
“Pennsylvania Society is useful if you are directly involved in politics, but at the end of the day, it’s an old school party for Pennsylvanians in New York,” young political strategist Dan Siegel told me. “Pattison Leader is an event for young Philadelphians, by young Philadelphians, and actually in Philadelphia. It’s a roomful of like-minded folks from all walks of life who want to accomplish something together, and who want to swap business cards and ideas.”
Siegel is precisely right. I love me some gossip, but it was in short supply at Pattison Leader. Instead, I heard people talking about actual ideas. If you agree that one of our gravest threats is the fracturing of community, this spiraling sense that it’s every man and woman for him or herself, that the common good too often seems an afterthought to private interests, well…perhaps this room could help put those fears to rest a bit. In the air was a sense of common purpose and shared adventure—and that was the biggest contrast to what was going down in New York. This room, naively perhaps, still believed in doing big things together. One attendee told me that thirty or forty of them were meeting to talk about ways to accelerate the pace of change here—that they were tired of being patted on the head and told to wait their turn.
Mayoral candidate Ken Trujillo skipped the Pennsylvania Society black tie gala in New York to attend the Pattison Leader Ball at the Bellevue and even threw the after party. Trujillo sees the impact young, engaged Philadelphians can have.
“Good for you,” I said. But a note of caution: Thirty-plus years ago, Marian Tasco was a new face, too. When, in 2012, she retired for a day to collect a retirement pension never intended for her—DROP— in the amount of $478,057 she told me, “That’s my money! I’m entitled it!” The point is, it’s not enough to be new; you also have to think new, and stay true to that thinking. I’ve told every young reformer I’ve met: As long as you stay committed to this storm the gates mentality of yours, The Citizen will have your back. And if you sell out, we’ll call you on it.
That’s why I was glad to hear that White and Allen are already thinking about, next year, introducing some type of policy-oriented programming as a precursor to the main event; the merging of substantive problem-solving with partying would likely be another point of departure from Pennsylvania Society.
When I left Saturday night’s party —right before Kellan White and Nikki Allen looked to be about to get their groove on on the dance floor— I was feeling pretty good. DJ Royale’s tunes, the conversations, the energy…here were a bunch of people who decided to start something without asking for permission of those who were, at that very moment, eating rubbery chicken in New York. We need more of that kind of thinking. Yeah, as I left the Bellevue, I realized something: That icky ambivalence I’d had the night before in New York was gone.