Tonight, almost anyone who is anyone in our state’s power constellation—elected officials, business mavens, nonprofit execs, lobbyists—will sweep into the ornate lobby of New York City’s Waldorf-Astoria and begin a weekend bacchanalia that has taken place each year since 1899, a dizzying lineup of cocktail parties and fundraisers (and did I mention cocktail parties?), culminating in Saturday night’s black tie gala.
As I’ve written before, 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. 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.
Like many, I go…feeling ambivalent about it all the while. A couple of years ago, State Senator Daylin Leach, who always comes equipped with a pithy quip, told me it was the first year he’d brought his two children with him. “I figure it’s time they learn how to have meaningless five hundred-word conversations with people,” he said. “That’s an important skill.”
Last year, The Citizen filled up a bus with a group of young disruptors and brought them to Friday night’s parties, an effort to inject some new blood into a sclerotic tradition. And we’ve been fully behind Kellan and Nikki White’s Pattison Leader Ball, named for the two youngest governors in Pennsylvania history. It’s an engaged young person’s alternative to the stuffy gala tomorrow night—and it’s back here, in Philly. (Get tickets here to attend.)
But this year, real change has suddenly been thrust upon PA Society: The Waldorf-Astoria will soon by closing for up to 3 years, as its new owners, China’s Anbang Insurance Group, convert most of its hotel rooms to luxury apartments. So this year’s Pennsylvania Society may very well be the last at the storied Waldorf-Astoria, where the concept of room service was invented, not to mention the Waldorf Salad.
The vibe of the hotel had everything to do with Pennsylvania Society. Now that that’s over, one would think the Pennsylvania Society Board would certainly heed the longstanding advice of former Governor Ed Rendell and current Governor Tom Wolf, and—even if only for the period that the Waldorf is closed for renovations—relocate the gathering to Pennsylvania, rotating years between Pittsburgh and Philly. You would think. But the Board has spoken. Next year, and for those thereafter until the Waldorf reopens, PA Society will move to…Manhattan’s Midtown Hilton.
“The Hilton? Good God,” says Rendell. “I tried to convince the Board for years to bring it to Philly and Pittsburgh, to no avail. Now is the perfect opportunity to try something like that.”
Wolf agrees; according to Rendell, Wolf will not be attending, at least in part as a protest to the decision to keep the party in New York. The fact that Wolf, rather than going to Saturday night’s black tie gala in New York, is sponsoring, and will be attending, the Pattison Leader Ball at Revolution House in Old City, getting his white man overbite on with the millennials, pretty much confirms where the governor comes down on the annual tradition. (Wolf’s office didn’t return calls yesterday to talk about this.)
Not only would relocating to our two major cities keep the economic impact of Pennsylvania Society within our local economies, it just might go a long way toward combatting our junior varsity self-image vis a vis New York. C’mon, man: Can’t we do stuffy galas here just as well as the city that has given the world Donald Trump?
When Rendell has made the case to the Board, that’s the word that has kept coming up: “Tradition.” Well, by virtue of the Waldorf closing, the tradition has left us—and not the other way around. Better to start a new tradition at, say, the Park Hyatt Bellevue here in Philly and the William Penn in Pittsburgh. The other argument has been that relocating it to Pennsylvania will invite a drop-off in attendance. Pennsylvanians, the thinking goes, go to the New York shindig as much for the city’s unique array of shopping, dining and entertainment amenities as for what happens within the Waldorf-Astoria. Rendell’s not totally buying it. “They say New York is a draw because it’s beautiful during the holiday season,” he says. “Well, so are Pittsburgh and Philadelphia!”
Not only would relocating to our two major cities keep the economic impact of Pennsylvania Society within our local economies, a good time in either place might make state politicians think more fondly of the cities when creating policy. And it just might go a long way toward combatting our junior varsity self-image vis-a-vis New York. C’mon, man: Can’t we do stuffy galas here just as well as the city that has given the world Donald Trump?
But there’s a serious reason to view the closing of the Waldorf-Astoria as an opportunity to change the ethos of the weekend. 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 gossip, schmoozing and a $400 per head rubbery chicken dinner. It feels like a tacit endorsement of the status quo, a status quo that—as a recent election result has shown—is leading more and more people to feel like they’ve been left behind.
To its credit, Pennsylvania Society isn’t just about Gilded Age-like partying. The organization underwrites a scholarship program and honors three Benjamin Franklin Scholar Award winners each year. But they’ve missed an opportunity to do the right thing here. Then again, maybe it isn’t too late. Populism is in nowadays, or haven’t you heard? So let’s give Pennsylvania Society a dose of populist sentiment. Maybe if they hear from you, they’ll bring this party back to Pennsylvania—even if only temporarily, at first.
So reach out to the 25 member Board—what do you have to lose? Tell them: If you’re going to get together to celebrate what one percenters tend to celebrate, at least do it here, where the rest of us can get some ancillary economic benefits. Here’s the list of Board members. They don’t list their email addresses (natch), but here’s a link to the organization’s contact page, and we have the numbers of the three main officers in the box to the right.
I’m heading up later today. And, no, I doubt I’ll be at the freakin’ Hilton next year.