Election 2018

Is The Pennsylvania Society’s New York City gala creating a fault line among progressives?

The Democratic race for lieutenant governor says it all.

Crowds mingle before the 2015 Pennsylvania Society dinner.

Crowds mingle before the 2015 Pennsylvania Society dinner.

MARK DENT/BILLY PENN
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Updated: Dec. 5

Saturday’s Pennsylvania Society dinner drew hundreds of politicians and business leaders from around the state to Manhattan’s Midtown Hilton. It was all part of a ritzy, days-long celebration of the Commonwealth and those who lead it — both before and behind the scenes.

But it’s also worth noting who didn’t attend this year — and why.

Aryanna Berringer, one of the half dozen Democratic candidates for Pennsylvania lieutenant governor, said of the event via email, “I won’t go. There is just too much work to be done in Pennsylvania: whether it’s figuring out our state budget, or what will happen to children who will lose their healthcare when Donald Trump kicks them off CHIP, or all the other Pennsylvanians who find themselves in need, hanging out in swanky New York City bars doesn’t seem like a good Progressive answer to me.”

Another progressive LG candidate, Braddock Mayor John Fetterman, attended, but told The Incline, “it’s way off brand for me personally.”

“However,” he added, “it’s an invaluable networking opportunity, and running statewide, it’s an unparalleled opportunity to meet with elected and political leaders from all across Pennsylvania.”

Mayor John Fetterman at 2015's Pa. Society event in New York City.

Mayor John Fetterman at 2015's Pa. Society event in New York City.

MARK DENT/BILLY PENN

In progressive political circles, some see the Pa. Society gala as anathema for the reasons listed above by Berringer: It’s an opulent, indulgent and insider-driven enterprise, a celebration of the old guard (read: “establishment”) and elite political circles reviled by much of the state and, to be fair, the country. See also: “Drain the swamp.”

Others say it’s a political necessity, a fact of life for anyone in — or looking to be in — public office.

“… this is a tough reality for politicians from both parties,” said Kristin Kanthak, an associate professor with Pitt’s Department of Political Science. “You can’t win if you don’t raise money, but nobody likes it when politicians raise money.”

That seems to be a particularly acute dilemma for progressive candidates, like Fetterman and Berringer, whose shunning of political classism, power structures and norms is what many supporters prize most about them. Those supporters often see their progressive candidates as outsiders capable of squeezing the insiders for the greater good.

But ideologies affect little change from the sidelines, the thinking goes, and so the need to fundraise or network remains inescapable in terms of political ascendancy.

“I think progressive politics is caught in a really tight place right now when it comes to campaign finance,” Kanthak said.

When asked specifically about Fetterman, Kanthak added: “It doesn’t matter how good your message is if you don’t have money to deliver it to voters. Voters don’t pay enough attention to politics to hear a message with no money behind it. If Fetterman wants to be a serious candidate with a real chance of winning in our system, he has to raise money. If he asked me what the best way is to help the kinds of people he wants to help in the system we have, I’d advise him to go to New York.”

She concluded: “… he needs to raise money, and that’s what the Pa. Society has. He needs a lot more money than he had when he ran for the Senate, and so he needs to change strategies. From a strategic point of view, no one can beat him on his progressive bona fides if he has the most money to tout his progressive bona fides. That’s just how the system works.”

Fetterman is also fundraising online — sometimes with surprisingly rapid results. He also said he expects to make the majority of his campaign money through small, individual contributions. Fetterman raised $170,000 in two weeks during his failed 2016 U.S. Senate campaign. He raised $100,000 in the first week of his ongoing campaign for lieutenant governor.

So what of the other Democratic LG candidates and Pa. Society?

  • Current lieutenant governor Mike Stack attended Pa. Society 2017.
  • Chester County Commissioner and Democratic LG candidate Kathi Cozzone told The Incline she wouldn’t be attending following the sudden death of her friend and campaign manager Adam Swope in a November traffic collision.
  • Montgomery County State Representative Madeleine Dean, another Dem, planned to attend, per a spokesperson.
  • Lancaster County Commissioner Craig Lehman said he didn’t attend this year and went to an event thrown by Adams County Democrats instead. “I’ve never been to Pennsylvania Society,” Lehman explained. “But if I’m successful in my bid to be elected lieutenant governor, I would certainly consider it next year.”

Stack’s estranged counterpart, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, also attended for the first time during his tenure in office. He’s up for re-election in 2018.

In years past, Wolf has eschewed the grandeur of the Pa. Society circuit in favor of serving clients at Harrisburg soup kitchens. His re-election campaign said he’ll be donating to charity this year. Wolf last attended Pa. Society as governor-elect.

If nothing else, his attendance confirms the event as conventionally unavoidable for those seeking election, re-election or — on the flip side of the coin — access to any of the winners. And for many, that’s part of the problem. In short, it’s a two way street — one bellini-splashed hand washing the other.

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald also went to NYC, where they hosted a Pa. Society-related event on Friday. Some members of city council also attended, though it’s unclear exactly how many.

“No, I’m not [going],” outgoing Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak told The Incline last week. “It’s expensive, and I’m saving the little PAC money I have left for funding candidates and for my new project, Women for the Future Pittsburgh.”

Saturday’s Pa. Society dinner — the centerpiece in what amounts to a days-long festival of politics — costs $500 per plate. Rudiak added, “I would venture to say that most electeds use their PAC money to fund this trip.”

Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith said she wouldn’t attend either, adding that she never has and “likely never will.”

Councilman Corey O’Connor said he did attend this year, citing ongoing projects in his district and a local legislative initiative that he feels could benefit from a statewide audience. 

“With the Hazelwood site we broke ground [on] the other day, and a couple of other things we were working on — student loan funds and trying to cut those at the state level — I thought it’d be good to connect with people from across the state,” O’Connor told The Incline this morning.

O’Connor said he doesn’t attend every year and hasn’t for the last two years.

“It‘s a very old fashioned type of an event,” O’Connor added. “I don’t go to the dinner itself. I’m not into wearing a tuxedo for an extraordinarily long amount of time.” He opted instead for satellite events, where he said it’s easier to network.

Councilman Dan Gilman also attended this year’s event. He declined comment through a spokesperson when asked if the event should be moved from New York City to Pennsylvania.

The five other council members did not respond to inquiries about their Pa. Society plans.

Meanwhile, Pa. Society remains something of a double-edged sword for politicians navigating the populist wave building on either side of the partisan divide.

This may be particularly true in Democratic circles, though, as the party looks to repatriate the distanced or disappearing members of its fractured progressive wing ahead of next year’s elections. In fact, many in the party are counting on those members to be reenergized after a year under President Trump and able to sway outcomes in tight races if properly engaged.

There are also unrelated questions, like this one from Philly.com, about the future of the Pa. Society event itself and what appears to be a thinner dance card this year. This, after the event had to be moved from the Waldorf Astoria where it’s been held since 1899 and rescheduled to the week before its traditional calendar slot.

Also unclear is what the event falling out of political fashion could mean long term. While that may already be happening in certain circles, Pa. Society is still a long way from outliving its usefulness for candidates and those who want to know them. 

Organizers aren’t worried.

And they’re not planning on moving the event to Pennsylvania either. Regardless of where it’s held, the event will remain an inconvenient political truth for some and an indispensable part of the political machine for everyone else. It will also remain a prop of sorts, a means of declaring one’s opposition to everything that political machine entails.

Not that abstaining candidates like Berringer couldn’t find anything else to do this weekend.

Her campaign said she unloaded trucks for Toys-for-Tots and served meals to the homeless. There was also mention of a membership drive for the NAACP. (Berringer is a party activist and former congressional candidate from Westmoreland County.)

“It is time for us to remind everyone that Pennsylvania is a commonwealth in how we act and not just in name only,” she said in a statement. “Politicians in Pennsylvania must come to understand what is truly of value to the people they represent. It is time to break the old political ways and put forth a new generation of leaders.”

UPDATE: Councilman Dan Gilman’s declined comment has been clarified and his attendance confirmed.

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