As always, this year’s Pennsylvania Society gala will be ostentatious and overflowing with power brokers and the state’s political elite. That much is for certain.
Also certain is that it will be held not in Pennsylvania but in New York, as it has every year since 1899.
Of course, in the intervening century-plus, much has been made of this oxymoronic pairing: An event celebrating Pennsylvania being held outside the Commonwealth.
There have been editorials like this one, “Let’s put the Pa. Society weekend back in Pa.,” and even a local legislative attempt in Philadelphia to compel the event’s relocation to Pennsylvania, so that the millions of dollars spent on parties and events around the annual fete — money spent in New York City — might be kept in Pennsylvania.
This year Vice President Mike Pence is expected at one of those satellite events.
Gov. Tom Wolf will also attend this year’s dinner, along with a handful of Pa. Society-related gatherings, per his campaign. In years past he’s eschewed the grandeur of the Pa. Society circuit in favor of serving clients at Harrisburg soup kitchens. It will be Wolf’s first time attending as governor — ahead of his run at reelection in 2018.
“As he has in years past, Governor Wolf will be making a contribution to food banks around the state,” Wolf campaign spokesman Jeff Sheridan told The Incline via email. “Governor Wolf attended PA Society as governor-elect, but did not in his first year due to the budget, and last year attended a conflicting event in Philadelphia.”
Sheridan added, “The governor does believe PA Society should be in Pennsylvania.”
But will that happen? What would it take?
“That’s the million dollar question, because it’s been over 100 years that they’ve been doing this and nobody ever said, ‘Let’s do it in Pennsylvania,’ ” said Diann Coady, an administrative assistant with The Pennsylvania Society, the group behind Saturday’s anchor gala and dinner, which costs $500 per seat.
“I mean, they suggested — outside people and newspapers have suggested it. And every year they do an article saying it should be in Pennsylvania, but it is what it is. It’s a tradition.”
Coady added: “We have 25 board members, and that would be a huge discussion, and everyone would have to say, ‘I think it’s time we move to Pennsylvania,’ and I don’t think that’s gonna happen if it hasn’t happened by now.”
In this case, “by now” means 118 years after James Barr Feree first held a dinner for 55 notable Pennsylvanians who had moved to New York and in doing so laid the foundation for what would become The Pennsylvania Society.
According to the Society’s website: “While feasting on oysters and Delmonico steaks, they decided to form a group known initially as ‘The Pennsylvania Society of New York.’ Their goal was to establish a society ‘uniting all Pennsylvanians at home and away from home in bonds of friendship and devotion to their native or adopted state.’ ”
In 1903, when the organization was incorporated, the name was shortened to “The Pennsylvania Society.”
An annual dinner at New York City’s Waldorf Astoria continued as a tradition and over time ballooned into the sprawling days-long bacchanalia of politics and political access that is Pa. Society today. (This year’s gala was moved for the first time from the Waldorf, which is undergoing renovations, to the Hilton Midtown, Coady explained.)
And while surely beloved by some, the gala and its orbit of black tie events are also viewed as a necessary, if not uncomfortable, evil by others.
“Admittedly it’s way off brand for me personally,” said John Fetterman, one of five Democrats currently running in the May primary for Pennsylvania lieutenant governor. “However, 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.”
When he attended in 2015, Fetterman wore a tuxedo tee. He’s attending again this year and says while he’ll have the tuxedo shirt with him, he doesn’t plan on wearing it.
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto will also be there and is hosting a satellite event with Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. Peduto’s office confirmed that he is scheduled to be in NYC for Pa. Society.
As for its location, Coady said people seem to love it. She also said it likely won’t change anytime soon.
“People love Christmas in New York, so it’s a draw, and attendance has always been great. That could be part of the reason.”
This year, Pa. Society events kick off Thursday, Coady said. Around 1,000 people are expected to attend.