Trash talk makes noise at Pa. Society

Pennsylvania state Sen. Scott Wagner (left) and Laura Ellsworth, a Pittsburgh attorney, at a Pennsylvania Society event. Both are Republicans running for governor. (Dave Davies/WHYY)

Pennsylvania state Sen. Scott Wagner (left) and Laura Ellsworth, a Pittsburgh attorney, at a Pennsylvania Society event. Both are Republicans running for governor. (Dave Davies/WHYY)

It’s the holiday season, a time when hundreds of Pennsylvania politicians, lobbyists, operatives, wanna-bes, and hangers-on, trek to midtown Manhattan for the three days of receptions, fundraisers, and schmoozing known as Pennsylvania Society weekend.

(For a little more on what the thing is and why journalists go, see the link below.)

I’m back from this year’s slightly scaled-down festivities, where much of the focus was on the 2018 elections, especially a contentious governor’s race that’s already generating some tough talk.

This Pennsylvania Society marked a break from decades of tradition, in that it wasn’t centered at the Waldorf Astoria hotel, which has been bought by Chinese investors and is closed for renovations.

It affected the feel of the weekend. Many of the events in the past were at the Waldorf, and you could loiter in the ornate lobby at any hour of the day and night and find people worth talking to.

Without the Waldorf, there was no center of gravity, so Manhattan was peppered with Pennsylvanians in suits and evening gowns wandering from one location to another, looking kind of dazed.

It’s not clear whether the weekend will ever return to the Waldorf, which renewed talk that the event and all the hospitality revenue that comes with it should come to Pennsylvania. It’s a great idea, and I doubt it will ever happen – tradition.

Guns blazing

Still, candidates were there to make their pitches in quiet and not-so-quiet ways.

One of the must-attend events is the Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association seminar, held on Saturday morning at the wood-paneled Metropolitan Club on the edge of Central Park.

It’s considered a policy discussion, but state Sen. Scott Wagner, one of four Republican candidates for governor, took it more in the direction of a WWF smackdown.

Reporters are barred from covering the seminar, but we hang out in a large anteroom. As participants filtered out, they were talking about how Wagner had made pointed critiques of his three Republican rivals, as well as Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and Lt. Gov. Mike Stack.

When Wagner emerged he told me and other lurking scribes that, yeah, he explained why the other contenders aren’t as qualified and he is.

Wagner is a self-made millionaire from the solid waste business, and he said he’s in this to bring efficiency to government and roll back regulations that are choking businesses in Pennsylvania.

“Doing business in Pennsylvania is like doing business in a mine field,” Wagner said. “Doing business in Pennsylvania sucks.”

He speaks with a lot of intensity and is sometimes likened to President Donald Trump, a comparison he found more flattering in January than he does today.

The other candidates made more traditional pitches, touting their own qualifications.

State House Speaker Mike Turzai presents himself as a “reformer with results.” Pittsburgh businessman Paul Mango and Pittsburgh attorney Laura Ellsworth are outsiders who know how to get things done. Wolf didn’t speak at the seminar, but I heard former Gov. Ed Rendell gave a short response to shots the Republicans took at Wolf.

Should be an interesting campaign.

Looking ahead

Plenty of Democrats at the event were giddy at the thought that 2018 could be a “wave election,” where tides of energized Democrats and independents turn out to vent their fury at Trump.

They talk of winning Congressional seats in the Philadelphia suburbs, and taking control of the House of Representatives.

Republicans seemed nervous, but not panicked. They have a base to rely on, they say, and a lot can happen between now and November 2018.

When I was loitering at the Metropolitan Club, Harrisburg Patriot News capitol correspondent Jan Murphy told me she had to do a Facebook Live interview with journalists about Pennsylvania Society for her website.

There weren’t many there, so Murphy ushered me and public radio’s former Harrisburg Correspondent Mary Wilson to stand in front of the club’s Christmas tree for a short discourse on the weekend, and why journalists attend.

I’m glad to be home.

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