While we have been giving a lot of blog attention to New York State over the past few weeks, highlighting Governor Cuomo’s ties to the business lobbies pushing for natural gas in New York, Pennsylvania’s titans of business and politics paid their respects to the Empire State this past weekend, making their annual pilgrimage to New York City’s Waldorf-Astoria for the Pennsylvania Society Weekend.
Alternately called a “weekend-long marathon of dinners and cocktails” that “brings together political, civic and business leaders from across Pennsylvania and across the aisle” and an “orgy of eating, drinking and, needless to say, politicking by the state’s most powerful and influential people,” the Pennsylvania Society weekend is a 114-year-old tradition wherein Pennsylvania elites, “[p]oliticians from the governor down, lobbyists and lawyers seeking their favor, corporate chiefs from Pittsburgh and Philadelphia inclined to write campaign checks,” gather in New York for what has expanded to more than 60 events sponsored by candidates, law firms, and interest groups.
Former Governor Ed Rendell told the New York Times that the weekend of schmoozing is a compulsion: “For politicians, it’s like salmon swimming upstream to give birth. We do it by instinct.”
Like all things political in Pennsylvania, the natural gas industry has a pervasive presence at the Pennsylvania Society, where revolving door lobbyists tipple with policymakers and hopefuls at thousand dollar a head receptions and break bread at invitation-only dinners all in the twinkly, gilded grandeur of midtown Manhattan in December.
The main event of the Pennsylvania Society weekend is a dinner put on by the Pennsylvania Society itself, a group incorporated in 1904 by native Pennsylvanians living in New York after five years of meeting at the Waldorf-Astoria to feast on oysters and Delmonico steaks but now based in Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania Society’s Council, its term for its board of directors, includes numerous industry names familiar to anyone who follows Pennsylvania’s natural gas revolving door:
- Nicholas DeBenedictis, the chairman of Aqua America, a company that supplies water to the gas industry, a former director of Exelon, and a member of Governor Tom Corbett’s energy and environment transition committee.
- Kathryn Klaber, until this summer the president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition.
- William H Spence, the chairman, president, and CEO of PPL Corporation, a family of gas and electric utilities.
- C Alan Walker, former president of Bradford Energy, a coal and gas mining company, and current Secretary of the Department of Community and Economic Development in Tom Corbett’s administration.
Other Pennsylvania Society councilors and councilors emeriti are tied to the gas industry as lobbyists, lawyers, or accountants. Cozen O’Connor, Saul Ewing, ParenteBeard, and Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellott are all associate members of the Marcellus Shale Coalition with employees on the Pennsylvania Society board.
While the Pennsylvania Society dinner is the founding event of the weekend, word has it the “real action” is to be found at the numerous luncheons, cocktail hours, dinners, and receptions surrounding the Society dinner. These range from candidate fundraisers, where this year entrance cost anywhere from $100 for a fundraising brunch for State Representative Mike Fleck and a private residence to $11,500 for a host designation at an event for Philadelphia City Council President Darrell Clarke at Noir, to invitation only receptions put on by the commonwealth’s top businesses and lobbying firms.
Until campaign finance disclosures for the period are released, it’s hard to know who attended which of the candidates’ fundraisers. It’s even harder to know who received and accepted the non-transferable invitations to the private parties, though the magic of social media aided a glimpse inside as the Keystone State’s one percent and their dates took to Twitter and Instagram to share the glamour of #PASociety:
— Aubrey Montgomery (@aubreymonty) December 14, 2013
— Chris Kelly (@ChrisLuxKelly) December 17, 2013
— bravogroup (@bravogroup) December 14, 2013
The last photo is of post-black tie Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett at the invitation-only reception thrown by the Bravo Group at Maggie’s Place. The adamantly pro-fracking governor can be seen talking to Dennis Walsh and Chris Bravacos, the lobby shop’s president of government relations and CEO respectively. The Bravo Group represents a number of gas industry clients, including Chief Oil & Gas and PPL, and it employs a number of former government staffers who exited through the revolving door, including the two men pictured with Corbett:
- Chris Bravacos was deputy secretary of legislative affairs to former Governor Tom Ridge (who himself lobbied for the Marcellus Shale Coalition after his tenure as Director of Homeland Security).
- Dennis Walsh was Ridge’s secretary of legislative affairs.
- Sarah Battisti, energy practice lead at the Bravo Group, was chief of staff to former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell.
- Pam Witmer, former leader of the Bravo Group’s energy and environment practice, was Ridge’s lead legislative liaison. She now sits on the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission.
The Bravo Group wasn’t the only gas industry group to throw a party, however. In addition to the Bravo Group’s reception, there were 10 events hosted by energy industry companies, groups, or their lobbying and law firms as a part of the Pennsylvania Society Weekend. Blank Rome LLP, home to former Secretary of Environmental Protection Michael Krancer and former home to former Public Utility Commission chairman and Ridge advisor Glen Thomas, threw two events: a two-hour “Government Relations Briefing” in the Chrysler Building and reception at the Intercontinental New York Barclay.
Waste Management, Cozen O’Connor, Buchanan Ingersoll Rooney, and Saul Ewing, all members of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, each held an event over the weekend in addition to the reception hosted by the Coalition itself. The dancing, bar, and desserts provided by the W New York hotel went from nine pm until one in the morning. Another group, the Energy Association of Pennsylvania, threw a party in the Waldorf-Astoria’s Marco Polo Lounge.
Finally, CONSOL Energy, a coal and gas company, hosted a “Captains of Industry Reception” at Trump Tower.
Unfortunately for those who would peek behind the curtain, the Bravo Group was the only one of these companies to tweet photos from its party. Perhaps the invitations required to enter the remainder of the soirées implored the discretion of the captains of industry and politicos lucky enough to receive them. Though it’s hard to say exactly what kind of wheeling and dealing went on at this year’s Pennsylvania Society weekend, the multiplicity of events evince ample opportunities both for lobbyists to entertain politicians at swanky New York venues and for politicians to pass the hat and pad the war chest for upcoming elections.