Image: Outside of the Metropolitan Club, New York City, flickr
Every year in early December, Pennsylvania elites travel to New York City for a weekend to mingle, prepare for the upcoming political season, and most importantly, party in Manhattan’s swankiest spots.
It seems as though each budget season in Pennsylvania, the gridlocked state government cannot get anything passed that might support working families. The state minimum wage remains at the federal minimum of $7.25 per hour, the state’s public schools are struggling, and the recently passed Whole Home Repair program is underfunded. Despite the at times vicious disputes over these issues critical to families in the state, Pennsylvania’s most influential elected officials come together in midtown Manhattan every year to prioritize the one constituency group that they all share: their corporate donors.
At the annual Pennsylvania Society weekend, powerful Pennsylvania politicians from both major parties mingle at exclusive, invitation-only parties hosted by lobbyists and corporate groups seeking private access to top lawmakers. The president of one fossil fuel-tied lobbying group, the Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association, once described his organization’s event as an opportunity for “our most prominent elected officials speak to a VIP audience at length without interruption.”
These annual events offer a rare glimpse into how corporate and billionaire influence works in Pennsylvania. To truly understand why certain policies seem to rise to the top while others – such as those that would most benefit everyday Pennsylvanians – seem to languish, it’s important to know which politicians attend these events and which corporations and billionaires are there to push their agenda.
The Pennsylvania Society Annual Dinner
The event, hosted by an exclusive club called the PA Society, used to be a place for wealthy Pennsylvania elites like Andrew Carnegie, the Mellon family, and Henry Ford, to meet and discuss timely issues such as burgeoning labor disputes and politics in Pennsylvania. As LittleSis Senior Researcher Rob Galbraith wrote for Eyes on the Ties back in 2013, the annual Pennsylvania Society weekend has been going on for over a century.
This year, the PA Society celebrated the 125th annual dinner where Pennsylvania elites network and celebrate their status as a member of Pennsylvania high society. Politicians take the opportunity to mingle with corporate leaders who may help them fundraise and campaign while lobbyists and corporate leaders take advantage of the private audience with powerful politicians to advance their legislative agenda. The 2023 dinner was sponsored by powerful corporations like Aramark, Independence Blue Cross, and Comcast. Corporations like these paid upwards of $10,000 just for one table at the sold-out Saturday night fete.
Dinner guests dressed in black tie, enjoyed a steak and lobster dinner, imbibed plentiful cocktails and champagne, and listened to speeches given by leaders of the PA Society and high profile business leaders and politicians. In one such speech, newly elected Governor Josh Shaprio unironically spoke about the need to bring back the “bipartisan vibe” in Harrisburg.
The dinner is only one event of many that take place over the weekend. Attendees may also take part in events like the PNC Bank breakfast, lobbying firm the Bravo Group’s event at Maggie’s Pub, and the Bipartisan Cocktail Reception hosted by corporations like Independence Blue Cross, Capital Blue Cross, and Essential Utilities. This year, one event in particular drew more outside attention: The Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association Annual Seminar and Luncheon, held at the ritzy Metropolitan Club of New York City.
The Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association Annual Luncheon and Seminar
The Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association Annual Seminar was founded by Fred Anton III, the late GOP power broker and founder of both the Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association, a lobbying group representing large corporate interests, and the conservative think tank, the Commonwealth Foundation.
This year, as the Manufacturers Association event was winding down, about 100 Pennsylvania residents and activists stood outside the wrought iron gates of the Metropolitan Club to call attention to the outsized influence of one particular wealthy elite in Pennsylvania, billionaire investor Jeff Yass. As the richest man in Pennsylvania, Yass spends millions of dollars trying to influence elections in the state to elect candidates that will vote to defund public schools and use that money to fund private and charter schools. Further, Yass’s millions in campaign contributions get distributed throughout a right wing network that advocates for a wide range of right wing policies from anti-LGBT policies, to fighting an increase to the minimum wage, to opposing climate solutions.
The Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association (PMA) is one of the groups connected to Yass through its political action committee, which has received almost all of its funding from Yass since 2021. In addition to the group’s ties to Yass, PMA is also a member of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM). NAM’s board of directors includes fossil fuel companies like ExxonMobil, Koch Companies, Energy Transfer, and Marathon Petroleum. Unsurprisingly, the PA Manufacturers Association lobbies against climate solutions in Pennsylvania.
As mentioned earlier, PMA President, David Taylor, has referred to this event at the Metropolitan Club as a place “where [the] most prominent elected officials speak to a VIP audience at length without interruption.” President of the PA Society, Elizabeth Preate Havey, referred to the event as a place where both parties speak in a “non-threatening” environment to an invite-only audience and where media is not allowed.
A look at the list of attendees and speakers makes it clear that despite the group’s extreme right wing ties, this is indeed an event where high ranking politicians from both sides of the aisle feel comfortable.
Elected Officials in Attendance
The list of politicians that have spoken at the PMA luncheon in the past few years includes many of the most powerful elected officials in Pennsylvania: from Democrats like the first Black woman Speaker in the state’s history, Democratic House Speaker Joanna McClinton, to far right Republicans like US Representative Guy Reschenthaler who voted against certifying the 2020 election.
This year’s event included many more powerful politicians from all over the political spectrum, including, but not limited to:
- Senator Bob Casey (D)
- Dave McCormick (R), running against Bob Casey in 2024
- Lieutenant Gov Austin Davis (D)
- PA Treasury Secretary Stacy Garrity (R)
- PA Rep Jordan Harris (D), House Appropriations Chair
- PA Rep Josh Kail (R), Republican Policy Chair
- PA Sen Joe Pittman (R)
- PA Sen Gene Yaw (R), Chair of the Energy Committee
- Philadelphia Mayor Elect Cherelle Parker (D)
- Former Senator Pat Toomey (R)
Outside of the State Capitol it is rare to see politicians from such opposite ends of the political spectrum speak at the same event. However, events like this reveal that these political rivals do often have one thing in common: corporate and billionaire donors. For example, billionaire Jeff Yass has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to both Democrat Jordan Harris and Republican Joe Pittman. The PA Society and events like the PMA luncheon offer an opportunity for elected officials to speak in front of some of the state’s biggest donors and corporate lobbyists.
So who exactly was a part of the “VIP audience” that our most powerful elected leaders spoke to at this event?
Right Wing Activists and Donors
As a central part of Yass’s right wing network, the PA Manufacturers Association drew a large crowd of conservative figureheads and donors. According to photos from this year’s event, the crowd included Lowman Henry, David Hollinger, Gregory Bentley, and David Moser, among others. Of course, the head of the PA Manufacturers Association himself, David Taylor, was hosting the event. In the past, Taylor asserted that unions had too much power in the state, stating “bureaucrat unions have used their inordinate influence to expand government and block reforms.”
The Board Chair of the PA Manufacturers Association, Lowman Henry, has similar far right wing stances. Henry is a right wing politico and former Pennsylvania State Campaign Director for Ted Cruz. In the past, Henry has questioned the legitimacy of the 2020 election, blaming potential Pennsylvania election fraud on the “union-controlled PA Supreme Court.” He has also referred to people upset about the overturning of Roe v. Wade as “brats” who were throwing an “epic” fit.
David Hollinger is a Pennsylvania businessman that has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to influence state and federal elections. In the past several years, he has given $99,000 to Jeff Yass’s PACs, $17,000 to the anti-abortion and anti-LGBT PA Family PAC, and he gave $12,500 to Donald Trump in the 2020 election.
While the right wing donors and activists certainly have deep ties to corporate interests, it’s also important for other corporate lobbyists to attend the PMA event and have an opportunity to lobby elected officials without the media or average Pennsylvanians there to witness or hold politicians accountable. In fact, some of the state’s most prominent corporate lobbyists were in attendance at this year’s event, representing large health insurers, fossil fuel corporations, utility corporations, real estate groups, and landlords.
Some of the most high profile lobbyists in attendance included:
- Mike Long, the founder and Partner at Long, Nyquist & Associates, one of the largest corporate lobbying firms in Pennsylvania. Long was the Chief of Staff/Staff Administrator to the Pennsylvania State Senate for 25 years. Long uses his long standing reputation and relationships in the State Senate to influence legislation on behalf of companies like Amazon, Essential Utilities, Comcast, the Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania, and Independence Blue Cross, and Shell Oil.
- Lou Biacchi, an Associate lobbyist at Long, Nyquist & Associates. Biacchi represents the Pennsylvania Residential Owners Association (a group that represents landlords), East Penn Real Estate, and UnitedHealth Group. Biacchi spent over two decades prior lobbying for the Pennsylvania Builders Association and the Pennsylvania Retailers Association.
- Patrick Brier, a Scranton based lawyer and registered corporate lobbyist. Brier is a registered lobbyist for health insurer AmeriHealth Caritas Pennsylvania, Commonwealth Charter Academy, and gambling company Pace-O-Matic.
- Steve Kratz, a lobbyist and Senior Director at the Bravo Group, a large lobbying firm founded by Chris Bravacos, who served on the board of a school privatization group with David Taylor of the PA Manufacturers Association and Matthew Brouillette, former CEO of the Commonwealth Foundation. Kratz is currently a registered lobbyist for the Pennsylvania Chemical Industry Council, led by companies like Shell and Dow Chemical, and Citizens Against Nuclear Bailouts, a front group funded partially by the American Petroleum Institute.
Just as important as the list of elected officials, big donors, and corporate lobbyists that were at this event, are the people that were not there. Renters, workers, average Pennsylvanians struggling to live on low wages or struggling with medical debt were not in attendance except for the community groups kept outside of the gates to the Metropolitan Club. The only interaction that many of these elected officials had with their constituents happened as they were running from the Metropolitan Club event to their awaiting black SUVs without answering any questions. After 125 years of politicians mingling with wealthy elites at the PA Society, it’s clear who these elected officials answer to: corporations and billionaires, not the people of Pennsylvania.