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Harrisburg, Pennsylvania – For years, the Pennsylvania Society has been the flagship event for state politicians and well-heeled special interests who want something from them: a long weekend in New York City with fundraisers consecutive chic, black- tie nights and after-hours parties.
Good government groups criticized the event as the epitome of gaudy largesse at best – and anything wrong with politics at worst. But anyone who is anyone (or wanted to be anyone) in the state’s political circles wouldn’t dare to miss the annual pilgrimage each December for three days of backslapping, power brokering and, much less frequently, policy development.
But this year, the Pennsylvania Society (slated for this weekend) is expected to look and feel very different, according to organizers, attendees and others. Attendance is dropping, and long-standing events, such as receptions hosted by law firms and corporate groups, have been merged or canceled altogether.
One of the reasons for this year’s scaled-down version, organizers said, is the pandemic, which has dampened interest in overcrowded travel and indoor gatherings. Another is the change in the main event venue in recent years, from the Waldorf-Astoria’s multi-story ballroom to the much more understated party rooms at the Midtown Hilton. Since the Waldorf closed for multi-year renovations, attendees have openly complained that the Pennsylvania Society has lost its appeal.
However, a larger, more existential question hangs over the change of venue and pandemic-related adjustments: Is the Pennsylvania Society an anachronism?
Edward J. Sheehan Jr., its president, does not think so. In an interview, he said that unity underpins the work and mission of the company.
“We are looking for diversity and inclusion,” said Sheehan, who is also President and CEO of Concurrent Technologies Corporation, a Johnstown-based applied scientific research and development organization. “One way to do this is to bring people together to talk… and exchange ideas. “
Pennsylvania Society dates back to 1899, according to the organization website. That year, Pennsylvanian James Barr Ferree, who was living in New York at the time, invited 55 other transplant recipients to dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria. Its objective: to unite the Pennsylvanians “at home and far from home in bonds of friendship and devotion to their state of origin or adoption”.
They met for dinner every year at the same time and place, and were originally known as the Pennsylvania Society of New York.
The rally has grown over the years and has seen big names join us including Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford and Dwight D. Eisenhower.
In modern times, this dinner, while technically the centerpiece of the weekend, has been overtaken by fundraisers, receptions, and other invitation-only events that have sprung up around it, turning the gathering into a three-day whirlwind of schmooze celebration – and earn the mockery of good government activists.
Eric Epstein, co-founder of the non-partisan good government group Rock the Capital, called the event a “glorified winter carnival pays off.”
“We need less self-interest and more of the common good, and we need to focus on Pennsylvania issues, not New York parties,” Epstein said. “We must put the Society on ice and unfreeze democracy. “
He said the New York Dinner is one of the largest fundraisers for the company, and its proceeds allow the group and its partners to award scholarships to high school students in Pennsylvania.
Sheehan also noted that the company annually honors the outstanding service of a Pennsylvania resident with its gold medal. This year, Philadelphia Surgeon Ala Stanford is the recipient.
This spirit of inclusion, he said, defines the mission and event of the company.
“Dinner is really the heart of the weekend,” he said.
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