Vice President Joe Biden received the Pennsylvania Society’s top honor Saturday night at a lavish Waldorf Astoria banquet in Manhattan. The Scranton native was a draw, but the real stars are the gossip and speculation that wash over this annual extravaganza. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writers James O’Toole, Karen Langley and Kate Giammarise gathered notes as Pennsylvania’s political class charged through a long weekend of schmoozing, seeing and being seen.
NEW YORK CITY — The looming governor’s race and the big pack of Democrats vying to challenge Republican Gov. Tom Corbett inevitably dominated conversation at the receptions and dinners.
Saturday morning, a newly trim Mr. Corbett smiled as he worked his way through the crowd at the Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association event at the Metropolitan Club. After signing long-delayed transportation legislation, Mr. Corbett said he was concentrating on moving other difficult issues that were sources of frustration through the first years of his administration — changes in the state’s pension system and privatization of its liquor distribution system.
“We have to get both done,” he said. “Pension reform has a direct impact on the budget … we need to get a lot of stuff done.”
But his predictions were balanced with the lessons of previous legislative battles.
“A lot of it depends on how things are working with the House and the Senate,” he noted. “If you were the CEO of a company you could say, ‘This is what’s going to happen and you’re all going to do this.’ They’re an independent branch of government … we’ve got to get cooperation. We’ve got to get both sides. As you saw there are spectrums of political parties, Democratic and Republican, in the House and the Senate. We’ve got to get cooperation to get to 102 and 26.”
The ideological spectrum within his own party has been a challenge for his administration, but it hasn’t, so far, produced a challenger for Mr. Corbett in the GOP primary. Asked if he were confident he’d remain unopposed on his right flank, the governor said, “I don’t know. I’m not anticipating one.”
Mr. Corbett’s optimism, despite his daunting poll numbers, was echoed by his new chief of staff, Leslie Gromis Baker.
“Nobody’s panicking; everybody feels pretty good where we are right now,” she said. “If you look just generically, actually, at where elected officials are, they’re not the most popular people, as a group. So what we’ve got to do, the governor has to keep doing what he’s doing, keep pushing his initiatives. And quite frankly, he needs to take credit for the things he’s done. … He doesn’t brag about himself and his accomplishments much, and we’ve got to do that for him, and he needs to do it himself.’
“Getting transportation [legislation] done has energized folks, they are excited about what’s next,” she said, predicting “exciting things in the next budget,” and underscoring the administration’s focus on a pension overhaul. “If we’re going to get the state back on a stable financial footing it has to [be] addressed,” she said. “You’ve got to start the process of getting the pension process under control.”
Mr. Corbett looked noticeably thinner than the last time he made the Pennsylvania Society rounds, but he shrugged off the suggestion that his re-election calculations had influenced his diet. “I had a doctor tell me I needed to lose 30 pounds; I listened to my doctor. I’ve lost 32 pounds so far; I decided to go to 40. I’m on a low-carb, low-sugar, high-protein diet.”
Asked if his new regime was tough to maintain, he said, “It’s difficult in the beginning, I’ve not had a french fry since mid-August, but who’s counting?”
Vice President Biden accepted the society’s gold medal with a half-hour speech that segued from personal to policy. He drew laughter with anecdotes about his own genealogy and his Irish and Scranton roots, then applause with a pitch for the necessity of immigration reform.
“It wasn’t just my character that was etched in Pennsylvania. It was my political career,” he told the crowd.
Using his own history as an example of how the nation had been shaped by waves of immigration, he said, “it’s not just my story, it’s America’s story. … Today our immigration system is broken and it needs to be fixed.”
The Pennsylvania Society honor comes with a $50,000 donation to charity in the honoree’s name. Mr. Biden designated his award for charities working against domestic violence, a cause he has worked for in Congress.
Attorney General Kathleen Kane headed into the weekend accompanied by the buzz of a Philadelphia Daily News story Friday in which unnamed sources said she is considering challenging U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, a Republican, in 2016.
Ms. Kane did her best to fend off questions about her interest in the Senate post. But she didn’t dismiss the possibility.
“I don’t know,” she said. “It’s so far off. I love my job, and I’m doing the best job I can. We’ll worry about what happens down the road.”
Ms. Kane and Mr. Toomey crossed paths at one point outside the PMA reception, but if there was any tension between them over the potential clash, it wasn’t evident as they smiled and chatted.
That encounter was typical of the cross-party amity that seems to pervade the gathering in which Democrats comfortably attend GOP-sponsored events and Republicans typically reciprocate. Ms. Gromis Baker and her husband, UPMC chief government relations officer K. Scott Baker, for example, put in an appearance at the reception hosted by Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Pittsburgh Mayor-elect Bill Peduto. Rep. Mike Turzai, the House majority leader, a fierce partisan in some contexts, also mixed easily with the mostly Democratic crowd.
But the holiday spirits didn’t manage to dispel all political hard feelings as Mr. Fitzgerald unceremoniously ejected county Controller Chelsa Wagner from the event.
As Ms. Wagner mingled at the reception at Inside Park at St. Bart’s, a Fitzgerald associate told the controller she wasn’t welcome. Undeterred, she continued to meet and greet, whereupon Mr. Fitzgerald took matters into his own hands.
“I said, ‘Chelsa, you’re not invited,’ ” the executive recounted a few moments later. “This is a party for supporters,” he said. “You’re not going to be my enemy for two years and show up the party.”
Mr. Fitzgerald and Ms. Wagner have clashed over a variety of fiscal issues in county government. And the controller was a supporter of her uncle, former Auditor General Jack Wagner, in his race against Mr. Peduto, the executive’s close ally, in last spring’s Democratic primary for mayor.
After noting the bipartisan roster of guests that had been welcomed to the Park Avenue event, Mr. Fitzgerald added, “We want to make sure we have a lot of good partners that are working together and quite frankly, the woman I asked to leave is not a partner; she’s an obstructionist to the progress we need in this town.”
While he was in office through much of the last decade as state auditor general, one of the fixtures of the Society weekend was a reception for Jack Wagner near the Park Avenue entrance of the Waldorf Astoria. There was no reception this time and no sightings of Mr. Wagner at the events. Mr. Wagner was nonetheless present in spirit, or at least in speculation, as revelers exchanged guesses over whether he would add his name to the field of Democrats vying to take on Mr. Corbett.
Mr. Wagner had a sharp setback in the Pittsburgh mayoral primary in May, but has said repeatedly that he is still considering a bid for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. At one point, he said he would make up his mind by Labor Day. Since then, he has reportedly shifted his decision date to the turn of the new year. Despite the rebuff in the mayor’s race, Mr. Wagner’s potential statewide ambitions have sparked attention because he would be the only western candidate in a field dominated by the state’s southeast.
His niece, Ms. Wagner, said Friday, that he is still considering the campaign, but added that she didn’t know if or how he had decided.
U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, said he had a brief conversation with the former auditor general recently and the subject didn’t come up. “I don’t know anyone that been contacted by him, because this is usually when you’d be raising money, contacting people,” he said.
But while saying that he hadn’t seen any personal evidence of a Wagner candidacy, he said he still couldn’t rule it out as a possibility.
The major Democratic candidates for governor networked through the weekend, but there wasn’t any evidence of a break-from-the-pack move by any of them. U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz and state Treasurer Rob McCord were among the speakers at the PMA reception. Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowksi also dropped by after hosting his own late-night reception the previous evening.
“You meet a lot of people who are doing interesting work,” Mr. McCord said. “It’s a good place to catch up.”
Ms. Schwartz noted this was the first time she had been invited to address the gathering of the Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association, despite 10 years in Congress. “I think they recognize very keenly that there may well be new leadership.”
The Montgomery County lawmaker, who started the race with $3.1 million transferred from her federal fundraising account, said she didn’t have the personal financial resources of either Mr. McCord or York County businessman Tom Wolf, but said she was confident that she could raise enough to win.
“He’s much wealthier than I am. I don’t have $10 million to put in, and I don’t have as wealthy friends as he does, or family,” she said. “So I’m going to go work every day to talk to people who care about this race, and that will help me get there.”
Reacting to the suggestion that a long and expensive Democratic primary might ultimately benefit Gov. Corbett, Mr. McCord said, “For a long time now I’ve modeled for that. I’ve always said people who think it will be easy to defeat and evict an incumbent governor are naive and have a flawed model, and that it’s important to nominate somebody who has the best chance of succeeding at that.”
Discussing the challenge of courting support while criss-crossing the paths of his numerous potential rivals here, Mr. McCord said, “It’s actually pleasant. I have a lot of friends in this race. … I’m used to being both competitive and friendly… There’s just some fun in the scrum, so to speak.”
Mr. Wolf, a former state revenue secretary, announced earlier that he would not host a reception over the weekend, and would instead donate $15,000 to food banks across the state. Like his rivals, however, he was working the crowds here, stopping by the Fitzgerald-Peduto event among others.
Mr. Fitzgerald noted that all of the first-tier Democrats had stopped by the event, including two former Department of Environmental Protection secretaries, Katie McGinty and John Hanger.
Mr. Fitzgerald’s co-host, Mr. Peduto, wasn’t able to join him in greeting their guests, but he had a good excuse, as he was delayed by a meeting of newly elected mayors in Washington.
“Sorry, I had to see the president at the White House” is almost always a good excuse — particularly with this crowd.
James O’Toole is the Post-Gazette’s politics editor (firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1562). Karen Langley and Kate Giammarise are the PG’s Harrisburg correspondents (email@example.com or 717-787-2141; firstname.lastname@example.org or 717-787-4254).