Monthly GOP gatherings bring out unique group

Begun 10 years ago, the Harrisburg meetings are invitation-only sessions that link people 'who wouldn't otherwise work together'

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HARRISBURG -- One Wednesday morning a month, you can find Harrisburg's Republican elite -- from state senators to lobbyists, to the heads of several major business associations -- squeezing into a standing-room-only meeting a few blocks from the Capitol for an invitation-only, off-the-record briefing.

"It's a standing appointment on my calendar each month," said Gene Barr, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry.

The meetings, which began more than 10 years ago as a briefing for clients of Quantum Communications, have since expanded into a gathering that runs the gamut from cabinet secretaries to Tea Party activists.

"It's been very, very good at linking up people who wouldn't otherwise work together," said Charlie Gerow, whose firm hosts the monthly meeting in its offices, decorated with Mr. Gerow's collection of presidential autographs and bookshelves lined with hundreds of books on branding, marketing and political biographies.

"You have people like me there," said Josh First, a business owner and Republican activist, "rubbing elbows and talking policy with the establishment."

Often, attendees are getting policy previews. For example, meeting attendees learned about the desire of some legislators and business groups to fight a long-standing practice of dues deductions for public-sector union workers months before such efforts made headlines and brought union protesters to the Capitol.

And conservative support for a major transportation bill that passed last fall -- which some hard-line conservatives opposed due to an increased gas tax -- was built in part at the meetings, some observers say.

Recent speakers have included former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, Republican U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent of Allentown, House Majority Leader Mike Turzai of Bradford Woods, and Corbett administration cabinet officials such as Secretary of Health Michael Wolf, Secretary of Agriculture George Greig and Budget Secretary Charles Zogby.

Speakers have in the past also included the occasional Democrat, such as former Auditor General Jack Wagner. Mr. Wagner ran for Pittsburgh mayor last year and just announced that he would enter the Democratic primary for governor.

Most speakers come from the world of Pennsylvania politics, though Newt Gingrich has spoken twice, as have a number of Republican governors and U.S. senators from around the nation. Gov. Tom Corbett has spoken multiple times, as has virtually every Republican member of Congress from Pennsylvania.

"We made it a real point to begin to invite speakers [who] would impart things that folks might not already know," Mr. Gerow said.

In the spectrum of Republican politics, attendance runs more toward business-oriented groups than those focused on social issues, though anti-abortion groups are sometimes there. Regulars at the gathering include a number of business associations active in state politics such as the Pennsylvania Manufacturers' Association, the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, the Pennsylvania Business Council, lobbyists associated with the natural gas industry, transportation interests, retail groups and others.

"It does bring these disparate parts of the Republican party together who would not otherwise meet," Mr. First said.

"It's everybody," Mr. Barr said. "It's people representing business interests. It's people representing hunting and fishing interests. It's people representing parties."

There doesn't appear to be an equivalent Democratic gathering, or at least not one of the same size, scope and number of influential Capitol insiders in attendance.

Sen. Mike Folmer, a Lebanon County Republican, who spoke at the meeting earlier this month, said he wanted to talk to the group to build support for a bill he is co-sponsoring to permit cannabis in the treatment of some serious medical conditions.

Mr. Folmer, who earned a 100 percent rating from the American Conservative Union last year, has teamed up with Sen. Daylin Leach, a Democrat from Montgomery County and one of the Senate's most liberal members, on the issue.

"It was a good place to discuss my issue and let people know where I was coming from," Mr. Folmer said.

Though reporters are sometimes in attendance, what's said at the meetings is off the record, and the fact of the meetings taking place is well-known in Harrisburg Republican circles.

"The fact that we are off the record is to give the speakers and participants a comfort level," Mr. Gerow said and to allow speakers to be more, well, candid.

"It's not some secret conspiracy group," Mr. Barr said.

"Nobody's going to speak their minds at the meetings if they think the reporters sitting there are going to report it," Mr. First said.


Kate Giammarise: 717-480-7932, kgiammarise@post-gazette.com or on Twitter @KateGiammarise.

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