At Pennsylvania Society, politicians' eyes are on coming elections

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NEW YORK -- With another presidential election cycle barely in the books, state politicos were already trading gossip -- and potential candidates hitting the reception circuit -- at last weekend's annual Pennsylvania Society gathering.

Much of the buzz focused on the 2014 gubernatorial contest, with Democrats jockeying to become their party's nominee in the effort to make Republican Gov. Tom Corbett the state's first one-term governor in decades.

But others were already eager for Pittsburgh's mayoral contest in May and looking as far ahead as the state's next U.S. Senate contest in 2016.

The weekend is organized around the traditional Pennsylvania Society dinner, an event that has been going on since 1899.

Pennsylvania's ruling class at that time had strong ties to New York. The annual event began to bring together the neighboring politicians with industrial giants of the era, some former Pennsylvanians themselves.

The dinner, which is attended by more than 1,000 people at the historic Waldorf Astoria hotel and televised on Pennsylvania Cable Network, now also includes honoring a distinguished guest and contributing to a Pennsylvania charity of their choosing.

Filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan, who grew up near Philadelphia and has shot many of his movies within the state, was this year's honoree.

The real interest isn't the official dinner as much as the never-ending list of parties and political fundraisers that bookend that meal.

Among those gauging support was John Hanger, the only Democrat so far to formalize his intention to run against Mr. Corbett.

Mr. Hanger's event was in the 43rd-floor offices of a law firm where guests drank wine poured from bottles labeled "Hanger for Pennsylvania" as the rainy sky darkened.

In brief remarks to the two-dozen guests in attendance toward the event's end, Mr. Hanger said the best political news of his week had been word that Montgomery County commissioner Bruce Castor is considering a primary challenge to Mr. Corbett.

"My message to him is: The water's great," said Mr. Hanger, who previously led the state Department of Environmental Protection. "Come on in."

Mr. Corbett had a harsh response to the tough talk from Mr. Hanger, who said he has "serious questions" about how he and the state attorney general's office handled the Jerry Sandusky investigation.

"For Pennsylvanians, I think it's their top issue," he said when asked about how the Penn State University probe should factor into the governor's race.

Mr. Corbett replied that Mr. Hanger -- a lawyer whose background is largely in energy and environmental issues -- lacks experience in the criminal-justice system: "For him to opine on something like that is ludicrous," he said.

The governor has not officially announced his re-election efforts, but he has told reporters repeatedly that he does not plan to break the tradition of governors seeking a second term.

As for the bevy of potential contenders on the Democratic side, Mr. Corbett said his focus is on running state government.

"They haven't really looked at my job. That number might go down," he quipped.

For now, it's increasing, with several more names floating around throughout the weekend.

U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz of Montgomery County joined the list. While some said the four-term congresswoman would bring advantages with her southeastern Pennsylvania base and healthy campaign coffers, others questioned whether her eye actually is on challenging U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey in 2016.

At least two other Democratic names popped up regarding the governor's race: former U.S. Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper of Erie and state Sen. Mike Stack of Philadelphia.

While intrigue about the governor's race was in broadest circulation, visitors from Western Pennsylvania had a more immediate concern: the Pittsburgh mayor's office, up for election next year.

At a kitchen studio near the Waldorf, city Councilman Bill Peduto -- who will announce his mayoral candidacy Thursday -- mingled with guests including Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Squirrel Hill, and state House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Oakmont, along with Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, who hosted the event.

Further south, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl held court in a dimly lit lounge where guests clustered around low tables, some braving the damp night in visits to the rooftop bar. Asked about the impending campaign, Mr. Ravenstahl said he would run on the city's economic condition and his administration's efforts to promote it.

But he acknowledged that voters are sure to hear a contrasting message from Mr. Peduto.

"Bill and I have been opponents now for six or seven years," Mr. Ravenstahl said. "Since the day I walked into office he was running against me."

Another of his potential challengers, however, continues to review his options. Auditor General Jack Wagner, who is concluding a two-term stint in that office, said he's "seriously considering" a bid for mayor.

Mr. Wagner declined to offer a time line for his decision: "I methodically move forward," he said.

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Harrisburg bureau chief Laura Olson: lolson@post-gazette.com or 1-717-787-4254. Karen Langley: klangley@post-gazette.com or 1-717-787-2141.


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