A former midlevel prosecutor’s ambition and rise in Pennsylvania politics is a sign of the times in American politics.
In under a year, Kathleen Kane has gone from an unknown Lackawanna County assistant district attorney to the powerful position of the state’s attorney general. If you believe the gossip surrounding her, she is a prospective candidate for every elected office imaginable, including governor, U.S. senator and president.
When Kane, the wife of a wealthy Scranton businessman, ran for attorney general last year, she benefited from a Bill Clinton political score that needed to be settled. Her better-known, union-endorsed primary opponent, former Congressman Patrick Murphy, had done the unthinkable in 2008 and endorsed Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton in the state Democrat primary.
Clinton repaid that favor by fundraising, endorsing, cutting ads and bringing out the big guns for Kane over Murphy. He thereby reminded Pennsylvanians and Washington political-watchers that the Clinton machine still has big game in a big state — and that Kane was their girl.
Kane won and, ever since, has dabbled in the politically hot topics that secure wins in bigger Democrat primaries, issues such as gay marriage, climate change and big business.
First, despite her campaign promise to not act like a politician as attorney general, she announced this summer that she would not go to court to defend the state’s ban on gay marriage — even though her job is to defend state laws, regardless of her personal feelings or political ambitions.
In September she filed criminal charges against Exxon Mobil subsidiary XTO Energy Inc., two months after XTO reached a civil settlement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Justice. Her move (which, at its most basic level, attempts to punish a company twice for the same mistake) raised grave concerns in the natural-gas industry — but it earned her the political love and adoration of anti-fracking activists.
Then she went after big business when she joined the Justice Department to oppose U.S. Airways’ merger with American Airlines. Democrat attorneys general in North Carolina and other states stayed out of the fray, but Kane said she needed to protect consumers from baggage-fee and fare increases that would result from the merger. In the end, she got nothing.
Kane, 47, denies any aspirations beyond her job as the state’s top cop. Yet three "people close to her" told the Philadelphia Daily News that she may challenge Republican Sen. Pat Toomey in 2016.
Make no mistake, she’s running for something: You don’t arrive at the premier event of the year for Keystone State politicos, the annual Pennsylvania Society gathering in New York City, with prominent Democrat fundraiser Aubrey Montgomery at your side for no reason.
Kane is everything that national Democrats need in order to tell a good story about the party to prospective voters. Her narrative is Democrat gold — blue-collar background from "hard-scrabble" Scranton (move over, Joe Biden), mopped floors while attending law school at Temple University in Philadelphia, married a wealthy scion of a Scranton family (self-funding is always attractive), two kids, prosecuted the bad guys in her hometown.
When she won the top-cop job last year, she was the first Democrat and woman to do so since the office was created in 1980 as a statewide-elected row office.
She can boast that she was the top vote-getter in the state in the general election, beating the raw numbers of fellow Democrats Barack Obama and U.S. Sen. Bob Casey.
Democrats had a rough year in 2013, only slightly less rough than Republicans; they are looking for bright, shiny stars to point to as "doers" as they ramp up for an attempt to win back or hold power in the U.S. House and Senate in 2014.
Keep an eye on the Democrats’ new "it girl." With the Clintons guiding her, she might attract more crowds than any Democrat in the state, including Obama.
Keep an eye, too, on the city of Scranton, the summer home of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s family and the backdrop for Biden’s youth. It is the unofficial epicenter of Pennsylvania politics and, by default, the cornerstone of the Democratic Party.
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review Political Reporter