Catherine Baker Knoll’s election as Pennsylvania’s 30th Lieutenant Governor marked the election of the first female executive in state history. Lieutenant Governor Knoll’s sudden passing on November 12 marked the end of a political era in the state and presents the opportunity to look back on a remarkable career of public and political service.
Despite the best efforts of many excellent political writers to recap Knoll’s career in the days since her passing, there is a glaring and noticeable aspect of her life absent in the news coverage: Catherine Baker Knoll did not succeed as a candidate or elected leader simply because of luck. Her success was a result of decades of complex, difficult work that was marked by two crushing primary defeats in 1976 and 1984. This ultimately led to the establishment one of the most powerful, lasting electoral coalitions in state history.
Shortly after her term as State Treasurer expired, an editorial was written in the Tribune Review chastising Knoll’s tenure in that position. A high school student at the time, I did some basic research to prove the editorial wrong and wrote a letter stating the facts. After the letter’s publication, I received a personal phone call from Knoll—whom I had never met before in my life—thanking me for sticking up for her. That simple phone call began a lengthy friendship that led to many hours discussing strategies to get young people to participate in the political process.
In 2000 when she decided to challenge Barbara Hafer for Treasurer, I was part of her campaign team, representing her political and community events in Westmoreland, Allegheny, Crawford, and Mercer Counties. Knoll ultimately lost to Hafer by less than 100,000 votes statewide, demonstrating that her coalition was still very much alive and well.
While I working as an intern on Capitol Hill in 2001, Knoll visited me in Washington and informed me she was planning a campaign for Lieutenant Governor. She asked me to join her in this undertaking and I soon went to work writing her campaign plan known as The Blueprint for Pennsylvania, laying out her vision for the Commonwealth in the 21st Century. I also was fortunate enough to become a close part of her campaign’s inner-circle; traveling with the candidate, assisting with debate preparation, participating in campaign leadership meetings, and serving as a surrogate on her behalf.
I vividly recall the extensive days on the campaign trail in which she ran circles around this twenty-something college student. Perhaps my most memorable experience on the trail that spring was joining her on a three-seat plane that took us from Butler County Airport to the Altoona-Blair County Airport to the Huntingdon County Democratic Party Dinner. It became apparent that night that Knoll’s eight rivals in the primary contest had no chance against her. She was received as a rock star in that small, rural county because she had enough respect for the people to simply show up—the same thing she did year after year for decades, even when she wasn’t running for reelection.
During the lengthy road trips from places like Meadville to Munhall and the long evenings sitting around her dining room table in McKees Rocks calling county chairmen and potential supporters, I learned the most important thing there was to know about Catherine Baker Knoll: her passion for Pennsylvania and its people was not to be matched by any other candidate or public official. And the voters knew it. It was CBK’s magic touch.
After her General Election victory in 2002, I went to work for Knoll in Harrisburg during the first year of her term as Lieutenant Governor and continued to see the same steady work ethic, determination, and political skill she showed on the campaign trail over the years. Knoll built relationships with everyone she encountered. As President of the state Senate, Knoll did not play favorites or allow partisan affiliation to stand in her way and worked closely with members of both parties.
"CBK could be partisan, yet in most instances, was the first to reach across the aisle to solve issues. She would support the cause if it was good for Pennsylvania," Senator John Rafferty (R-Montgomery County) told me late last week. "CBK was a special blend of a person. She valued government service, felt it a noble calling; yet, could be tough as anyone in the political arena for her beliefs and her party. Education was her passion—she encouraged kids to stay in school, strive to do their best and to continue pursuing education," said Rafferty.
Catherine Baker Knoll’s abilities to build a sustained, grassroots electoral coalition will make a fine research paper for any political scientist. Knoll’s blue collar, socially conservative coalition helped her win that crowded nine-way primary in 2002 despite losing her home county of Allegheny and the populous, Democrat-heavy Philadelphia County. The coalition held just as it had through numerous statewide races in the past. Knoll carried just about every county in between the cities, demonstrating that non-urban voters in Pennsylvania’s infamous conservative-friendly "T" would vote loyally for a Democrat if given a reason to do so.
"The thing that always impressed me about Catherine Baker Knoll was her ability to remember most everyone she met and how she always made everyone feel special that was around her," says Westmoreland County Commissioner Tom Ceraso. "I think that is why she was so successful at what she did. Even as Lt. Governor she was very approachable and really enjoyed politics at the grass roots level," he said.
Greenville Mayor Dick Miller agrees that Knoll had a special touch that helped her become the third highest vote-getter in state history behind only Lyndon Johnson and John Heinz. "I was not as close to Lt. Gov. Knoll as I have been to other state Democrats, but I certainly admired her vote-getting ability. I was impressed at the homage she commanded from other women, regardless of their age or background," says Miller, former Chairman of the Mercer County Democratic Committee.
Perhaps nobody knew Knoll better than George Toma, who worked for her for 32 years and in four different jobs. Toma was involved with all 13 of her statewide campaigns and during her eight year stint as State Treasurer. Knoll often described her work as Treasurer as "waking the sleeping giant"—also the title of a book she published during her term which discussed the advances made in the Treasury during her term.
"She was exceptionally proud of two specific things during her tenure as Treasurer," according to Toma. "One was co-authoring the Tuition Account Program (TAP) with Republican state Senator Robert Jubelirer and building the Investment Center which helped create an almost $2 billion surplus when she left office in 1997."
The Tuition Account Program allows families to pay for TAP credits or units at prices close to current rates. The Pennsylvania Treasury then invests the money so that when their children are ready for college their accounts will have increased in value, enabling coverage of any potential tuition increases.
"I think that she would say that her greatest achievement was becoming the first female Lieutenant Governor. Her favorite line was ‘it only took some 200 hundred years plus and was long overdue.’ I think she saw her victory for Lt. Governor as a way for other women to follow in her footsteps regardless of party affiliation," says longtime aide and confidant Toma. "She also encouraged young people to take part in the process and most importantly encouraged them to vote. She was very happy when a young person would come up to her and tell her that they registered because of her."
While frequently identified with her achievements as an elected official and candidate, Knoll is often overlooked in her understanding and commitment to issues. Despite her Democratic affiliation, Knoll was one of the most conservative Democrats elected statewide. While her running mate, Ed Rendell had received an "F" rating from the National Rifle Association in the 2002 campaign, Knoll had a near-perfect "A" rating for standing up for Second Amendment rights.
She was also vehemently pro-life, understanding in full that the issue was not about the concept of "choice" but instead about what it is actually being chosen. Knoll’s principled stance in favor of life cost her the support of the Pennsylvania chapter of the National Organization of Women although she was the only woman in a nine way primary. She also helped this writer—who as a young political upstart was pro-choice until befriending Knoll—better understand the significance of the issue and its impact on families, communities, and our own conscience.
Knoll’s defense of human life didn’t just extend to abortion. I recall a day in 2003 when the Lieutenant Governor encountered a young person silently protesting the death penalty on the Capitol steps in Harrisburg. Knoll, pleased to see a young person taking action, went over and told the activist that she stood with him. A nearby Harrisburg Patriot reporter picked up on her comment and ran a front page photo mentioning that her position was not in line with that of Governor Ed Rendell, a death penalty advocate. Knoll was undeterred, and continued to stand by her position of life.
As Pennsylvania mourns the loss of this political trailblazer, it is only fitting to tell the story of a visit to a large senior citizens center in Washington County in July 2003 during a statewide tour to discuss senior issues. I was with Lt. Governor Knoll at the time and we had been on the road for hours before arriving to a crowd of about 400 senior citizens. Upon entering the room, Knoll was greeted with a standing ovation. I believe it was then-state Representative Victor Lescovitz who told that crowd that Pennsylvanians were fortunate because we just didn’t just have Uncle Sam to celebrate on the Fourth of July. We also had Aunt Catherine.
Thank you, Governor, for the opportunity to serve with you and learn from your years of experience and leadership.
Nathan R. Shrader can be reached at [email protected]