Kathleen Kane’s Gay Marriage Mutiny

How a tough chick from Scranton became Pennsylvania's Attorney General—and Tom Corbett's worst nightmare.

Two weeks after the Supreme Court strikes down part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, Kane strides into the National Constitution Center, wearing a white suit and a sober countenance that—within m­inutes—morphs into a ludicrously wide grin. She announces to the audience her decision on defending the state’s gay marriage ban. She makes sure she covers the legal machinations, outlining her constitutional objections to the ban while noting that the law will still be defended by the Governor’s lawyers. But Kane’s instinct for seizing a moment is too good, and her sense of political prudence too underdeveloped, to let an opportunity like this pass with just a press release or dry legalese.

“We are the land of the free and the home of the brave, and I want to start acting like that,” she proclaims. The crowd—gay
marriage supporters who have somehow caught wind of her decision—goes nuts.

In the days to come, Kane will take heat from a lot of conservative Republicans and a few moderates who claim that an attorney general is obligated to defend all laws, no matter her personal feelings. They land a few glancing blows in the press. Meanwhile, Kane—a multimillionaire Irish Catholic from Scranton—has, overnight, cemented her credentials as the state’s leading liberal champion.

“The political gods have sprinkled silver dust over her. It’s really amazing,” says Larry Ceisler, publisher of PoliticsPA.com and a longtime public relations executive. In Ceisler’s view, Kane has been exceptionally fortunate: “Hanging curveballs, man, she keeps getting them. But she’s hitting them.”

The political class often jokes that “A.G.” stands for “almost governor.” Apart from governor, it’s the most potent political platform in state government, as Kane is ably demonstrating. And the speculation about her future ambitions—including her intentions for next year’s gubernatorial race—is rampant.

A Kane triumph in a hypothetical governor’s race is far from assured, of course. She would match up exceptionally well against the unpopular Corbett in the general election, and she’s shown such an ability to get the better of him that she would be a heavy favorite in that contest. But first Kane would have to beat out a stable of formidable Democratic opponents, including U.S. Rep Allyson Schwartz, state treasurer Rob McCord, and former state DEP secretary Katie McGinty. All are far more experienced than Kane.

This shows when Kane is quizzed for her thoughts on matters outside the bailiwick of the attorney general’s office. Kane’s ideology is a little hard to pin down. Indeed, it doesn’t feel particularly fully formed. “I don’t go outside of my bailiwick, as you call it,” she says. “I’m well aware that when I say something, it’s no longer just my opinion, it’s the opinion of the attorney general.”

She does describe herself as a “fiscal conservative,” which might surprise some of her liberal fans. But the moderate label appears to fit. Kane is pro-choice, and believes “we should take care of certain sections of our population,” like kids and the elderly. Yet she recoils when asked about the prospect of legalizing marijuana, as Washington and Colorado have recently done.

It’s perhaps unfair to expect Kane—whose first bid for public office was this run at attorney general—to have the policy chops of a Schwartz, McGinty or McCord. Particularly since, if you believe her, Kane won’t run for governor next year.

But the pressure to run is intense. On the short stroll through the mall near her Harrisburg office to get lunch one day, heads turn as Kane walks past. She is accosted no fewer than four times by strangers while trying to buy a chicken Caesar salad.

Kane’s supporters are convinced that the three million votes she received last year—more than Obama or anyone else running in Pennsylvania—are proof she would cruise to an easy win. Kane, though, isn’t so sure: “I don’t think I’d get the same tremendous results.” Her lunch companions go quiet, as though surprised by this admission of political mortality. Then: “I didn’t say I think I wouldn’t win.”