Kathleen Kane’s Gay Marriage Mutiny

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


At the bottom of a steep block on the west side of Scranton, next to a clapboard home with peeling white paint, there’s a pizza shop called Maroni’s. Inside, takeout boxes are piled in towers that nearly reach the ceiling, and Carmen Pellegrino, who’s owned the place for 31 years, is pounding dough and spreading cheese for a steady trickle of customers hungry for nourishment after praying at the Solemn Novena for Saint Ann at the basilica up the hill.

It seems an odd spot to meet the dynamic and glamorous Attorney General Kathleen Granahan Kane, a woman who, in the past 18 months, has emerged from nowhere to become Pennsylvania’s fastest-rising political star, Governor Tom Corbett’s nemesis, and, reputedly, a potential candidate for every higher office in the land, from governor to U.S. senator to—no kidding—a spot on a presidential ticket.

But then Kane enters, state-employed bodyguards in tow, and Carmen scurries out from behind the counter for a hug. “Kathy!” he cries.

Maroni’s is one of Kane’s touchstones, an anchor to the days before she was married to a wealthy businessman, before Bill Clinton cut television ads for her, before the president of the feminist PAC Emily’s List was telling the Washington Post that Kane has the right stuff for the White House.

“Every time I feel like things are going wrong, or I need to remember who I am, we take a ride to the West Side,” Kane says. Her order is in, and soon Carmen will bring over a rectangular pie smothered in an unusually gelatinous (but undeniably tasty) cheese. “It reminds me to be a normal, real person. When I come here, it reminds me that I’m just me. Don’t get caught up in all that other junk, don’t listen to the noise.”

What Kane seems unable to believe, even now, is that the noise is largely of her own making. She may be a political neophyte—indeed, at times that fact is very clear—but she has nonetheless demonstrated over and over again that she has an uncanny knack for making news and generating buzz in a state with a hidebound and borderline somnolent political culture. There she was, an underdog attorney general candidate last year, leading the critique of Corbett’s investigation into the Jerry Sandusky fiasco at Penn State. There she was, 30 days after taking office this past January, vetoing a Corbett bid to partially privatize management of the state lottery. And there she was again this summer, announcing that she wouldn’t defend the state’s ban on gay marriage in court.

“I don’t back down from anything,” she says at lunch. This West Side toughness, wrapped up in a charming package, is a big part of the reason Kane has made such an impression both in Harrisburg and on voters. At 47, she’s confident but not-quite-cocky, and her tone (more than her actual agenda) is candid and bracing.

Kane has managed to create a sense that she’s the only one out there actually doing, while the rest of the political class stands still. And she has—perhaps intentionally, perhaps not—tapped into the fathoms-deep well of disgust that so many Pennsylvanians feel for the retrograde crew running the state. What Kane has come to represent—through her decisiveness, her biography and, yes, her gender—is an alternative to Pennsylvania’s go-slow status quo. You look at Kane and think: Maybe, just maybe, things could be different around here after all.

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.”

Kathy Granahan, as she was once known, was the hardworking kid of an Irish f­amily from the rough side of town who talked her way into law school, moved to and then ditched the big city, married the scion of a wealthy and powerful Scranton family, and spent the next decade trying to strike that nigh-impossible balance between career woman and dedicated mom.

A lot of politicians claim working-class backgrounds. Kane actually has one. Her dad was a janitor who picked up odd jobs when he could. Mom worked at a Turkey Hill and tended bar. They split when Kane was in seventh grade. “It was ugly,” Kane says. “It was hard for a while.” A lot of nights, Kane, her two brothers and her identical twin sister ate Lucky Charms for dinner.

And yet Kane clings tenaciously to her West Side past. Friends tell me they still go on rides with her in the old neighborhood, listening to Springsteen and Bon Jovi, driving past the homes that her high-school gang grew up in. “In West Side, you know, people don’t have a lot of money, but we are very tough,” Kane says. “We don’t take any bull from anybody. We do what we think is right.”

Kane didn’t leave Scranton until 1990, when she was admitted to Temple University’s law school despite what she says were mediocre LSAT scores. She left a clingy ex-boyfriend behind, got an apartment in Center City, and began working on her long-held dream of becoming a “high-priced lawyer in New York or somewhere.”

She landed at the Center City firm of Post & Schell after graduation, mostly handling workers’-comp cases. Soon she grew bored: “I got to the point where it was not a challenge to me. To prepare for a deposition, I’d just read the file in the cab on the way over.”

Kane, then 28, gave notice and headed back to Scranton, where a cousin lay on her deathbed. Kane landed a job in the Lackawanna County district attorney’s office, and she stayed for 12 years. Boredom was no longer a problem. “There is no comparison to getting justice for someone,” Kane says. “We can’t give a family their daughter’s life back. The only thing we can give them, and the only thing that they hang onto, is getting justice in that courtroom, knowing that someone is being held accountable for their actions.”

After 12 years, though, Kane had climbed as high up the ladder as she could. The district attorney was a good friend, and Kane wouldn’t consider running against him. Money was no longer a concern. She had married Chris Kane, who is part of a very wealthy Scranton family that runs a logistics and trucking business called Kane Is Able. So she quit, thinking it was time to be a full-time stay-at-home mother to her two sons. The transition was rough: “When I walked out the doors at work the last day, I just had this tremendous feeling of, ‘Oh my God, now what?’”

Kane filled some of the hours volunteering on the Pennsylvania presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton. That was a nasty, racially divisive election, and it left Kane with a strong distaste for campaigning. But she listened, nonetheless, when family friend Patrick Brier—a political consultant and Scranton attorney—took her and her husband to lunch at the State Street Grill and told her she should run for attorney general. Kane was shocked, then intrigued. She wondered if the family’s money would be enough, if victory was possible, if she was even qualified for the position. “So I googled the résumés of all the attorney generals. I thought, heck yeah, I’m qualified.”

They hatched a plan. Husband Chris would quit his day job to take care of the kids. Kane would commute—both during the campaign and later, in office—from Scranton, so as not to miss too many Little League games or family dinners.

The primary was supposed to be Patrick Murphy’s to lose. The former congressman from Bucks County had locked up the support of virtually the entire Southeast. He was an Iraq war veteran, and a liberal who had won a seat in a moderate district.

Then came Kane, sucking up oxygen with her attacks on Corbett and the Sandusky investigation. She spent $2.3 million in family cash during the primary. On top of that, there was the enthusiastic endorsement of former president Bill Clinton, who was both paying Kane back for supporting Hillary and paying Murphy back for choosing Obama.

Kane won by 5.6 points. The general election was a farce. She trounced an underwhelming Republican candidate by 14.5 points to become the first woman and Democrat elected Pennsylvania attorney general. When she was sworn in on January 15th, she wore a white suit. It stood out sharply in the sea of single-breasted navy and gray.

Near 9 a.m. on a mid-August day in the bankrupt city of Harrisburg, the hallways of the state capitol are completely silent. Philadelphia’s school system is in meltdown, the state’s pension system and transportation infrastructure continue their slow-motion collapses, but Pennsylvania’s legislature—the second-highest-paid in the nation—is deep into its two-and-half-month summer recess.

In Room 8A in the east wing, Kane is hovering by the door, downing a large Dunkin Donuts coffee as fast as she can before a routine—and dull—meeting. “Drinks aren’t allowed in the hearing room,” she says, casting a look at the portly capitol police officer at the door. “I really should throw it away, but it’s not in the interest of justice for me to skip this coffee.”

She sighs, then tosses the cup. “I would have let you keep it, you know,” the cop says. “Really?” the state’s chief law enforcement officer asks, in seemingly genuine surprise.

Kane and the other members of the five-person Board of Pardons jam their way through dozens of pardon hearing requests from criminals in the state’s jails. Kane is a tougher audience than most of the board, with her no’s far outnumbering her yes’s.

One of the complaints you hear about Kane is that she’s a politician first and a prosecutor second. But that gets it backward, actually. Kane is far more at home, far more assured, talking strategy with her chief of narcotics investigation than she is fielding questions from reporters about her relationship with Corbett. Reporters rarely ask a rock star like Kane about the humdrum work of the attorney general’s office, but she leaps at the chance. There’s the new child-
pr­edator unit that had already tripled last year’s arrest rate by August. There’s the new mobile street-crimes squad about to deploy with the mission of making life miserable for Mexican drug cartels expanding in Pennsylvania. There’s her push to break down the silos between her agency and federal and local jurisdictions: “The turf wars are ridiculous. I swear it’s like a t-ball game. A kid hits the ball to third base and the entire team runs to it, and there the batter goes, running around the bases,” she says. “It’s just stupid.”

A number of veteran investigators and attorneys quit the office shortly before and after Kane’s arrival, including a good chunk of the anti-corruption unit and those involved in the Sandusky investigation. But the departures were relatively few, and Kane tends to get high marks for her management. Good staffing combined with Kane’s fearlessness is a pretty potent combination. When I ask her if she’s upsetting Harrisburg’s established order on purpose, she answers: “The plan is to get things done. I’m not paralyzed by fear of whether the voters are going to not vote for me in four years. I don’t have that same mentality that some people in Harrisburg have. I’m able to make a decision.”

Which is great. But Kane is careful to tend to her image as well.

“Lighter or darker?” she asks, reaching for lipstick. “Darker,” her five handlers reply in unison.

Kane is fitting in a videotaping for the upcoming launch of a new attorney general website. Her communications director is approaching it with the seriousness of a Broadway director. He moves the American flag into the picture. He asks her to lay her glasses on the desk. Photos of her kids have been strategically placed behind her. Now he wants her iPhone in the shot as well. “You’re the contemporary attorney general,” he tells her. “Pull your hair back. You look like a pirate.”

You can’t ascend as quickly as Kane and not make a few enemies along the way. And this sort of scene is precisely what Kane’s critics imagine she spends her days doing.

They’ll acknowledge that she’s a natural political talent. But, they go on, she’s a lightweight. She lacks policy chops and the backroom expertise of more experienced pols. She’s another prosecutor, for crissakes, and after Corbett, does anyone want four more years with a governor who’s an expert in criminal procedure but a novice at glad-handing and bullying a legislature? More recently, the critics have zeroed in on Kane’s promotion of her twin sister—who worked in the attorney general’s office years before Kane won her election—to chief of the new child-predator unit.

Though Kane’s sister seems plenty qualified, the nepotism bears watching. But I find the rest of the critique lacking. Yes, Kane is a political amateur, and Corbett has made the political establishment skittish of prosecutors. But in tone and temperament, the two could hardly be more different. Corbett’s a loner. Kane is a charmer. He struggles to make friends; she managed to charm Philadelphia’s political class in a few short months after dispatching with favored son Patrick Murphy. “You don’t just parachute in and within two or three months pick up political and campaign finance support from Philadelphia,” says Alan Kessler, a Duane Morris attorney and prominent Democratic fund-raiser. “But that’s exactly what she did.”

If she does have ambitions beyond the attorney general’s office, Kane would indeed benefit from some further policy study. One doesn’t get the sense, talking to her, that she’s reading the Economist or the Atlantic on those long rides to and from Scranton. She could use a thicker skin when it comes to the press, particularly given that for the most part, the media have been fawning.

But these are quibbles. They’re just the sorts of flaws you’d expect to see in a talented newcomer, or, as Kane describes herself, “a normal person who decided to step up.”

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