The (Too?) Careful Candidate: Inside Katie McGinty’s Senate Run

The Democratic establishment is going all in on McGinty’s race against incumbent Pat Toomey. But in the Year of the Outsider, could a party-line strategy end up backfiring?
Photography by Will Figg

Photography by Will Figg

I have been getting some pretty weird emails from Senator Pat Toomey’s reelection campaign lately. There’s an anxious, almost desperate quality to them.

“Can’t sleep” was the subject of one from late June, which arrived a few hours shy of an important fund-raising deadline.

“Had to email you,” said another.

“Running out of time.”

“please … ”

And those are just the subject lines. In July, after I’d been trying to get in touch with someone to talk about Toomey’s campaign, I got a message that I thought really was for me. “Hey Jared, it’s Jennifer from the Toomey campaign,” the first line said. I opened it and read the next line: “I am looking through some of our records and noticed that you haven’t sent an online donation to the campaign yet.”

Of course Jennifer was right: I hadn’t donated to the Toomey campaign, but I wondered what she was so worried about. Toomey is an incumbent, and his Democratic opponent, Katie McGinty, has never held elected office. He’s a man representing a state that has never sent a woman to the U.S. Senate. And he was unchallenged in the primary, so he was able to stash away quite a bit of cash.

And it’s not like McGinty is exactly electrifying voters on the campaign trail. Her speeches tend to be canned and almost preposterously folksy, as though she’d just as soon not talk about her deep expertise in environmental policy and record of deal-making in state and federal government. When she addressed a friendly crowd on the final night of the DNC in July — her remarks a hodgepodge of appeals to hard work, fairness and patriotism, prefaced with the now obligatory note that she’s the ninth of 10 kids from a “loud, Irish” Northeast Philadelphia family — nobody even seemed to be listening.

But maybe Toomey’s worried because he saw what McGinty did in the primary: She beat back two opponents, after starting out behind in the polls, with a massive last-minute push by party fund-raisers and a national PAC. Maybe he’s worried because he’s seen what the party establishment has been able to do for her in a year that was supposed to favor outsiders.

Maybe he should be worried, because maybe — despite the fact that she earned less than 10 percent of the vote in the only other race she’s ever run, and despite her lightning-fast, Republican-alienating tenure as Governor Tom Wolf’s chief of staff — Katie McGinty can win.

YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE TOLD that McGinty grew up in Northeast Philly to know she grew up in Northeast Philly, because it’s right there in her voice. When she says “thorough,” it rhymes with “arrow,” and when she says “out,” it begins with a long A sound. But after the more than 20 years she’s spent in Washington and Harrisburg, there’s not much else about her demeanor that reveals her roots.

One afternoon in July, I met McGinty, who’s 53, outside her childhood home, a corner property in Rhawnhurst where she and all those siblings were raised by a cop and a restaurant hostess. She pointed out where additions had been made and trees had been cut down, and made sure to register my wonder at how so many people lived inside such a normal-size house.

“There was always somebody,” she said. “For a while, my brothers picked up this Native American from out West. … He was only supposed to stay seven days, but he stayed seven months, and so up in that crow’s nest we literally have, like, calfskins lining cedar chests, and he’d be up there knitting moccasins and stuff for us.”

I had to ask: What?

“Oh, just when my brothers went out West they found a guy hard on his luck who needed a place to stay, so they brought him home,” she said. “And you know, it was always the case, because my mother loved — the more the merrier.”

Later, we got water ice — she ordered a cherry and lemon combo after making sure I wouldn’t be taking any pictures — and then drove to Resurrection of Our Lord Parish, where her family went to church. It was just before three o’clock, and her handlers — a driver and a press liaison — told her they had called ahead, and the church didn’t open till four. Shouldn’t we at least try the door? she asked. She put her rapidly melting water ice down on the ground, pulled the door open, dipped her fingers in the holy water, crossed herself, and slid into a pew.

“When I was in high school,” McGinty whispered, gazing around the nave, “I think I might have been one of the first girls, if not the first, they allowed to walk around with the baskets and do the collection.”

It’s hard to square this Katie McGinty — animated and proud of what she’s done — with the painfully scripted candidate she plays in public. People who know her describe her as a force of nature. She reportedly starts her mornings at 5:30 with a workout. She played basketball in high school, and was so motivated to land a secure job that she became the first member of her family to go right to a four-year school. (The semantics are important: She’s been criticized for saying she was the first member of her family “to go to college” even though her brother, John, transferred into La Salle after attending community college.)

After she finished law school, at Columbia, she got a fellowship in Washington working for Senator Al Gore. By the age of 31, she had become the chair of President Bill Clinton’s Council on Environmental Quality. Ed Rendell says it was on the advice of Gore and Clinton that he decided to nominate her to head the state Department of Environmental Protection in 2003.

“I met with her and found her to be thoughtful, visionary, and I also found her to be high-energy, which we absolutely needed,” Rendell says.

McGinty’s nomination pissed off some Harrisuburg Republicans, who were convinced she would use the DEP to needle industry and walk all over property owners. She later briefly won over State Senator Jake Corman, who appreciated her willingness to help him resolve issues in his district.

At the DEP, McGinty helped enact the Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards Act. It may sound like a dreadfully boring achievement, but experts credit the law, which requires electric companies to provide a portion of their energy from renewable sources, with improving the state’s “green economy” during the Rendell years. The achievement was particularly notable, says PennEnvironment director David Masur, because the conservative legislature had to buy in, which required McGinty and others to give up some power in the interest of creating a lasting standard.

In any event, it would be a mistake to view McGinty as a fervent tree-hugger. Her ascendance to top environmental posts is no doubt thanks to her belief, which she’s been preaching since the early 1990s, that environmental crises are economic opportunities — a belief that doesn’t require tough moral choices about which is more important. And she has disappointed some environmentalist groups by failing to call for a moratorium on fracking.

McGinty’s tenure at DEP ended in 2008. Sometime after that, while she was living in Wayne, working in the private sector, serving on the boards of two energy companies — which her opponents point to as evidence that she’s a self-dealing, revolving-door-exploiting creature of the Establishment — helping to nurse a sister who was dying of brain cancer and raising two daughters she adopted from an orphanage in India and a third she had with her husband, Karl Hausker, who works on climate issues at the World Resources Institute, Katie McGinty decided to run for office.

SHE DOESN’T REALLY explain why, except to say she felt called to public service, which is what everybody says. Her campaign for governor in 2014 is routinely described as relentlessly positive, which probably accounts for Wolf’s decision to offer her the chief-of-staff job. But others, like Corman, who says McGinty was among the least effective chiefs of staff he’s worked with, believe she was eyeing the next opportunity.

McGinty says she was recruited into the Senate race by Democratic Party leaders. And that’s probably true, given their deep distaste for Joe Sestak, who had clashed with the leadership repeatedly in the course of his 2010 loss to Toomey. Sestak was itching for a rematch, but when he showed an independent streak again in 2015 — according to Rendell, he even hung up the phone on Senator Chuck Schumer — the party began casting about for virtually anyone else. Their first choice, Montgomery County Commissioner Josh Shapiro, declined, and Allentown mayor Ed Pawlowski got caught up in an FBI investigation. So they landed on McGinty.

In that context, she looks less like a force of nature and more like the candidate of last resort. But there’s reason to suspect that major-party recruiting traditions might have kept the kingmakers from tapping a woman as their first choice; Pennsylvania has sent white guys to the Senate for 230 years straight. And none of this is to suggest that Sestak or anyone else was the better candidate — only that the choice wasn’t really about the candidate’s strengths.

McGinty made it over the finish line with millions of dollars from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee — more than the DSCC spent on any other primary race — plus a big push from EMILY’s List, a PAC that supports pro-choice women in political races; an Obama endorsement; and every other kind of party support you can imagine. “They’re a major investor in Senate campaigns that are sort of toss-ups,” Rendell says of the DSCC. “And they wanted to protect their investment with someone who they thought would take their lead.”

So McGinty’s been running a careful, conventional Democratic Party campaign. Toomey’s team, perhaps infected with nickname fever by Donald Trump, has taken to calling her “Shady Katie.” They’ve attacked her for an ethics flap in 2007; a nonprofit her husband consulted for received $2.7 million in grants approved by McGinty, who was DEP secretary at the time. (The state Ethics Commission later ruled in an advisory opinion that this type of grantmaking would represent a conflict of interest.) As the summer wore on, Toomey began beating the drum about national security issues, and McGinty continued to hammer away at the party-line talking points: Clean jobs. The middle class. Working families. Universal pre-K.

On the campaign trail and in conversation, McGinty talks quite a bit about her upbringing and using the Senate seat to be a champion for working people — what that means is never entirely clear — and talks very little about the things that make her a richly qualified candidate, like the time she helped rescue the Everglades. So come November, voters are going to be asked the usual question: Republican or Democrat?

ONE AFTERNOON DURING THE DNC, I sat in on a panel discussion hosted by the Democratic Socialists of America, who were talking about how to keep up their momentum after the surprisingly strong presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders. It was a freewheeling affair, with bottles of Corona and Rolling Rock, at a community center. The consensus, such as it was, was that the socialists should support Clinton in November and then sponsor progressive candidates to take over Congress in 2018 as a referendum on “corporatized liberalism.”

When it was over, I walked half a block west to the Kimmel Center for an EMILY’s List cocktail party at which McGinty was scheduled to speak. Waiters were walking around with gargantuan trays of cured meats, rich-looking cheeses, caper berries and pickled gherkins, quaint little sandwiches, multiple mustards, dishes of mango, white and purple cauliflower, red grapes and seeded crackers. Everyone was drinking from sweaty glasses of white wine.

From a balcony, I spotted McGinty standing with two of her daughters, greeting partygoers with two hands and an expectant smile. She was dressed in pink, and she looked every bit like an American senator.

“My journey started here, growing up in Northeast Philadelphia as the ninth of 10 kids,” McGinty said from the stage after introducing her daughters, who looked supportive but mildly embarrassed. “Today I am thrilled because together, we are here to celebrate history, but let’s face it, it’s her-story. If you want to know, though, why I’m running, this is why.”

She squinted and dispatched a concerned gaze to an unfixed point in the distance.

“Because when a mom is working two jobs and still has to take the kids to a food bank on Saturday, she’s not empowered. Her family is not empowered. Because when a woman has serious personal health decisions to make and she has no health care, no coverage, no provider, she’s not empowered. Her family is not empowered.”

When she finished, two women behind me tried to start chanting “Katie! Katie!,” but the next speaker was introduced too quickly. Later there were speeches by Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, who pointed out that the Democrats will regain the Senate if all nine members of the EMILY’s List delegation win their elections. McGinty mingled for a while to the side of the stage while her daughters snapped pictures of her with well-wishers, then slowly made her way to a rear exit.

The party kept right on rolling.

Published as “Politics: Party Time” in the September 2016 issue of Philadelphia magazine.