How Kathleen Kane Fooled the Press

She was a great story, and journalists — myself included — are suckers for stories.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane looks on before newly elected members of the Pennsylvania Legislature are sworn in, Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2015, at the state Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa. Republicans who control both the Senate and House picked up additional seats in the November election. In the House, Republicans outnumber Democrats 119 to 84 and in the Senate, 30 to 20. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

AP Photo/Matt Rourke

There are few stories I regret writing more in my 18-year career as a professional journalist than this sycophantic 2013 profile of Kathleen Kane.

Take this tidbit:

“I don’t back down from anything,” she says at lunch. This West Side [of Scranton] 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.

Ha. Haaaaaaaaaa. “Different.” Well, things are different, inasmuch as Kane’s brand of alleged corruption isn’t quite as venal as is the norm in Harrisburg. Kane’s failings are more Nixonian in nature: The enemies; the paranoia; the reported surveillance of suspect employees, the firing of a whistleblower.

It all culminated Thursday morning with the filing of criminal charges against Kane. She’s accused of obstruction of justice, perjury and something called official oppression, all of it stemming from an alleged scheme to leak grand jury information in order to embarrass a political enemy. “This was her war … conducted without regard to the rules, regard to the law, and without regard to the collateral damage that might entail,” Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman said this morning, as she announced the charges.

Kane denies all of this, as she has all along. She says she’ll fight it, and I don’t doubt that for a second. But for a growing number of Pennsylvanians, it’s already clear that Kane is not fit to be the state’s attorney general.

If I were the only journalist/pundit/political observer who got it so wrong on Kane, this wouldn’t much matter. But I wasn’t. During her campaign, and that first year in office, there were many others who were just as captivated by Kane as I was, many others who were just as impressed by her raw political talent, just as certain that she was the breath of fresh air Harrisburg desperately needed.

  • Here’s MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, introducing her to his Hardball audience in February, 2013: “Tonight, we’re going to bring you someone I’ve been keeping an eye on, someone I expect big things from, Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane. She’s one of several women I’m watching out there who will soon be in the national on-deck circle.
  • The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review‘s Brad Bumstead — the very same guy who broke the news that Kane would be charged as early as today — wrote back in July of 2013 that Kane had shown “she is decisive, unafraid of controversy and tough playing the inside game.”
  • Veteran political operative Ken Smukler told the Christian Science Monitor in July 2013, that “Kathleen Kane’s decision is whether to run for Senate or governor.” Kane, he said, “will be a very strong candidate for either seat.”
  • A few months later, Stephanie Schriock, president of EMILY’s List, was quoted in the Washington Post saying of Kane: “She is a rising star and she has the experience and guts a person needs to take a spot on the presidential ticket in 2020 or 2024.”

I could go on — for a very long time — but you get the point. There were a lot of alleged political pros, not to mention voters, who got Kathleen Kane badly wrong.  Some readers will attribute it to simple partisan preference. Lots of reporters lean left, and Kane was the Democrat. But that doesn’t come close to explaining Kane’s meteoric rise. Remember, she beat Pat Murphy, a well-qualified and experienced campaigner, in the Democratic primary. The hype machine around Kane was in full gear long before she had a GOP opponent. So what was it? Why was the collective judgment of so many journalists so off?

  1. The press loves a fighter. And Kane sure fit that mold. As a candidate, she punched up, and she punched hard. Remember, she won her campaign for attorney general essentially by running against sitting governor Tom Corbett, tapping into the deep well of disgust the public had about Jerry Sandusky‘s crimes at Penn State. But as attorney general, Kane has been a wildly erratic fighter, incapable of channeling her unrestrained zeal onto targets that actually deserve it. Instead, she sought to take down perceived enemies like Frank Fina (among many others). Disciplined crusaders can be effective attorneys general (Robert F. Kennedy is the classic example). But erratic crusaders in the top prosector’s office are complete disasters.
  2. The press likes politicians with charisma, and Kane has it in buckets. But charisma is just charisma. The ability to charm a reporter at an interview, or to leave an impression on a would-be voter at a campaign rally, isn’t a substitute for management chops, or negotiation skills, or perseverance, or any of the other talents a successful politician needs (not to mention more rarefied prosecutorial skills an AG needs). Reporters forget that too often. I forget that too often.
  3. Too many reporters ignored the office Kane was running for. Legislators can hurl bombs at will. They can scheme and cultivate enemies, and it’s no big deal. Even governors and mayors can break some china, although they’ve got more responsibility to clean it up. But the AG is the state’s chief law enforcement officer. That’s a wholly different job and, with hindsight, it’s obvious Kane is a terrible fit for it. Voters and the press alike got swept up by the prospect of Kane shaking up Harrisburg and changing its culture. That’s not what AGs are supposed to do, though. That’s not their role. Kane campaigned as though she was running for the office of Chief Agitator, and the press let her get away it, both before her victory and for too long after it.
  4. Insurgent outsiders like Kane make for a great story. The talented amateur who comes from nowhere; a woman on a mission to clean out a male-dominated cesspool; a Scranton native from the tough side of town who grew up with nothing. These are all great storylines, and Kane had them all. Journalists are suckers for good stories, for obvious reasons. But the real-world problem with the bolt-from-the-blue candidates is that they’re not vetted, they’re not tested, you don’t know what you’re really getting. In other words, they’re a gamble. Some have tremendous upside, sure, but others will flop. The press obsessed over Kane’s potential ceiling; few journalists spared much ink on the inherent risk in elevating an unknown like Kane into the most powerful Democrat in the state in less than a year’s time.

But say this for the press: We may have whiffed on vetting Kane going in, but her honeymoon didn’t last all that long. The Spidey senses began tingling pretty quickly for a lot of reporters who cover state government regularly. And the Inquirer‘s Craig McCoy and Angela Couloumbis did remarkable work revealing just how out-of-control Kane was as attorney general. I only wish more of us had been appropriately skeptical earlier on.