First Lady of Pennsylvania

The night before the Democratic convention began, Teresa Heinz Kerry visited Pennsylvania delegates and — in what became the brush-off heard round the world — told a Pittsburgh editorialist to “shove it.” The event would be remembered for that encounter, which, depending on one's perspective, became straight-to-video evidence of Heinz Kerry's instability, her candor, or her imperiousness. Another moment was more telling of her future, however.

Standing beside her on the Massachusetts State House's grand staircase, Governor Ed Rendell introduced Heinz Kerry. “I feel immensely proud as a Pennsylvanian of what Teresa has accomplished on the campaign trail,” he said, then handed her the microphone and, dropping back, moved up another step. As Heinz Kerry spoke — her whisper can quickly silence a room — Rendell stood to her left, towering over her small frame. He was perhaps relishing his last moments of primacy: If John Kerry is elected president next month, Rendell's term as Pennsylvania Democratic politics' most powerful figure will end. The torch will be passed to a woman whose political career began as the wife of the opposing party's most popular figure, and who remained, until just last year, a Republican.

Heinz Kerry has always been interested in policy, advocating for the environment and women's issues in the 1970s and entering controversial statewide debates over gun control and school vouchers in the '90s. In so doing, she has by turns cultivated an image as above the fray, below the fray, or merely out of it. But even while distancing herself from partisan politics — “Political campaigns are the graveyard of real ideas and the birthplace of empty promises,” she has said — Heinz Kerry seems to have inserted herself in it when least expected to. She truncated the mourning period for her first husband, Senator John Heinz, after about a year by taping an influential ad for Arlen Specter. In 2002, she surprised Rendell's campaign by volunteering to cross party lines and endorse the gubernatorial candidate.

When her husband's seat was up in 1994, the widow refused entreaties to enter the Republican primary and challenge Congressman Rick Santorum. Yet days before the election, Heinz publicly called Santorum “Forrest Gump with an attitude” and said that, “short on public service and even shorter on accomplishments,” he was the “antithesis” of her husband. When Santorum alleged that her attack was prompted by the fact she was dating John Kerry, she accused him of dealing in “innuendo and gossip.” The local Republican chairman encouraged her to leave the party. Santorum won, and Heinz married Kerry a few months later. “I often wonder whether if she knew that Rick was going to win, she would have reconsidered,” Pittsburgh Republican consultant Bill Green says of Heinz's decision not to run.

Teresa in the role of Hillary — capping eight years in the White House by embarking on that senatorial career — seems unlikely. Dynasty-building will fall to her 31-year-old son Chris. Chris Heinz, who lives in New York and has never spent more than a summer at a time in Pennsylvania, says he intends to change his primary residence to the family's suburban Fox Chapel estate, and that he'll vote there next month, likely the first formal step toward his own Pennsylvania political career.

Those who become familiar with the Heinz foundations' charitable work are inevitably surprised by how hands-on the chairwoman is. The self-described “venture philanthropist” would bring the same entrepreneurial spirit to helping candidates she favors. “She's not an extremely partisan person, but it will be natural for her to try to elect — and to raise money for — people that will make it easier for her husband to govern,” says lawyer David Ehrenwerth, who chaired John Heinz's “57 Club” of supporters.

At the Massachusetts State House during the convention, Heinz Kerry extolled the place she chooses — over Boston, Washington, Nantucket and Sun Valley — to call home. “The steadfastness, the humility, the grace, the honesty of the people of Pennsylvania were great teachers to me,” she said, her chin resting wearily on a microphone. “I'm a person of the earth,” she went on. “Nature is pretty honest,” she added.

Pennsylvania figures heavily in Teresa Heinz Kerry's self-hagiography, conveniently offering a point-by-point rebuttal of the governing caricature of her: flighty, glamorous jet-setter with foreign tastes and a mind in the cosmos. Pennsylvania residence is to Teresa what Vietnam is to her husband: a retroactive Rosebud, a biographical fact elevated to the challenge of having to explain — or explain away — the rest of a life.

Often, Heinz Kerry wears her Pennsylvania-ness uneasily, like a hastily constructed alibi. Clevelanders booed when she tried to bond with them as a Pittsburghian; those cities share only a rivalry. Her “shove it” exchange with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's Colin McNickle came after she talked about “the Â… un-Pennsylvanian and sometimes un-American traits that are creeping into some of our politics.” McNickle took issue with her use of “un-American.” But that controversy ignored the more curious terminology: Un-Pennsylvanian?

In the White House, Heinz Kerry would assume the two great abilities — to draw media coverage and to raise money — that have made Rendell the first formidable statewide power broker the Democrats have had in almost a decade. The doting attention Rendell offers as he squires Heinz Kerry at campaign events belies the occasionally uneasy relationship the two have had. Rendell riled the Kerry campaign in July by questioning Edwards's “gravitas” one day before the North Carolina senator was named to the ticket, and by tactically refusing to endorse a candidate in the primary.

In two years, Rendell will be on the ballot seeking reelection, but national attention (and the dollars of the Democratic activist class) will be on the Pennsylvania race that is unfinished business to Teresa. Santorum still has the Heinz seat — “She's not happy about that,” says state treasurer Barbara Hafer — and it's up for grabs in 2006, presenting a belated occasion for Heinz Kerry to purge her former party of a tainting influence.

Her candidate-recruitment efforts may have begun in utero. Chris, the youngest of her three boys, appears an almost perfect creation of the House of Heinz — a sort of Manchurian candidate, brainwashed by a devious mother to advance a self-interested agenda of centrist civility — as it asserts dominance over Pennsylvania politics. On the stump, the former investment banker is witty and articulate, knowing not to play down his sex appeal — he typically undoes enough shirt buttons to win the endorsement of Americans for Chest Hair — but also mastering policy. “He's caught the bug,” Bill Green says. When he re-registers, however, Chris will remain an Independent. “I remember being told that my dad was a registered Independent two years before he ran for Congress,” Heinz says.

Democrats wait like suitors for Heinz to declare his interest. Some asked him to run this year against Republican Congresswoman Melissa Hart in a Pittsburgh-area district that includes Fox Chapel. Heinz said no, so everybody started breathlessly looking to 2006. “If he were to run against Hart, that would probably be the hottest race in the election cycle,” says state Democratic chairman T.J. Rooney. Heinz says he has put his district-shopping — including consideration of settling in Montgomery County — on hold until after Election Day.

Some have suggested Heinz challenge Santorum, a Shakespearean prospect: Prodigal son returns home to reclaim the family throne from evil-hearted pretender. That scenario also contains, for a man confronting charges of inexperience and opportunism, an ironic truth: Reaching for the highest available office might offer the least resistance. After all, Heinz's vast fortune would afford a greater comparative advantage, and the perception of pretty-boy carpetbagging might be weakened in a statewide contest with less pride of place.

Heinz shares his mother's rhetorical bluntness, although different gender expectations make his an easier fit. (She's a loose cannon; he's a straight-shooter.) “They're lying,” he says of the Bush administration's style, a more direct charge than most Democrats have been willing to make. When asked this summer by the Harrisburg Patriot-News about Republican cultural politics, Heinz said, “John Kerry is not going to take away your guns; he is not going to ask you to get an abortion; and he is not going to make you gay. And those are the only three issues our opponents have in western Pennsylvania.”

But Heinz understands the cultural identity of that region, and he, too, has been making the case for his Pennsylvania-ness. Where his mother invents local values to decipher herself — “Another thing I learned from Pennsylvania was the courage to be myself” — Washington-bred, New Hampshire boarding-school-educated Chris has to prove he is at home in a state he wants to represent. He recently competed in a “Sportsmen 4 Kerry” skeet-shooting contest near Pittsburgh. “I don't hunt that much. I don't like killing things bigger than birds. I don't like shooting mammals,” Heinz says. “[But] I've never not shot guns. I think I had a small BB gun actually coming out of the womb, which was really awkward for my mother,” he says, wryly. “My mother doesn't like us playing with guns — whether they be real guns, toy guns, BB guns. But I still managed to play with them my whole life.”

If Heinz chooses to challenge Santorum midway through a first Kerry term, the party's two heavyweights could face each other in a contest of proxies; according to the political grapevine, Rendell has been encouraging his ally Barbara Hafer, also a former Pittsburgh Republican, to run. Teresa Heinz Kerry's political priorities aren't as much of the left-right variety as good-bad. She moves through American politics like de Tocqueville on a very generous per diem, with an aristocratic sense of obligation to public life and an outsider's appreciation of its high moral purpose. Regardless of which Democrat is on the ballot, one imagines Teresa is set to make Santorum's defeat a Heinz campaign. “I think she'll be doing whatever she can to help,” says Ehrenwerth. “She's certainly not one to stay home and say, ‘I hope the good guy wins.'” b