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POLITICALLY UNCORRECTED: Raising Kane in Pennsylvania

by on December 31, 2013 10:30 AM

As one year ends and another begins, one thing is crystal clear: Some particular Cain was raised in Keystone State politics this past year; and the particular Kane to which we refer was one Kathleen Kane, Pennsylvania’s new attorney general.

By any measure Attorney General Kane has become in less than a year Pennsylvania’s reigning political star. Interest in her is intense while speculation about her political plans runs the gamut from a possible late entrance into the 2014 governor’s race to a future challenge to incumbent U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey.

Kane’s ascendancy from virtual obscurity to the state’s biggest vote-getter in 2012 continues to stun a still awestruck political community. Indeed, her meteoric rise has no contemporary parallel. She held no public office at the time of her election. In fact, she had never been elected to any office at any level of government. Her governmental background was more limited than any statewide elected official in modern history.

Few would have expected a former appointed assistant district attorney in Lackawanna County to become the incumbent state attorney general — an office once held by the current governor and previously held by two other gubernatorial candidates. When Kane first announced her candidacy many critics took her lightly, charging that she lacked both substance and experience. No Democrat or any woman had ever been elected attorney general in Pennsylvania.

What then explains Kane’s surge in 2013 to the most popular and arguably the most powerful Democratic politician in the state?

There are four reasons taken together that could provide an excellent political blueprint for any aspiring politico hoping to burst onto the state political landscape as Kane has done. While her rise has not been stumble-free, Kane probably has produced the definitive road map to breathtakingly rapid success in statewide politics.

Gender appeal: Kathleen Kane in 2012 was quintessentially the right woman at the right place and time. Backlash against a male-only political class had been growing for several cycles. Shrewdly she ran against the “old boys in Harrisburg,” a charge that resonated well beyond the attorney general’s race. The gender appeal effectively reinforced the widely held perception that state politics was not exactly congenial to female candidates while it drew attention to Kane herself and her skills as a candidate.

Backlash against Corbett: Kane was a beneficiary of the backlash against Gov. Tom Corbett for his prosecution in the Penn State-Sandusky scandal. She made that prosecution a major part of her campaign asserting that “Corbett probably played politics with the Sandusky investigation,” charging that he dragged out the investigation to avoid raising the ire of Penn State supporters.

Performance in office: Kane’s first year has stamped her unique style as a careful, cautious but aggressive prosecutor. Early on she appointed a special prosecutor to review Corbett’s handling of the Sandusky case. Later she stopped Corbett from carrying out an unpopular plan to privatize the Pennsylvania lottery. Among other things, she refused to prosecute a Montgomery County official who issued marriage licenses to same-sex couples and agreed to prosecute a woman who aided her father’s death in a nationally observed case involving the right of terminally ill patients to end their own lives.

Charisma in a charisma-starved state: Lastly, but certainly not least, Kane has brought some style, poise and aplomb — in a word charisma — to a state not known for it. Her charisma together with an inclination to cautious rhetoric helped her in the attorney general’s race to overcome a lack of experience and familiarity in state politics. In office that same style has helped her navigate the sometimes treacherous shoals of state politics while giving her a distinctive persona among statewide politicians. It’s likely to continue to help her enormously in the years ahead — already building heady expectations that she will soon run for major state office.

Kane’s early success notwithstanding, she also has had her critics. Some have charged her with blatantly politicizing the attorney general’s office. She has also been accused of nepotism for promoting her sister to lead a new child predator office while many Corbett supporters believe she has been unnecessarily partisan and antagonistic toward the governor.

Probably her biggest challenge ahead is handling the findings of the special prosecutor now looking into how the Sandusky investigation was conducted. Both the findings and timing of this much awaited report could be explosive. Its actual findings with regard to Corbett and when it is delivered are critically important to Kane’s image and reputation. If the report seems politically motivated to hurt Corbett, especially in the timing of its release, Kane’s image for fairness and professionalism will suffer.

Critically for Kane there is a substantial question about how much control she exercises over either the timing or the content of the report. How Kathleen Kane manages this delicate moment for Tom Corbett may turn out to be an even more delicate moment for her.

POLITICALLY UNCORRECTED: This column is jointly authored by Dr. G. Terry Madonna and Dr. Michael Young. Madonna is a professor of public affairs and Franklin & Marshall College, and Young is a former professor of politics and public affairs at Penn State University and managing partner of Michael Young Strategic Research.
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