Neophyte ex-Rendell official McGinty battles for recognition

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Katie McGinty has never run for office, but, after growing up as the ninth of 10 children, she's used to competing for attention.

With eight candidates trying to distinguish themselves in the competition to carry the Democratic standard against Gov. Tom Corbett, that's an essential skill. She's one of four of the party hopefuls who has never held elected office; one of three women in the field; one of three candidates residing in the vote-rich Philadelphia suburbs; one of three Rendell Cabinet veterans; and one of two former secretaries of the Department of Environmental Protection.

Ms. McGinty says she's up to the challenge.

"What we sorely need now is a vision; Gov. Corbett seems to have no vision for the commonwealth when we could be the real Keystone State of manufacturing. I uniquely bring that kind of passionate vision.''

Ms. McGinty grew up in working-class northeast Philadelphia, roots that are evident in her unmistakable Philly accent. She is the daughter of a police officer and a restaurant worker. She went to St. Joseph's College in Philadelphia, then went to Columbia University law school before landing in Washington, D.C.

After clerking for a federal appeals court judge, she joined then-Sen. Al Gore's staff. After the election of President Bill Clinton, she joined his staff, chairing the White House Council on Environmental Quality. Later, she became a fellow in India at the Tata Energy Research Institute in New Delhi. She and her husband returned to the United States and she was working in private business when then-Gov. Ed Rendell nominated her to the DEP post.

She was succeeded by John Hanger, now one of her rivals in the race for the nomination. She returned to private business, signing on to a variety of energy and environmental-related boards, and working as an executive for Weston Solutions, an engineering company that her website describes as focusing on "transit-oriented property development, energy efficiency and clean water businesses."

Her Al Gore pedigree would seem to attest to her environmental bona fides, but, like Mr. Hanger, she has been criticized by some anti-fracking activists. Like all of her major competitors for the nomination, she opposed the Democratic State Committee's call last year for a moratorium on gas drilling. In 2011, former U.S. Energy secretary Steven Chu named her one of seven members of a panel to assess fracking issues. Its qualified support for the burgeoning production method was similarly criticized by fracking opponents.

"At a time when we've got an energy resource that can be part of a bright future for us, it's important to have a tough cop on the beat," she said, contending that she would be a force to spur energy development, while at the same time beefing up the state's regulation and scrutiny of the industry.

"That's absolutely what I've been doing for 25 years," she said, while contending that the Corbett administration has been lax in regulating the industry. Like most of her Democratic competitors, she has called for the imposition of a new tax on gas drilling, the revenue from which she would devote to increasing state funding for education.

Countering the criticism from some environmental quarters, her campaign notes that she's received numerous awards from environmental groups, including the League of Conservation Voter and the Wilderness Society. She was one of several Democratic candidates who was quick to praise the recent state Supreme Court ruling that reaffirmed municipal power to impose zoning rules on drillers.

Some of the new spending she promises for education would be devoted to expanded pre-K programs, including Head Start. She has also called for a four-year path to lowering class sizes to a maximum of 25.

She has proposed an increase in the state's minimum wage to $9 an hour, while criticizing the Corbett administration for failing to embrace the expansion of Medicaid in the state available under the federal health care legislation. Unlike some conservative governors, Mr. Corbett has not refused the federal dollars, but under an initiative dubbed HealthPA, he is seeking a waiver to allow the state to use private insurers to deliver expanded health care to needy residents.

Like most of her fellow Democratic candidates, she supports gay marriage and abortion rights.

At this early stage, it's difficult to handicap the big Democratic field with few public, independent measures available. Polls show that most Democrats aren't yet acquainted with any of the candidates, but there have been some isolated, encouraging findings for Ms. McGinty. One survey last month, by the Republican-leaning firm Harper Polling, showed her in second place at 15 percent behind U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz, of Montgomery County, with 22 percent.

Ms. Schwartz has consistently led the other candidates in early polls of a race in which "don't know" or "undecided" are the most common responses.

Also seeking the nomination are state Treasurer Rob McCord, former state Revenue Secretary Tom Wolf, Max Myers, a minister from Cumberland County; Jo Ellen Litz, a Lebanon County commissioner; and Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski.

Ms. McGinty is an energetic and engaging campaigner in person. She's picked up a smattering of early endorsements, including those of state Reps. Peter Daley, D-Washington, and Tony DeLuca, D-Penn Hills, and the union that represents Allegheny County Port Authority workers. But whether she will have the resources to reach the majority of voters who will never meet a candidate remains an open question. That's why this final week of the year is vital to her as she scrambles to raise enough money to show political insiders that she can credibly claim to be in the front ranks of the big field.

Ms. Schwartz, Mr. McCord and Mr. Wolf, a wealthy businessman, are all expected to report healthy balances when the 2013 year-end reports are disclosed at the end of next month. Like Mr. Hanger and Mr. Pawlowski, Ms. McGinty's 2013 bottom line will be a crucial factor in shaping perceptions of her chances as the campaign moves to a more public phase.

While in Pittsburgh last week on a visit that included several private fundraising meetings, she said, "I think we have tremendous momentum.''

She wouldn't forecast a specific target for her 2013 receipts but said it would be seen as "a nice solid number.''

"I'm going to be very competitive in this race," she said.

Editor's note: Over the next two weeks, politics editor James O'Toole will write about the campaign preparations of the eight Democrats who plan to challenge Republican Gov. Tom Corbett's re-election bid in 2014.

James O'Toole: or 412-263-1562.

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