Lt. Gov. Catherine Baker Knoll dies at age 78
Catherine Baker Knoll at home in McKees Rocks following her election as lieutenant governor in 2002.
Lt. Gov.-elect Catherine Baker Knoll, of McKees Rocks gets a hug from Gov. Elect Ed Rendell during their victory celebration on election night 2002 at that Grand Ballroom of the Radisson Plaza-Warwick Hotel Center City in Philadelphia.
Pennsylvania Lt. Governor Catherine Baker Knoll (second from right) following her swearing-in ceremony in the Pennsylvania Senate Chamber in January of 2003. From left, Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Ralph Cappy, Jr. who administered the oath of office, daughter Mina Baker Knoll and Albert Baker Knoll, holding the Bible.
Lt. Gov. Catherine Baker Knoll steals the show April 21 in Market Square at a primary campaign rally for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton attended by her husband, former President Bill Clinton. Turning on Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato and Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, she said "They never recognize the lieutenant governor. These two men can't stand women." At left is Jean Milko, vice-chairman of the state Democratic Party.
Democratic presidential hopeful, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y.,waves to the crowd as Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. Catherine Baker Knoll guides her to center stage during a campaign stop at The Forum, Tuesday, March 11, 2008, in Harrisburg.
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Lt. Gov. Catherine Baker Knoll, a much-beloved figure in Pennsylvania politics who helped forge a path for women and whose head-on bluntness made her one of the most colorful figures in Allegheny County and Harrisburg, died yesterday after battling cancer for several months.
She was 78.
The daughter of a McKees Rocks baker, Mrs. Knoll entered politics through Allegheny County's old Democratic machine, but then had to fight her way onto tickets, overcoming party leaders' questions about her intellect and concerns about whether a woman could win a statewide election.
A 40-year veteran of county political wars, Mrs. Knoll served two terms as state treasurer and made a strong third-place finish among seven candidates in the 1994 Democratic primary for governor. Eight years later she went on to win her highest post, lieutenant governor in the administration of Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell. She was the first woman to be elected to the office.
She told her story across the state, stopping in small towns to personally make her pitch -- the trademark, person-to-person approach to campaigning on which she built her political career and popularity.
Along the way, she survived personal heartbreak, some political defeats and occasional slips of the tongue.
Ultimately, she lost her battle with neuroendocrine cancer, first diagnosed in early July. Mrs. Knoll died at 6 p.m. at the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Washington, D.C., according to Mary Isenhour, executive director of the Democratic State Committee.
Mrs. Knoll will be succeeded as lieutenant governor by the current president pro tempore of the state Senate, Republican Joseph B. Scarnati III of Jefferson County.
"She was a tremendous leader for the commonwealth and embodied the type of character expected of true, effective public servants," Mr. Scarnati said last night. "Her passion and commitment to bettering the lives of Pennsylvanians will be sorely missed, as it was certainly a staple of her public service."
Throughout her illness, Mrs. Knoll remained strong in spirit, with postings on her Web site from Johns Hopkins University's Kimmel Cancer Center in Baltimore, where she was receiving treatment until earlier this month. She had been hospitalized since October, and never planned to step down.
"A long time ago I received some useful wisdom: 'When you're going through hell, keep going!' That's what I am doing," she wrote.
Mr. Rendell last night said he and his wife, Midge, "mourn the passing of one of the strongest, most dedicated public servants in Pennsylvania's history."
Mrs. Knoll was 72 in 2003 when she began her first term as lieutenant governor. She was a pioneer in overcoming age and gender bias. Her base of support -- especially strong from Western Pennsylvanians, senior citizens, women and veterans groups -- propelled her to the state's No. 2 office.
"I'm steel inside," she told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2003. "You have to be or you couldn't be in this ballgame. ... I'm a steel woman from the Steel City."
Mrs. Knoll was distinctly the product of McKees Rocks, where she was born Sept. 3, 1930, to Nicholas J. and Theresa M. Baker, the eighth of nine children.
The future lieutenant governor was the daughter of a McKees Rocks mayor, and led a comfortable girlhood, even during the Depression.
She went to St. Mary's Catholic School, helped at home and at the bakery and volunteered in the community. After high school, she went to nursing school, and then went on to study education and history at Duquesne University.
She met her husband, Charles Knoll, when she was 20, and they married on May 8, 1952, just a month before her college graduation. He was a Presbyterian and Republican, she a Catholic raised in the rhetoric of the Democratic Party. He would never convert, but he did become a Democrat.
Mrs. Knoll leaves sons Albert Baker Knoll, Dr. Kim Eric Knoll and Charles Knoll, and daughter Mina Baker Knoll. A son, John, died in infancy. Her husband died in 1987.
Funeral arrangements were incomplete last night.
Of all her accomplishments, her greatest success, she would often say, was her family.
Albert said his mother "fought this illness with the same tenacity she brought to a lifetime of public service. Our mother loved working for the people of Pennsylvania and was proud of the friendship she enjoyed through the commonwealth."
Overseeing the family's Knoll Hotel and Restaurant starting in 1963, Mrs. Knoll honed her people skills, social gifts that came to define her political career. She maintained ties to the Democratic Party, working for local candidates, and in 1970 earned a spot on the state committee.
Former Pittsburgh Mayor Sophie Masloff met her at the Knolls' hotel and, she said, was immediately captivated by her class. The two became close friends and worked together to support women candidates for office.
"It was difficult at the time," Mrs. Masloff said. "We won some and we lost some, but we worked really hard. She was a credit to women."
She also left an impression on late Washington County congressman Thomas E. "Doc" Morgan and Milton J. Shapp, who was elected governor in 1970 and helped her earn a spot as a hearing examiner with the state Department of Transportation's Bureau of Motor Vehicles. She rose through the ranks of the bureau, becoming director of the Pittsburgh office.
At PennDOT, Mrs. Knoll's colleague, Seymore G. Heyison, a Shapp confidant, would become her closest adviser.
In 1976, the Democrats sought female candidates and asked Mrs. Knoll to run for state treasurer. She was Mr. Shapp's pick, but was swept by Robert E. Casey, the Cambria County recorder of deeds whom voters apparently confused with the then-auditor general and future governor, Robert P. Casey.
Forging ahead in 1984, despite the Democrats' endorsement of then-Auditor General Al Benedict, Mrs. Knoll ran for treasurer again using her characteristic plain talk, which appealed to voters. At the end of primary night, she appeared to be the nominee, but the vote count dragged on for weeks. Mr. Benedict was ultimately declared the winner, beating Mrs. Knoll by just 14,421 votes.
She said she would never run again.
But in 1988, just after her husband's death from a stroke, her children persuaded Mrs. Knoll to run for treasurer again. This time, her opponent was David Sweet, who had the support of Gov. Casey and other party leaders.
This time she won, by more than 300,000 votes.
As treasurer, she surrounded herself with financial experts and made lasting changes, including her startup of a college savings program for parents.
"Catherine was a very passionate and exuberant advocate for many worthy causes," Mr. Rendell said.
She easily won her second term in 1992, making state history by collecting 2.83 million votes, 500,000 more than any Pennsylvania winner ever. That victory inspired Mrs. Knoll to make a run for governor in 1994, a year when the Democratic committee did not endorse a candidate. Despite her defeat, Mrs. Knoll did surprisingly well, coming in third among seven candidates in the primary. Lt. Gov. Mark S. Singel won the primary, but lost in November to Republican Tom Ridge.
Term limits kept Mrs. Knoll from running for a third term as treasurer in 1996, and her daughter, Mina Baker Knoll, ran instead. She became the Democratic nominee, but ultimately lost to then-Auditor General Barbara Hafer.
The elder Mrs. Knoll went on to challenge Mrs. Hafer during a third run for treasurer in 2000, losing by fewer than 100,000 votes.
Two years later, she made a run for lieutenant governor. She was memorable for her seemingly endless energy as she traveled from small town to small town, listening to voters and getting to know them personally.
She logged 40,000 miles on her car, shook hands with thousands of voters, and made stops at church basements, PTA meetings, fashion shows and construction sites.
Mrs. Knoll defeated nine other Democratic candidates for lieutenant governor, all men, in the May 2002 primary, and bested three challengers in 2006 to remain Mr. Rendell's running mate.
As lieutenant governor, her principal job was to preside over Senate sessions, but she also "was instrumental in issues such as emergency management, domestic preparedness and economic development," Mr. Rendell said last night.
Mrs. Knoll was, at times, prone to malaprops, mistakenly referring one or two times to Mr. Rendell -- whose full name is Edward G. Rendell -- as "Edward G. Robinson," the famous actor from gangster movies in the 1930s and '40s.
In 2005, she apologized after showing up uninvited to the funeral of a Marine killed in Iraq and giving her business card to family members, an incident that got her into political trouble. Mrs. Knoll denied that she was trying to capitalize on the event, and Mr. Rendell defended her, saying she was trying to offer help to the family and didn't mean any harm.
Despite her occasional slipups, Mrs. Knoll became a beloved politician to many who saw her as charming and authentic.
"Catherine was a role model and beloved friend to thousands of Pennsylvanians, particularly in Western Pennsylvania," state House Speaker Dennis O'Brien said. "She was justifiably proud of being a successful woman in politics and government."
First Published November 13, 2008 12:00 am