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Catherine Baker Knoll is making history as first female lieutenant governor

Sunday, January 12, 2003

By Johnna A. Pro, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

When city Councilman Gene Ricciardi met Catherine Baker Knoll in 1974, he was a 20-year-old college student who had lost his driving privileges because of a speeding ticket.

She was the PennDOT hearing examiner he had to ask for leniency.

Despite his most persuasive arguments, Knoll upheld the suspension.

Catherine Baker Knoll will become Pennsylvania's first female lieutenant governor. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)

Then she went a step further. A few months later, she called Ricciardi to talk about public service. As Ricciardi would later learn, it was typical Knoll.

"I couldn't believe it," Ricciardi said. "Here's this woman who took away my license. I was furious. And she had the nerve to call me and tell me I was young and government was a noble calling and I should get involved."

Ricciardi, now part of Knoll's inner circle, thought the whole experience bordered on the bizarre. But he also was charmed, and that's why he still tells the story and laughs about it.

It's also one of the reasons that, come Jan. 21, Catherine Baker Knoll, who lives across the street from her childhood home in McKees Rocks, will become Pennsylvania's first female lieutenant governor.

After decades in Democratic politics and 11 statewide primary and general election campaigns, Knoll has put her ability to charm people to good use.

She has survived personal heartbreak, political defeat and public scandal, but even her staunchest critics concede she has never wavered in her belief that government can work well for people.

In her primary election bid for lieutenant governor, she finished first in 54 of the state's 67 counties, besting eight men, including state Sen. Jack Wagner of Beechview, who had the backing of Robert Casey Jr., the Democrats' endorsed but unsuccessful candidate for governor.

"You can't package or spin Catherine," said Flavia Colgan, a Fox News political analyst who will be Knoll's chief of staff. "She's authentic, and that's all that counts. She continues to defy the experts."

'She can work a room'

Like Ricciardi, state Rep. Michael Diven, D-Brookline, was drawn into Knoll's sphere like iron to a magnet.

The year was 1993. Diven was a college student with the gumption to seek the Democratic nomination for a Pittsburgh City Council seat.

It was a great story during the primary, but the morning after the election, Diven was crushed, finishing third in a five-man race.

"Believe me, nobody wanted to talk to me," Diven said.

Nobody except Knoll, by then state treasurer.

Knoll sent Diven a note congratulating him on the race and encouraging his continued involvement in Democratic politics. He never forgot that kindness.

Nine years later, when Ricciardi's City Council duties limited the time he could campaign for Knoll during her bid for lieutenant governor, Diven, who was seeking reelection to the House at the same time, signed on as Knoll's driver, gofer and sounding board.

Over the course of the campaign, Knoll logged 40,000 miles on her car, shook hands with thousands of voters, posed for dozens of pictures each day and found time to draft personal notes to the people she met.

For Knoll, who is always meticulously dressed, usually in some combination of red, white and blue, the days often began at 4 a.m. and rarely ended before midnight. Strategy sessions were held late at night at places such as the Chapel of Blues in the West End, a favorite haunt.

She made campaign stops at Grange halls, PTA meetings, church basements, construction sites, fashion shows and events like Rain Day in Greene County.

"She's a listener, she's a talker, and I'll tell you, she can work a room," said Jack Shea, president of the Allegheny County Labor Council. "There's nobody who can work a room better than Cathy Baker Knoll."

With an assist from the Federation of Democratic Women and its ties to community organizations, Knoll often was the only candidate at some events, talking to crowds of up to 500.

"She treats everyone as an equal, and she leaves a lasting impact," Diven said. "She makes a connection."

Diven, 32, said he was frequently near exhaustion during the campaign, unable to keep up with the diminutive Knoll, who, at 72, seems to have the stamina of a teenager.

After one 16-plus hour day, Knoll, whom Gov.-elect Ed Rendell calls the Energizer Bunny, breezed through Pittsburgh International Airport with a suitcase in one hand and a cell phone in the other.

Diven and Ricciardi were 15 steps behind, struggling to keep up and thankful that home and sleep were just a car ride away.

"We got to the car and she said, 'OK, now we have to go break bread and talk about today,' " Diven recalled. "I wanted to cry."

Deep roots in McKees Rocks

The woman known to friends simply as CBK was born Sept. 3, 1930, eighth among the nine children of Nicholas J. and Theresa M. Baker.

Her father, who eventually became burgess, or mayor, of McKees Rocks, was a twin and one of the seven Baker brothers, who took their father's West End bakery and turned it into a wholesale outfit aptly named Seven Baker Brothers. Supplying grocery stores around the region, the company at one point had 400 employees.

Her mother was one of 11 children, including nine girls, born to John and Emelea May, who operated a farm on the border of McKees Rocks and Stowe. They sold their vegetables on the South Side.

Knoll, who was raised in the bosom of Catholicism, meets Pope John Paul II in November. (Vatican photo)

Nicholas and Theresa Baker settled on School Street, but because traffic was heavy on nearby Island Avenue, they moved to a home on Church Avenue across from St. Mary's Catholic School.

The children all went to St. Mary's, helped at home and at the bakery, and volunteered in the community.

"We all listened to Mother and Dad," recalled Knoll's sister, Amelia Hartner, owner of Hartner's Restaurant in Cranberry. "There was no not pleasing our parents."

Knoll's long days, born of a desire, as she says, to "know everything," developed in those early years, with Amelia playing teacher and making the younger children memorize the encyclopedia.

"Oh, the Books of Knowledge," Hartner recalled. "We'd read them like a love story. We knew everything from A to Z."

While the family wasn't wealthy, the Bakers were comfortable, even during the Depression. They had the first radio in McKees Rocks, and Nicholas Baker always had a car.

"We had plenty to eat and plenty to wear, but my mother had to pinch pennies," said Paul Baker, Knoll's oldest sibling and the founder of Jenny Lee Bakery.

After high school, Catherine entered nursing school, but it wasn't to her liking. So her mother "marched me down to Duquesne and said, 'You're going to become a teacher.' "

By the time Catherine Baker entered Duquesne University to study history and education, Charles A. Knoll had made a name for himself in McKees Rocks.

He was in his mid-30s, had served in World War II, piloted his own plane and ran the family businesses, the Park Palace cocktail lounge and the Knoll Hotel and Restaurant.

Baker and Knoll met when she was 20. Her older brother, John, an artist, had been commissioned to do several works for the Knoll family.

It was not love at first sight -- "I was dating someone else," she said -- but after a year of going out together, the two decided to marry, much to the dismay of both mothers.

But Nicholas Baker blessed the union, despite the couple's 17-year age difference. He liked Knoll and found him to be a perfectly suitable suitor.

"My dad said, 'This is the most level-headed man I know,' " she recalled.

On May 8, 1952, just a month before her college graduation, Catherine Baker, 21, who had been raised in the bosom of Catholicism and on the rhetoric of the Democratic Party, married Knoll, 38, a Presbyterian and Republican. He would never convert, but he did become a Democrat.

Charles urged Catherine to live by two tenets: Don't sweat the small stuff. Don't let anyone intimidate you.

The couple had five children: Charles Jr., 49, a partner in the Downtown law firm Vincler Knoll; John, who died in infancy; Mina, 47, an accountant with Deloitte & Touche in New York City; Albert, 45, an executive with Sunoco in Washington, D.C.; and Kim Eric, 41, a dentist in Washington, D.C.

"My greatest success is my family," she said.

Moving up in politics

If the Baker/Knoll marriage was unconventional for the times, so was the couple's lifestyle, which was centered on the Knoll Hotel and Restaurant, where the growing family lived.

The hotel was popular with workers and travelers coming into McKees Rocks. After Charles was named postmaster in 1963, Catherine, who had long before given up teaching, took over the business.

"It wasn't really a house," her son, Charles, said. "We lived above a very vibrant business. It was a wonderful place to grow up. You never knew what would happen."

And as overseer of the business, Catherine honed her people skills, developing an attention and appreciation for the details of peoples' lives that served her well in her political career.

"She remembers when a committeewoman's nephew in Elk County broke his ankle," Charles Knoll said. "She remembers the things that are important to people. The things that happen to families."

Although Knoll was busy with the family and the business, she maintained her ties to the Democratic Party, working for local candidates, and in 1970, winning a position on the state committee.

Among those she impressed were the late Thomas E. "Doc" Morgan, a congressman from Washington County, and Milton J. Shapp, who was elected governor in 1970.

For her loyalty to the new governor, Knoll ended up with a $7,200-a-year spot with PennDOT's bureau of motor vehicles as a hearing examiner.

She returned to Duquesne to earn her master's degree in education, and rose through PennDOT ranks to become director of the Pittsburgh office of the bureau of motor vehicles.

Her PennDOT colleagues included the late Seymore G. Heyison, a Shapp confidante who would become Knoll's closest adviser until his death in 1996.

By 1976, with the Democrats looking for women to promote as candidates, Knoll was asked to run for state treasurer.

"She was not offensive to the old-school, old-boy network, and she was reliable," son Charles said. "She was proper, dignified and professional. She ran the DMV here. She had managed a thriving business. She came from the right background, and she had the right education. She was one of the first superwomen."

Although Catherine Baker Knoll's was not a household name statewide in 1976, she had strong ties to the Democratic Party, which she cultivated starting at age 4 campaigning for her father. She was Shapp's choice.

Robert E. Casey blindsided her. Casey was Cambria County recorder of deeds, but voters apparently confused him with Robert P. Casey, "The Real Bob Casey," who was then auditor general and later would become governor.

Knoll spent $325,000 on the race and wound up losing the primary to Casey, who went on to win the seat that fall.

"I was mad at the world," she said, recalling the aftermath of the campaign.

In 1984, Knoll decided to run again. The Democrats endorsed then-auditor general Al Benedict, but Knoll forged ahead anyway. Her person-to-person approach appealed to voters and at the end of primary night, she appeared to be the Democratic nominee. Benedict conceded, only to withdraw the concession when the vote tightened.

For weeks, the vote count dragged on, and Benedict ultimately was declared the winner, beating Knoll by just 14,421 votes.

Knoll vowed she would never again run for office.

But on Dec. 5, 1987, her husband died, three years after suffering a stroke. Knoll's children encouraged her to take on one more statewide campaign, thinking it would refocus her life.

"All four said, 'Let's go, Mom,' " Knoll said.

"Election days were almost like the favorite family holiday for us," said her daughter, Mina. "Campaigning was always part of the family."

In 1988, for the third time, Knoll ran for treasurer.

Her opponent? David Sweet, who now is a key player in Rendell's transition efforts. Sweet had the backing of Gov. Robert P. Casey and party bosses.

But Knoll wasn't without support among Democrats. The still-powerful "Doc" Morgan was furious with Casey for not endorsing Knoll and decided to chair her campaign.

She called on her siblings, her children and the friends she'd made in two previous campaigns. She borrowed heavily.

She won. Convincingly. By more than 300,000 votes.

When she arrived in Harrisburg in 1989, Knoll said, she found the treasurer's office a "mess."

"I just knew there had to be some changes," she said.

Knoll brought Heyison on board as her deputy and surrounded herself with financial experts. Among other things, she:

Opened a state-of-the-art investment center that would generate $1.75 billion in earnings during her tenure.

Increased the number of auditors to identify areas where the state could recoup money it was due.

Streamlined unemployment compensation for workers and modernized mailing operations to reduce costs.

Oversaw the startup of the state's Tuition Account Program.

"She has a track record of proven results," Diven said.

With one term finished, Knoll easily won re-election with 63 percent of the vote in 1992. In that race, she also made state history, collecting 2.83 million votes, 500,000 more than any Pennsylvania winner ever.

By comparison, Bill Clinton won Pennsylvania with 2.24 million votes that year.

Emboldened by such numbers, she decided to seek the Democratic nomination for governor in 1994, only to change her mind a few weeks later.

Lt. Gov. Mark S. Singel lined up state committee votes for what appeared to be an assured party endorsement. The night before the committee met, Knoll circulated word that she would reconsider a bid for governor if the committee did not endorse a candidate.

The next morning, in a vote that stunned Singel, the committee voted to remain neutral, declaring it an "open" primary and propelling Knoll back into the contest.

Singel won the primary anyway, and Knoll came in third among seven candidates. Singel lost in November to Republican Tom Ridge.

"I should not have run. I didn't have sufficient money to get into a race like that," she said.

Controversy with SEC

Knoll's eight-year tenure as treasurer also produced controversy. During her second term word got out that the Securities and Exchange Commission had begun an investigation into a fraud scandal in the office in which consultants to the state improperly reaped millions in fees as part of a 1994 bond refinancing deal.

Knoll sees her children as her closest advisers. In 1976, her oldest son, Charles Jr., was at her side when she ran for state treasurer.

The SEC inquiry involved a complicated sequence of financial maneuvers in which an investment banking firm made excessive profits by manipulating the difference in interest rates between the old and new bonds.

Knoll contends that the paperwork involved in the deal was altered after she signed off on it. Ultimately she and her staff were cleared of any wrongdoing.

"It was a terrible predicament for me. I had faith in people. I missed something," Knoll said, adding that the experience made her much more suspicious of others. "It was beyond me that they did this. Never in my lifetime would that have occurred to me."

Because of term limits, Knoll could not run for a third term in 1996.

Mina Knoll ran instead. She easily won the Democratic nomination, but the fall race against then-Auditor General Barbara Hafer turned vicious after Hafer questioned Mina Knoll's residency -- she had been living in New York City. The Knoll campaign, in turn, attacked Hafer's leadership as auditor general.

Hafer ultimately won the race, but any friendship between the state's two most visible female political leaders had disintegrated and would worsen over the next few years. Knoll now says their relationship is cordial. Hafer did not respond to requests for comment.

For Knoll and her family, Mina's loss to Hafer was compounded by personal tragedy two years later. Knoll's grandson, Christian Eric, 8, of Silver Spring, Md., who had a history of seizures, died Aug. 5, 1998.

"I can tell you that Nanas never get over it," Knoll said.

Families do move forward, though, and in 2000, Catherine Baker Knoll's family encouraged her to run for treasurer again.

To do so she would have to unseat Hafer.

The 2000 campaign was fraught with animosity. Hafer repeatedly brought up the SEC investigation. Knoll countered with her own accusations, including accusing Hafer of excessive spending as auditor general.

Hafer won by just less than 100,000 votes.

It was Albert Knoll who pushed his mother to run for lieutenant governor, despite concerns by his siblings who wanted to protect her from a nasty campaign that had the potential to resurrect the SEC allegations.

But they also recognized that with her ability to draw millions of votes, Knoll had a chance to make history.

"She doesn't golf, garden, play bridge or go to Florida. This is what she does. She does it well and she does it for all the right reasons," Albert Knoll said.

Victim of age, gender bias?

Throughout her years in politics, Knoll has been dogged by whispers that she isn't an intellectual giant and that she wouldn't be where she is today without Heyison.

Knoll with Gov.-elect Ed Rendell during their victory celebration on election night in Philadelphia. (Pam Panchak, Post-Gazette)

Even those in her tightknit group of advisers recognize that there is an undercurrent of skepticism about her ability to perform despite what she did at the bureau of motor vehicles and as treasurer.

And detractors like to paint her as old-style pol, bereft of ideas or energy.

Diven attributes such sentiments to age and gender bias.

"Everyone wants to say that someone else is driving the train and pushing the buttons. But she sets the agenda and she sets the tempo," Diven said. "Her ability is that she finds good people who want to do a good job. If she were a man, they'd say, 'He's a leader.' "

Knoll has been in the game long enough to shrug off criticism, attributing it to politics.

"I'm steel inside. You have to be or you couldn't be in this ball game," she said. "I'm the steel woman from the Steel City."

And she is smart enough to realize that while she may not be the greatest public speaker or a champion debater, her strength is listening to people in small towns where voters rarely get to meet statewide candidates, let alone talk with them or get to know them personally.

Colgan points out that while Knoll might not sit around and discuss Nietzsche, she brings experience, common sense, pragmatism and a keen, questioning mind to the table.

Her formal education has been supplemented by courses at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, Penn State, and for the past 10 years, Renaissance Weekend, a New Year's gathering of academics, politicians and policy makers in Hilton Head, S.C., made famous by Clinton and his wife, Hillary.

In some ways, though, Knoll may be her own worst enemy in terms of crafting a public image. She doesn't seek press coverage, and she rarely seeks credit for her accomplishments in her public or private life, say her supporters.

"She doesn't care who gets the credit, she just wants the job done," Colgan said. "She's a perfectionist and she doesn't understand the word 'can't.' "

As lieutenant governor, Knoll will serve as president of the Senate and chairwoman of the Board of Pardons, the only duties of the office laid out in the state Constitution.

In addition, she will oversee the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, a role traditionally assigned to the lieutenant governor.

Knoll says she adores Rendell and is committed to doing whatever it takes to help his administration. But while she vows to be a good soldier, she has no intention of being hidden away at the lieutenant governor's mansion in Fort Indiantown Gap.

"She wants a seat at the table," Albert Knoll said. "I suspect she won't stop pushing for a bigger role."

Johnna A. Pro can be reached at jpro@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1574.

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