On the first warm afternoon of March, Katie McGinty trekked across Downtown. She was headed to an appointment in EQT, but the streets of Pittsburgh presented chance encounters.
Two little girls on William Penn Place crossed her path. She leaned down as their stepmother, Sandee Santos, tucked a baby into a car seat. One of the girls, Adriana, will turn 5 soon, McGinty learned.
“What strong, powerful women you’re going to be,” she told the pair. Santos smiled.
Five minutes earlier, McGinty had closed an afternoon of networking for her gubernatorial campaign in the Omni William Penn Hotel lobby. She left with a campaign check from a woman she met on the spot, embracing her as they parted ways.
“I’m not a career politician, but I’ve got a track record as a problem solver,” McGinty said as she crossed Oliver Avenue. “Someone who brings people together, solves tough problems and gets stuff done.”
McGinty is in the five-way May primary of Democrats jockeying to unseat Republican Gov. Tom Corbett this fall. Her candidacy follows a decades-long career in environmental and energy policy, including years as a senior adviser in the Clinton administration and secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection under former Gov. Ed Rendell.
She sees Pennsylvania’s natural resources and academia as opportunities to reboot the commonwealth’s middle class. Policy proposals include tax breaks for new businesses and working families. She supports an increase in Pennsylvania’s minimum wage from the federal minimum of $7.25 to $10.10 an hour.
Rendell describes McGinty as “a strict moderate,” socially progressive and fiscally conservative. Under her direction, his administration worked to lure renewable energy companies, such as Gamesa and Iberdrola, to Pennsylvania. He remembers being struck by her energy and pragmatism.
“I knew automatically at the end of the interview I would hire her,” he said.
Energy, enviro supporters
This campaign is McGinty’s first bid to hold elected office. She ended 2013 with about $1.8 million — a figure topped by largely self-funded York County businessman Tom Wolf, and by Treasurer Rob McCord and U.S. Rep.Allyson Schwartz of Philadelphia, who rolled previous fundraising into their war chests.
McGinty’s energy ties solicit lucrative backers. Executives from NRG, where she once was a director, First Energy and People’s Natural Gas have donated thousands to her campaign.
She has support from environmental interests at the Sierra Club and the National Resources Defense Council, as well as union endorsements, including Pittsburgh’s Amalgamated Transit Union Local 8.
McGinty supports imposing a severance tax on Marcellus shale natural gas drilling, a policy vehemently opposed by Republicans who control the governor’s mansion and General Assembly.
“A new severance tax will make Pennsylvania less appealing to natural gas companies and kill good-paying jobs in our communities,” said Megan Sweeney, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Republican Party.
McGinty said her past positions balanced a commitment to cut bureaucratic red tape while maintaining “the highest standards of environmental protection,” she said.
“You do not help the environment by letting permit applications pile up on a desk,” she said. She pauses, hands resting on the edges of the outdoor metal table near EQT Plaza. “For shame and fire me if I wasn’t doing the job in that particular way.”
Studious and lucky?
As the first candidate to buy air time in the race, two days before Wolf’s ads hit TV screens, McGinty has made moves to build her name recognition. One television spot tells the story of her upbringing as the second-youngest of 10 children in northeast Philadelphia, in a home with three bedrooms, one bathroom and a postage stamp-sized backyard.
McGinty’s father was a police officer who walked the beat for 35 years. Her mother worked nights as a waitress, an inspiration for her policy proposal to pay workers minimum wage on top of gratuities. Dull moments were rare, with friends and relatives often visiting. Her younger sister, Colleen Maguire of Wayne, remembers how Katie wore her father’s headphones from the shooting range while studying, to block out the clamor.
She once envied the valedictorian at her older sister Eileen’s graduation.
“I remember her saying that day, ‘At my graduation, I’m going to be valedictorian,’ ” Maguire said. “And sure enough, she was.”
McGinty studied chemistry at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia and received a law degree at Columbia University in 1988. Her policy career started with an American Chemical Society Congressional fellowship, and then-Sen. Al Gore, D-Tenn., hired her to work on climate and environmental issues.
“A little Irish luck,” she said, since Gore’s environmental adviser was leaving Washington. In 1993, she was named the first female chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality and advised Gore in his failed 2000 presidential campaign. In December, she received his endorsement for her campaign.
Outside EQT headquarters, McGinty stopped to chat with a young man smoking a tobacco pipe. He referenced his love of musician Frank Zappa, and McGinty revealed her love of Motown, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash.
The man, Erik Eaton of Murrysville, left the conversation saying he’ll vote for McGinty.
“Thanks man, see ya!” McGinty said as she waved him farewell.
“She’s real,” Eaton said. “That’s the kind of person we need.”
Melissa Daniels is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8511 or [email protected].