Who is Kathleen Kane?

When Pennsylvania attorney general Kathleen Kane became the first woman and first Democrat ever elected to her position in November, she not only beat her GOP opponent David Freed by double digits. By garnering more than three million votes, she outperformed every man on the ticket, including President Obama and the state’s incumbent Democratic senator, Bob Casey.

Pennsylvania Attorney Gen. Kathleen Kane speaks during a news conference at the National Constitution Center, Thursday, July 11, 2013, in Philadelphia. Kane said Thursday that she will not defend Pennsylvania's law effectively banning same-sex marriage against a legal challenge in federal court, meaning the task will be left up to Gov. Tom Corbett. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
State Attorney Gen. Kathleen Kane announced Thursday in Philadelphia that she will not defend Pennsylvania's law effectively banning same-sex marriage against a legal challenge in federal court. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

The 47-year-old Kane, who made waves Thursday by refusing to defend the state's same-sex marriage ban in federal court, has quickly established herself as an up-and-coming Democrat who is willing to challenge powerful politicians to achieve her aims. She has already clashed repeatedly with her state’s Republican governor, Tom Corbett, who is slipping in the polls and must now defend Pennsylvania’s gay marriage law on his own.

"It's the role of the attorney general to be an independently elected voice," Kane said the day after winning the attorney’s general race. "People see politics as a close-knit, good ol' boy network, and I want to change that starting Day One."

The former Lackawanna County assistant district attorney who built her reputation on cracking down on elder abuse and other crimes beat establishment figures in both her own party and the GOP to become the state’s highest-ranking law enforcement officer. She defeated Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.) in the party primary, despite his endorsements from union officials and many of the state’s elected Democrats. President Bill Clinton did a fundraiser for Kane, who she had worked on Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential bid; Murphy responded by securing the endorsement of Obama adviser David Axelrod.

Last month during a training seminar for women candidates sponsored by the Democratic political action committee EMILY’s List, which backs female candidates that support abortion rights, Kane warned other political aspirants that when it comes to running for office, “It is a dirty business, there is no doubt.”

“It is distasteful,” she said. "They call you every name in the book. They try and put you down as much as they possibly can -- and sometimes that's your own party -- just to get you out of the race so their buddy can run."

A Scranton native with blue-collar roots, Kane poured $2 million of her family’s successful trucking business— Kane is Able — into her primary bid. In the general election she portrayed Freed, the son-in-law of Pennsylvania’s former attorney general LeRoy Zimmerman, as too cozy with Corbett and the GOP-controlled state legislature.

Kane, who vowed to “clean up Harrisburg,” criticized Corbett for his handling of the child sex-abuse case involving former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky while serving as attorney general. A year ago Sandusky was convicted of 45 of 48 counts in the case and was sentenced to at least 30 years in jail. Since taking office Kane has appointed former federal prosecutor H. Geoffrey Moulton Jr. to investigate why it took Corbett so long to bring charges against Sandusky.

In February she declared that Corbett’s decision to hand over the state lottery to a private British company was illegal because the governor had failed to consult the legislature; the following month Kane announced criminal corruption charges against five former Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission officials and two businessmen who had multimillion-dollar contracts with the turnpike.

While those announcements did not garner much attention outside of Pennsylvania, Kane generated national headlines Thursday when she said she could not defend the state’s gay-marriage prohibition because she considered it “wholly unconstitutional.”

That move brought acclaim from liberal activists, and drew criticism from Republicans such as the state’s GOP chairman, Rob Gleason.

“It is unacceptable for Attorney General Kathleen Kane to put her personal politics ahead of her taxpayer-funded job by abdicating her responsibilities,” Gleason said in a statement. “She is blatantly politicizing the highest law enforcement office in our Commonwealth at the expense of a core responsibility of the Attorney General’s office… Pennsylvanians are left with the question, if the Kathleen Kane’s political beliefs are the standard for law enforcement, what law will she ignore next?”

But Drexel University political science professor William Rosenberg said Kane had clearly made a smart political calculation in refusing to defend the law, given her ”future political aspirations.”

“As a female Democrat, she probably would much rather have a conservative male governor look like he’s the barrier to marriage equality,” Rosenberg said.

Said Stephanie Schriock, president of the  EMILY's List, which works to elect Democratic women candidates who support abortion rights: "It’s only been a few short months, but Attorney General Kathleen Kane has already proven herself to be the kind of progressive fighter that Pennsylvanians need. We were proud to support her in her race for Attorney General because she is a rising star – and she has the experience and guts a person needs to take a spot on the presidential ticket in 2020 or 2024. We can’t wait to see what she does next."

Juliet Eilperin is a White House correspondent for The Washington Post, covering domestic and foreign policy as well as the culture of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She is the author of two books—one on sharks, and another on Congress, not to be confused with each other—and has worked for the Post since 1998.
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Chris Cillizza · July 11, 2013