Lt. Gov. Catherine Baker Knoll dies

Capitolwire: Lt. Gov. Catherine Baker Knoll dies at 78.

Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, is now lieutenant governor. He plans to serve in his current post and as lieutenant governor.

By Peter L. DeCoursey
Bureau Chief

HARRISBURG (Nov. 12) – Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. Catherine Baker Knoll died Wednesday evening just before 6 p.m. at National Rehabilitation Hospital in Washington, D.C.

Knoll, 78, was a former two-time state treasurer, who won that office on her third try, then lost a bid for governor before becoming the state’s first female lieutenant governor and its 30th lieutenant governor.

She revealed this past summer that she was battling neuroendocrine cancer and was treated for that condition at the Johns Hopkins University Hospital.

Known for boundless energy, tremendous enthusiasm and unwavering loyalty to the Roman Catholic Church and the Democratic Party, Knoll forged a historic political career by being more popular with voters than with the media or even many of her office-holding colleagues.

“She fought this illness with the same tenacity she brought to a lifetime of public service,” said her son Albert Baker Knoll. “Our mother loved working for the people of Pennsylvania and was proud of the friendship she enjoyed throughout the Commonwealth.”

Albert Knoll was her chief strategist and counselor after the death of Seymour Heyison, her former chief of staff. No funeral arrangements have yet been set, according to a statement released by Knoll’s chief of staff, Salvatore Sirabella.

Knoll ran for governor in 1994, losing the Democratic primary to Lt. Gov. Mark Singel. She was the first woman to be elected lieutenant governor of the commonwealth.

Gov. Ed Rendell released a statement which said: “On behalf of all Pennsylvania, Midge and I extend heart-felt sympathy to Catherine’s family. Today we mourn the passing of one of the strongest, most dedicated public servants in Pennsylvania’s history. Our thoughts and prayers are with Catherine’s family. She will be deeply missed.

“Even as she fought cancer in recent months, she remained upbeat and dedicated to serving the commonwealth,” he said. “Catherine was a very passionate and exuberant advocate for many worthy causes. Her passing is a tremendous loss for the many people whose lives she touched.”

Rendell’s statement said: “Under the Pennsylvania Constitution, Knoll will be replaced as Lieutenant Governor by the Senate President Pro Tempore, Joseph B. Scarnati III (R-Jefferson).”

Scarnati said: “My thoughts and prayers are with Catherine’s family and friends during this difficult time. She was a tremendous leader for the Commonwealth and embodied the type of character expected of true, effective public servants. Her passion and commitment to bettering the lives of Pennsylvanians will be sorely missed, as it was certainly a staple of her public service.”

Former state Rep. Mike Diven of Allegheny County, was Knoll’s advisor, confidante and driver during her 2002 campaign for lieutenant governor. He said he was one of “thousands of politicians and millions of Pennsylvanians Catherine helped. I think she was a phenomenal woman, a first-class woman through and through, a fighter who made an impact throughout Pennsylvania.

“I had the good fortune to drive her during her run for lieutenant governor the first time. At every stop, people would come up to tell us how Catherine helped her. Not just in McKees Rocks or Pittsburgh. Just the same in eastern or northeastern Pennsylvania, all around the state.

“I have never been around somebody who had such an impact on so many people way beyond politics. They were just people that needed a break that had the good luck of running into her someplace and Catherine would pick up the phone and intercede and get that person some help.

She would call them back and tell the person who to call, and tell them ‘tell them Catherine Baker Knoll told you to call.’

“On a daily basis, we would run into somebody who would come up to us at a coffeeshop or an event or a senior home, and tell Catherine: you helped my life, you helped my family. When we needed help, you helped us. I hope when I pass on, even half as many people say that about me as say it about Catherine.

Her unique brand of forcefulness, and what Diven called “an amazing ability to connect with people one-on-one,” played a big role in the life of former Pittsburgh City Council President Gene Ricciardi.

Now a Pittsburgh district justice, Ricciardi, another strategist and ally in Knoll’s 2002 campaign, said: “Cathy will always be known for her political accomplishments. She had a strong, strong belief in God. She was very religious, and believed very strongly in the Catholic church. And there are many, many stories like mine, about how Cathy could bring people into the process.”

Ricciardi was in his late teens when he was given a speeding ticket and Knoll was one of the hearing officers that heard his case. She ruled that the police officer was right, “and that I did speed,” Ricciardi recalled.

Then, right after making the decision that would fine Ricciardi, he recalled that Knoll “just came up and engaged me, asked me a number of questions, and then a few months later, she called me up and said there’s a campaign coming up, the Tom Foerster race back in 1979. Tom was a very-well-liked county commissioner, and Catherine was a big Tom Foerster supporter. And that is how I met Catherine.”

“Michael Diven used to say she was best one-on-one, she enjoyed engaging people, getting them to become part of the process, part of the system, get them into public service. She grew up debating the issues with her father, and going to the polls with her father, who was involved in politics in McKees Rocks. One-on-one campaigning was her strength.”

Democratic State Committee Chairman T.J. Rooney said: “Catherine’s heart was bigger than the state of Pennsylvania and she fought valiantly since learning of her illness. Her love of life and her passion for public service will not be forgotten by those that knew her, worked with her and admired her. …She was a true champion for working families, a trailblazer as the first woman elected to the position of lieutenant governor and a tireless campaigner who gave her all to those individuals and causes that she deemed worthy of her support.

“…Catherine worked well with members on both sides of the aisle in the Senate where she presided and loved to talk about her influence on legislation that helped children and working families throughout the Commonwealth.”

House Majority Whip Keith McCall, D-Carbon, said: “It is normally difficult to know when one is witnessing history, but anyone who has had the privilege of working with Catherine Baker Knoll knew that she was truly a Pennsylvanian for the ages, and the ground she broke will serve as an inspiration for generations to come. … Her service as one of the most successful treasurers the state ever had set the standard for others to live up to, and her dedication to education will be felt for generations thanks to the innovative program she started to help students and families afford to go to college.

Her tireless advocacy for women’s issues may be her greatest legacy. As the father of a daughter, I could never thank Mrs. Baker-Knoll enough for the example she has set, and I know her work will be a keystone of the Commonwealth’s history.”

House Speaker Denny O’Brien, R-Philadelphia, said: “She was a plain-spoken, genuine person and our state has suffered a great loss with her departure.”

A long-time recruiter of young Democratic politicians, many of her protégés ran for and won local western Pennsylvania office and state legislative berths.

She was a close and long-time ally of U.S. Rep. Jack Murtha, D-Johnstown, and generally allied herself with Gov. Robert P. Casey. But when his son, now-U.S. Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr., ran for governor against Ed Rendell, Knoll read the polls and associated her campaign with that of Rendell.

She won a multi-candidate race for that office, narrowly edging out then-state Sens. Allen Kukovich, D-Westmoreland and Jack Wagner, D-Allegheny. Wagner is now auditor general. Several Democrats tried to pressure Rendell in the final days of that campaign, when polls showed he had a 10-point lead, to endorse Wagner or Kukovich.

But Knoll’s popularity with western Pennsylvania voters and her surprisingly strong performance in a Meadville debate with her rivals dissuaded Rendell from endorsing Kukovich or Wagner at the last minute.

Casey Jr. and Knoll swiftly restored their relationship. Casey said: “She will be remembered for generations because of her work in creating the Tuition Account Program which has made it possible for tens of thousands of young people to attend college. On a personal note, she was my friend, and I, like many Pennsylvanians will miss her indomitable spirit and her compassion for those without a voice.”

While Rendell praised Knoll’s energy and hard work, his office dissociated itself from hers, and she played little role in administration strategy, although she was a tireless saleswoman for Rendell’s initiatives.

Her public image as lieutenant governor was dimmed by her habit of referring to the governor as “Edward G. Robinson” during their first term in office, and the “disrespectful treatment” she complained of receiving from Democratic senators.

Knoll also waged a two-election losing feud with Auditor General and later Treasurer Barbara Hafer. Hafer defeated Mina Baker Knoll, Knoll’s daughter, in 1996 for treasurer. Knoll then ran against Hafer for treasurer in 2000, and lost narrowly, as Hafer claimed 49 percent of the vote to Knoll’s 47 percent.

The Rendell statement said: “As lieutenant governor, Knoll played a vital role in addressing a variety of issues of critical importance to the people of Pennsylvania. She was particularly proud of her accomplishment of creating of TAP 529 Pennsylvania Tuition Account Program, which has since been renamed ‘nowU.’”

That program was created by Knoll as treasurer.

The Rendell statement said: “She was also instrumental in issues including emergency management, domestic preparedness, economic development and local government. She served as the president of the Senate and chairwoman of the Board of Pardons, the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Council, and the Local Government Advisory Committee.”

Rendell’s statement said: “Knoll’s late husband, Charles, was a U.S. Postmaster. Their four children, Charles, Mina, Albert, and Kim Eric, are all adult professionals in their own right. Knoll was the daughter of Nicholas and Teresa Baker. She was educated at Saint Mary’s High School in McKees Rocks, Duquesne University, Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania.”

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