After Katie McGinty graduated Columbia University law, she had job offers to make six figures at some of the top firms in the country, from New York to San Francisco.
Her parents, John and Alma, sat with Katie at the kitchen table and told her they hoped she’d pick New York, and stay on the east coast near the Northeast Philadelphia home where she grew up. Katie apparently had other plans. She’d be moving to Washington, D.C. for a $25,000-a-year clerkship with a judge she admired.
“I thought my parents were going to pass out,” her brother, John, recalled. “And then she explained that this judge was very popular and that she could learn a lot about the law and about politics from him.”
That decision to forego a fat paycheck set off a career that would eventually lead the Rhawnhurst native to where she is now: Running in the Democratic primary for Senate, aiming for incumbent Republican Pat Toomey.
McGinty, who most recently lost when she ran in the primary against now-Governor Tom Wolf and then became his chief of staff, is running a campaign based largely around working families — ones not all that different than the one she came from.
From the Northeast to the White House
As a child growing up with nine brothers and sisters in a ranch home her parents had lived in since 1951, Katie McGinty used to be the one who always took the dogs.
She’d walk them through the nearby woods and search for other animals to bring home to the house. It’s where her love of the environment blossomed. She’d jog through Pennypack Park to keep up the athleticism she used as a forward on the basketball court.
Her father was a Philadelphia cop; her mother, a hostess at Dugan’s Banquet Restaurant on Roosevelt Boulevard. Katie McGinty graduated in 1981 as valedictorian from St. Hubert’s Catholic School for Girls in Tacony, and went to St. Joseph’s University on a full ride to study chemistry.
The clerkship brought her to Washington, D.C. where she met then-Sen. Al Gore, with whom she worked on the landmark Clean Air Act. By the early ’90s under President Bill Clinton, McGinty had become the first woman to lead the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
After that, McGinty and her husband Karl Hausker packed their bags in November 1998 and moved to India. She was going there to work for the Tata Energy Research Institute with the goal of forging new partnerships between American and Indian companies.
She returned with more: While there, Karl and Katie adopted two baby girls.
“It was nice that ultimately President Clinton came and signed some agreements and some new accords between us and India that we helped spearhead,” McGinty said. “No offense to the president, but the real highlight was our two little baby girls who joined — no, launched our family.”
Now, those baby girls living with their parents in Wayne, Chester County are 16. And they have a sister just two years younger.
‘The fire was burning again’
Katie McGinty slipped into the private sector after her time at the White House spearheading environmental reforms under Gore and Clinton. But a life away from politics didn’t last.
“She called and told me she was running for governor and I said, ‘oh my God, how is she going to do this? Why does she want to go back?’” her brother John said. “And then I knew once she went back for that governor’s race, the fire was burning again.”
Despite having some political support in Philly, McGinty came in fourth out of four in the Democratic primary for governor in 2014. It was a distant last, and she garnered single digits on Election Day. Still, Tom Wolf, a businessman from York, won the election and hired her to be his chief of staff. Months into her tenure of dealing with a contentious budget situation in Harrisburg, the rumor mill started churning that McGinty would consider a run for Senate as establishment leaders pushed her toward it.
Already in the race to challenge Toomey, the incumbent Republican with a boatload of establishment support, was Joe Sestak, a former Congressman who narrowly lost to Toomey six years ago in the general election. But Sestak is a solid competitor, garnering enough votes in Pennsylvania to beat Arlen Specter in the primary that year. Also in the primary race is John Fetterman, the tatted-up Harvard grad who’s a progressive, small-town mayor from Pennsylvania.
The Democratic establishment isn’t Sestak’s biggest fan. And it certainly wasn’t going to support a guy like Fetterman, an outspoken supporter of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and a guy whose views fall somewhere along the Democratic socialist spectrum. So McGinty quit her job in Harrisburg and officially launched her bid for Senate in August, quickly getting support from party leaders like former Gov. Ed Rendell, Philadelphia Congressman Bob Brady and Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid.
But McGinty jumped into the race late, a challenging position to be in from the fundraising perspective as Toomey and Sestak have had more time to add to their campaign war chests. McGinty’s campaign announced last month that she had raised $2 million since entering the campaign, but that total would likely put her behind Sestak on the cash front and far behind Toomey who had $9.6 million at the end of 2015.
So what’s the best way for a Philadelphia Democrat to raise some cash? Big labor.
McGinty has said she’s not seeking endorsements or donations from specific interests on purpose. But her endorsements page on her campaign website is filled with unions from nurses to teachers to building trades and nearly every political conversation she’s been a part of this election cycle has focused on working families, raising the minimum wage, equal pay for women and job creation.
On Monday, some two dozen workers from the Service Employees International Union, which represents 80,000 workers in Pennsylvania, gathered in LOVE Park to announce their endorsement of McGinty. The same union has in the past financially supported and helped elect President Obama, Gov. Tom Wolf, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney and a slate of Democratic candidates to the state Supreme Court.
“It’s a stunningly strong theme out there,” McGinty said in an interview, “that people are giving it all they got, and with a little assist, we will see people be able to take off and build a bright future.”
Trying to set herself apart
On a blustery Martin Luther King Day this year, Katie McGinty had a conversation at a nonprofit in North Philadelphia, one that was serving meals to homeless veterans. She sat down with Jean Hackney, one of the leaders of the group Grands as Parents, a Philly organization that supports grandparents forced to raise their grandchildren for one reason or another.
Hackney told McGinty about the poverty she sees. McGinty told Hackney she was going to help to fix it. She’ll have to get elected first.
A recently-released poll shows Sestak is leading McGinty by five points. Toomey’s campaign has turned up the heat in criticizing McGinty, and national Republicans have been critical of her record on environmental issues. Though she’s trumpeted support of clean energy and natural gas, her role in the energy industry while working in corporate America has been questioned. One Republican leader said she “used her role as a government official to profit from the revolving door.”
When McGinty speaks, she has largely targeted Toomey, not Sestak. Attacks are surely to come from both sides though, and the TV ad blitz in the Democratic primary for the Senate race is expected to begin in March.
Lucky for her primary chances, 28 percent of respondents to the Harper poll released last week said they were undecided. She’s poised to pick up some of those undecideds if she’s able to separate herself from her primary opponents. It’s little conversations like the one with Jean Hackney that she says will make the difference.
“Every place I go in this state, it’s similar stories,” she said. “It’s a mom of a five-year-old son, a single mom working two minimum wage jobs and just breaking her back but still not able to make it work… she just wants to be able to get into the middle class. And it’s vitally important that we value family and that we value hard work.”
The helping spirit is what John McGinty knows best of his sister. When was growing up on Summerdale Avenue in Rhawnhurst, she regularly checked on a neighbor named Mrs. Bella, who John remembers as a retired widow who was simply not that nice. Katie, a teenager at the time, went to her house on Saturdays and asked if she needed anything.
Mrs. Bella would tell her to get out. Katie would return the next Saturday and ask again anyway.
“That’s the way she was. She never never stopped,” he said. “She was always helping somebody… she could care less about the notoriety and the publicity. She just believes she can help this state and this country.”