Katie McGinty with volunteers at the Local 19 Steelworker's shop in Philadelphia. Photo by Matt Roth, courtesy McGinty campaign.

As primary day in Pennsylvania draws closer, three Pennsylvania Democrats are seeking their party’s nomination to challenge Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey. This is the third of three profiles of the would-be challengers, which include Braddock Mayor John Fetterman (Fetterman keeps on truckin’ in his quest for the Senate), former Congressman Joe Sestak (His walk across Pennsylvania gave Sestak perspective on voters’ needs) and former Pennsylvania DEP Secretary Katie McGinty. 

Several years ago, Katie McGinty and her husband Karl adopted two of their three daughters from Mother Teresa’s orphanage in India. She says one of the girls recently asked McGinty a “chilling” question about the GOP front-runner for president, and what it might mean for her.

“As Donald Trump started to gain momentum, my one daughter came to me and asked me, ‘will I be allowed to stay here?’” McGinty recalls. “That’s the kind of fear a guy like Trump creates. I told her, ‘you are an American and this is your country as much as it is Donald Trump’s.”

McGinty, the former chief of staff to Gov. Tom Wolf, says the hostility in the current political climate is unlike any she’s seen in recent history.

“I think we are at a very important crossroads in our country,” she says. “There is deep anxiety and pain out there. We need leaders who will reach into that pain and pull us forward with hope and opportunity, and bring people together again.”

Sen. Toomey’s refusal to consider President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, in keeping with GOP party leaders’ position is another example, she says, that hits closer to home.

“It’s a consistent pattern, part of Sen. Toomey’s politics. His ideology comes first, and the people of Pennsylvania are a distant second.”

Although she’s never held elected office, McGinty has a substantial political resume. The Philadelphia native quit her job as Wolf’s chief of staff to run for the Senate nomination. Under President Clinton, McGinty was chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, and she served as Pennsylvania environmental secretary under Gov. Ed Rendell.

The ninth of 10 kids, McGinty was the first in her family to go to college. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, and holds a J.D. from Columbia Law School.

Katie McGinty

As she’s campaigned across the state, McGinty says she’s heard over and over that Pennsylvanians’ biggest concern is good paying jobs. “This is the most pressing issue, because there are these signature anxieties that middle-class families have: That no matter how hard they work, they’re falling behind. They worry whether their kids will have a shot at a decent job, and a decent education.”

She decided to run for the Senate seat because she was hearing encouragement from people, especially those interested in protecting the environment. McGinty won over a lot of environmentalists for her work while she was part of the Rendell administration. During her tenure as DEP secretary, Rendell signed a law creating a $650 million fund to support conservation efforts and push development of renewable and alternative energy options.

“We need an environmental champion in Washington, someone who will work to try to create good paying jobs. In six months, we’ve had people from Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Erie, Scranton, all across the state, jump on board. I would not have thought six months ago that we’d be able to pull together such a diverse and inclusive group of people who care so passionately.”

McGinty also supports same-sex marriage, and has supported efforts to do away with discrimination based on sexual orientation. She says she would work to pass a “paycheck fairness act” to address the gender wage gap, and would fight for paid family leave. “No one should have to choose between taking care of their family or keeping their job.”

Even though McGinty has a long list of statewide endorsements that includes Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, the race remains fairly close among the three competitors with a little over a month to the primary. A March 14 Mercyhurst University poll had 43 percent of voters favoring Toomey, to McGinty’s 34 percent. That compares to Sestak’s 38 percent, and Fetterman’s 31 percent.

Her campaign, she says, has been about connecting the issues with real people. “If you want to have the best kind of antidote for the nasty idea that people are looking for some kind of handout, listen to the women I sat with yesterday,” she says. “One is a nursing assistant, making minimum wage, another working at a restaurant at night but still not able to make ends meet for her and her children.

Pennsylvanians aren’t asking for anything other than a decent reward for a decent day’s work. That’s what we need to be working toward.”

Kim Lyons is an award-winning writer and editor always on the lookout for a great story. Her experience includes writing about business, politics, and local news, and she has a huge crush on Pittsburgh.