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Knoll has competition for office seat

| Friday, Nov. 3, 2006

At times, the job offers little more than a front seat to lengthy state Senate debates and Board of Pardons hearings.

But the lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania is perched on a political catapult. If the governor can't continue governing -- something that's happened twice in the past 20 years -- the lieutenant governor gets thrown into the state's top job. Despite being the governor's backup, that half of the ticket often gets overlooked in governor's races.

The incumbent, Lt. Gov. Catherine Baker Knoll, has helped keep her half of the ticket out of the spotlight by declining to debate Republican and Democratic challengers. Knoll canceled an interview for this story because she was upset with a political cartoon that ran in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review on Sept. 21.

"She was a little ticked off," Knoll campaign spokesman Jeff Coyne said. "She said, 'Cancel it.' "

The cartoon portrayed Knoll referring to Gov. Ed Rendell as deceased movie actor Edward G. Robinson. The slip-up is the most oft-cited example of the McKees Rocks native's occasional verbal gaffes. Knoll drew criticism from across the country in July 2005 for handing out her business card at the funeral of Marine Staff Sgt. Joseph Goodrich in Carnegie. Knoll apologized in a statement and said her appearance there had been misconstrued.

Montgomery County Commissioner Jim Matthews, the Republican running against Knoll, has come under fire for his own statements. In July, he claimed Rendell hinted to tavern owners at their annual convention that he planned to expand legal gambling to table games. The president of the tavern owners' association disputed Matthews' account and told the news service Capitolwire.com that the organization doesn't have an annual convention.

Last month, Matthews, 57, drew more rebukes when he suggested Philadelphia judges were basing their verdicts on whether defense attorneys contributed to Rendell's campaign, according to a Sept. 19 story in the Harrisburg Patriot-News.

"That's a felony," said Dan Fee, Rendell's campaign spokesman. "If he has any evidence of that, he doesn't need to bring it to me; he needs to go to the authorities."

Fee said those accusations are part of the reason Knoll hasn't debated Matthews.

"Given the fact that Jim Matthews routinely makes false and outlandish accusations, we wouldn't subject anyone to standing on stage with him," Fee said.

Matthews, a former Navy lieutenant who owns a mortgage brokerage firm, accused the Rendell campaign of hiding Knoll so her fitness to assume the Governor's Office wouldn't become a campaign issue.

"Catherine does not have that ability," said Matthews, the younger brother of the host of the MSNBC talk show "Hardball with Chris Matthews." "Why expose the potential ineptitude of the incumbent?"

Knoll has campaigned at 22 events on 15 days since Sept. 1, according to her campaign.

Knoll became the state's first female lieutenant governor in 2003, shortly before rumors began swirling that Rendell wanted to replace her when he ran for re-election -- something Rendell has repeatedly denied. Knoll, a 30-year veteran of state Democratic politics, has served as an inspiration to young women looking to enter politics, said Allyson Lowe, director of the Center for Women, Politics and Public Policy at Chatham University.

"We do rank 47th in the nation in women's participation in politics," Lowe said.

Joe Benish, Knoll's former press secretary who was fired in 2004 after 10 months on the job, said Knoll could be difficult to work for. He lasted longer than any of the other five press secretaries who have cycled through her office. Knoll chafed at her staff's attempts to coordinate with the governor's office, Benish said.

"She's a very independent woman, and she runs her own office," Benish said. "She can be difficult at times, but her role in this administration has been (minimal)."

Matthews said Rendell's opponent, Republican Lynn Swann, plans to give more responsibility to the lieutenant governor's office than Rendell has given Knoll.

Asked whether Knoll was competent to take charge of the state, Benish said, "I can't say whether she's competent or not. She's certainly competent presiding over the Senate, and that's the main part of the job."

Fee, however, said Knoll is better than the alternative.

"I would rather have someone who made a couple of malaprops in the Governor's Office than a loose cannon like Jim Matthews," Fee said.

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