By Rob Vickers
Sunday, August 28, 2013
It’s tempting to discount Christine Toretti as just another politically connected social butterfly.
After all, the Indiana County oil and gas drilling company heiress is a ubiquitous fixture whenever Republican power brokers congregate. And in a room full of stodgy, prune-faced, GOP fat cats, Toretti’s infectious energy and beaming grin stand out.
But where conventional political socialites are content to flutter their way through a gaggle of partisan heavyweights, offering tasty tidbits of gossip or daring to opine on policy debates, Toretti’s effortless maneuverings produce the all-important loosening of purse strings from miserly donors.
That highly treasured talent has made her the state’s most prominent woman in the Republican Party, and probably one of the nation’s most influential women in the GOP.
“If she’s not the most powerful, non-elected woman in the GOP, I’d like to be introduced to one that is because I haven’t met them,” said former Gov. Tom Ridge, who appointed Toretti to the Republican National Committee in 1997.
Toretti, 55, is one of Pennsylvania’s three Republican National Committee members, and the co-chair of the RNC Finance Committee.
She played a key role in organizing the Republican National Convention, which begins Monday.
As secretary of the convention’s arrangements committee, she oversaw a host of logistics, including hotel arrangements for state delegations, transportation, and media operations.
While many GOP leaders consider her as valuable as higher profile women such as former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice or Hewlett-Packard CEO Meg Whitman, Toretti thinks not.
“I’m one tier down,” she said modestly.
Still, Toretti is highly regarded in the inner sanctum of the national GOP.
“She’s a very prominent political figure in national politics,” said former Virginia Gov. and former RNC Chairman Jim Gilmore.
That’s likely what prompted current RNC Chairman Reince Priebus to tap Toretti as a regular companion on fundraising expeditions across the country, even though she didn’t back him for the post in 2010.
After seeing her candidate miss out, Toretti extended Priebus an olive branch in the form of a spare Super Bowl ticket when his Green Bay Packers faced her Pittsburgh Steelers in the 2011 Super Bowl.
“We ended up at the security line for two hours,” she said. “You stand there in line and you really get to know someone. By the time we got in we thought, ‘You’re not so bad,’ and the next thing I knew he asked me to come down and to meet with a group of people that he put together to revamp the financial end of the RNC.”
Priebus now counts her among the GOP’s most valued assets.
“I’ve been impressed watching my good friend take the leadership skills she has learned in the boardroom and apply them to the political arena to raise money and support for our Republican candidates,” Priebus said.
Toretti and fellow state RNC committee member Bob Asher make a formidable one-two punch for Pennsylvania. While Asher focuses his energies in the state, Toretti works her monetary magic nationwide, flying across the country.
“I always seemed to be across the aisle from [GOP vice presidential nominee] Paul Ryan,” Toretti said. “I’ll pull out my People magazine to see what Brad and Angelina are up to. He’ll pull out the congressional budget. He’s a policy wonk. He’s a nerd. He loves that stuff.”
From one day to the next, Toretti could be jetting anywhere to coax cash from reluctant contributors.
“It’s not glamorous,” she said. “But the difference between me and a great many women is that I like to raise money and that’s something you can’t ignore.”
That distinctions has earned her the praise of many prominent party members.
“She’s an outstanding fundraiser,” said Pennsylvania GOP Chairman Rob Gleason. “The fuel of politics is money and she probably has no peer as far as fundraising.”
Former RNC Chairman Jim Nicholson pointed to an old expression in fundraising that people give money to people.
“It depends a lot on who solicits them,” Nicholson said. “And Christine’s got a lot of social graces.”
Ridge noted that Toretti succeeds because of her engaging personality.
“A lot of the work she does is one-on-one,” he said. “To make the case time and time again, to be persuasive and upbeat, it’s got to be very draining. But she always maintains this aura.”
‘I’M GOING TO SHOW THEM’
The journey to elite GOP mover-and-shaker was not one she would have envisioned for herself growing up in the modest mining borough of Indiana, Pennsylvania.
Besides the drilling company founded by her grandfather S.W. Jack, the hamlet is notable for two things: Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and proclaiming itself “The Christmas Tree Capital of the World.”
Growing up in the blue-collar Western Pennsylvania borough, Toretti showed glimpses of what was to come.
“I remember getting a dime from every member of my elementary school when our music teacher had gotten his Ph.D and was going to Edinburgh to teach,” she said. “So we bought him a Cuckoo clock. I should have known at age 10 that I was destined to raise money.”
If it had been left to her father, Samuel W. Jack Jr., Toretti would have had little to do with the family business.
“He told me I would never run the business,” she said. “My dad would always say I’m not tough enough. I can’t do it. I know my dad was disappointed that he didn’t have a son, but that didn’t mean he didn’t love me.”
Toretti convinced her father to maker her chief financial officer in 1983 after returning home with a bachelor’s degree in finance from the University of Virginia. Though he’d softened, he hadn’t changed.
“He never took me out in the field,” she said before repeating her father’s words. “A drilling rig wasn’t a place for a woman.”
But when he died suddenly in 1990, Toretti stepped in to run the business.
“Most of the guys I worked with, their dads worked with my dad, and a lot of their grandfathers worked for my grandfather,” she said. “I told my mom that we had a responsibility for the people that worked with us to try to keep it going.”
But in the early 1990s, rustbelt regions were in full decline and executives in the male-dominated energy industry were openly making bets on her longevity.
“Everyone in the industry thought I wouldn’t last because they all saw me as this spoiled little rich girl,” Toretti said. “I said, ‘Screw this. I’m going to show them’.”
Over the next four years, she endured a tortuous examination in business.
“Nothing changed,” Toretti said. “I used to wake up in the middle of the night drenched in a cold sweat, thinking, ‘I am totally screwing up what’s left.’ What was I thinking that I could do this?”
But in 1994, seemingly out of nowhere, Penn Virginia Oil & Gas recognized how she’d invested in her plant, and offered her a lucrative contract.
“It was the first time since my dad died that I had any validation that maybe we were doing the right thing,” she said.
Though the business took off from there, the landscape began to change. The Marcellus Shale was all anyone could talk about and her company wasn’t equipped to reach the newly discovered natural gas reserves.
“To retool one rig is like $50 million,” she said. “So we liquidated the company two years ago.”
That choice came at a time when Toretti felt she wanted to be more active politically.
She got her first taste of politics in the 1970s, but Toretti said it wasn’t until 1992 that she committed herself.
“I remember the night that Bill Clinton got elected,” she said. “I remember watching and thinking ‘What the heck just happened?’ I was just so frustrated.”
She began engaging in high-level state party politics. Three years later, Ridge appointed her to the board of governors for the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education. Toretti rose to be finance chairwoman and was instrumental in establishing a performance funding program for state universities.
“I’m Scotch-Irish,” she said. “I’m cheap. I want to conserve.”
Even when she served under Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell, Toretti was valued.
“She’s smart and understands issues, and has a good detailed approach to things,” Rendell said. “She is very much a conservative, but I think she’s a conservative that tries to get things done.”
Toretti’s political value didn’t come easily. She nearly called an abrupt end to her behind-the-scenes powerbrokering after her very first RNC meeting in 1998. A heated argument emerged over partial-birth abortion.
“The debate was so vicious and so mean,” she said of the exchange over partial birth abortion. “As soon as the meeting was over I got up and walked out. [Then-state GOP Chairman Alan Novak] found me walking down the side of a highway sobbing. There were a few tense hours when Alan really thought I was going to step down. I just wondered how we all would come back together with such huge differences of opinion.”
The impasse was healed by then-Illinois Congressman Henry Hyde.
“He brought everyone together,” Toretti said. “It was a very healing experience and proved to me we could disagree, but we could also come together and treat each other with dignity and respect.”
The abortion issue continues to be a theme in her political life.
In 1997, then-state Treasurer Barbara Hafer — a close family friend — invited Toretti to the home of Pennsylvania GOP Grande Dame Elsie Hillman. Toretti was photographed with Jim Greenwood, a pro-choice Bucks County Republican congressman.
“It was basically a pro-choice event,” Toretti said. “The next morning it was in all the papers.”
Days later, at an event in Westmoreland County, Toretti said party members pressed her to declare her position on abortion.
“I said, ‘You know honestly, I have this debate everyday’,” she said. “Well, then people said, ‘You’re pro-choice.’ Then came all the loud voices.”
Those voices echoed in Toretti’s ears last week when U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo, re-ignited the national abortion firestorm by claiming women can biologically prevent pregnancy in cases of “legitimate rape.”
“It’s an important societal issue, but I don’t think it should be a dominating factor in the political process,” she said. “Why someone like Congressman Akin said that just mystifies me.”
Usually Toretti keeps her opinions to herself.
But when Gov. Tom Corbett backed a Republican state bill earlier this year that required Pennsylvania women to submit to invasive ultrasounds before they’d be allowed to have an abortion, Toretti publicly cautioned that such positions would harm the party’s ability to reclaim the White House.
“Christine has always been one of those that thinks there’s room in the party for disagreement on social and economic issues,” said Ridge. “That speaks to her character and recognizing the kind of party that we need to be.”
HELPING WOMEN RUN
Still, there are prominent members of the state GOP that consider Toretti a lightweight whose status is augmented as the rare woman in the good-old-boys club.
“I don’t know of anybody that takes Christine seriously in the political world,” said one influential Pennsylvania Republican who did not want to be identified.
Another influential state GOP figure said she “has influence,” but not power.
But Charlie Gerow, a Harrisburg lobbyist who has known Toretti since the 1970s, said she is often discounted because of her gender and intentional low profile.
“She could easily be a household name in Pennsylvania politics, but chooses not to,” he said. “She’s been tempered by fire and come through tough times with pluck and determination. If it were a man, people would be saying, ‘The guy’s got a real set’.”
When Ridge chose her for the RNC, he recognized the lack of female involvement in the state party and charged Toretti with improving it.
She responded by forming the Anne B. Anstine Excellence in Public Service Series to train Pennsylvania Republican women to succeed in politics.
“A man could never have voted in his life and decide to run for president of the United States,” Toretti said. “For some reason women feel that if they don’t have a Ph.D in political science, they probably shouldn’t vote.”
The Anstine series graduated its 10th class in June and has become a go-to resource for party leaders recruiting candidates.
Valerie Caras, the state GOP’s communications director and a 2011 graduate of the program, said Toretti has laid the foundation for GOP women to run the state at the highest levels.
“I have zero doubt that the first female Republican governor of Pennsylvania will have Anstine roots,” Caras said.
Toretti’s charms are not lost on Democrats. She counted the late Democratic congressional kingpin Jack Murtha as a personal friend, and is affectionately called “Boss” by influential California Democrat Ann Hollister — her college roommate.
“I was the token Republican at her wedding,” Toretti said.
That broad affirmation and kinetic work ethic bolsters Toretti, even when she feels discounted because of her gender.
“I got a lot of places because I was a woman and I was the token, but I stayed because I did a damn good job,” she said, emphatically chopping the table. “You play the hand you’re dealt and use the tools you have.”
Toretti deals a perfect hand annually via her curtain-raising Pennsylvania Society reception at New York City’s elegant Club Macanudo. Over the past 15 years, it’s become the most sought after ticket to the weekend gathering of elected officials, lobbyists and ambitious politicos.
“If you’re a Republican of any stripe in Pennsylvania you better be at Christine’s or you don’t matter,” said David Urban, a high-level Washington Republican lobbyist.
Gerow, a fixture in state GOP machinations, said the soiree has become the weekend’s most exclusive.
“Anybody who’s anybody wants to be there,” he said. “It’s a classic see-and-be-seen event.”
Added Bernadette Comfort, who plans the event for Toretti: “You have no idea of the stories people come up with to try and get in.”
But 15 years into the RNC job, and having established a pipeline for future female leaders of the party, Toretti wonders how much longer she should carry on.
“I’ve really been trying to figure out if it’s time for me to leave and let someone else do it,” she said. “Just because I’m there doesn’t mean that I should stay there. I’m trying to figure that out.”
Even if she stepped away from the RNC role, Toretti seems set to remain a very effective social butterfly who wings her way between the corridors of political power and the country club set.
“No one knew who I was when I was picked,” she said. “But I really like to help people, and I do like to have fun.”