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Catherine Hanaway walks away from politics -- at least for now

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 24, 2009 - Last Sunday afternoon found U.S. Attorney Catherine Hanaway in her downtown office, with its stunning panoramic views of the Arch, Busch Stadium and the Mississippi River.

She was packing up.

At midnight last Sunday, Hanaway gave up the federal post she had held officially for almost three years (and in practice, served in for almost four).

But what made the day so sad, she added, was that it also marked the end of a public, political life that spanned 16 years.

As of 12:01 a.m. Monday, she became Catherine Hanaway, private citizen. By the end of the week, she was one of four former U.S. attorneys from around the country who are launching a new national law firm for the Ashcroft Group LLC

The Washington, D.C.-based company was founded a few years ago by former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, who earlier spent more than two decades serving Missouri as its attorney general, then governor and finally U.S. senator.

The Ashcroft Group specializes in "strategic consulting'' in a number of areas, from homeland security to data security, litigation and what it calls "corporate governance."

For Hanaway, the decision to open the group's St. Louis law office -- to be called "Ashcroft Hanaway" -- means that, for the next few years at least, she won't be featured in any speculative stories about whether she's running for a political post.

Hanaway says she definitely won't be in the hunt for St. Louis County executive in 2010, when Democrat Charlie Dooley is expected to seek a second full term. And after a few weeks of private pondering this winter, she decided against seeking the U.S. Senate seat to be vacated after the 2010 election by her former boss and longtime mentor, Christopher "Kit" Bond, R-Mo.

She says her reason for eschewing those contests is the same reason she dropped a serious plan to leave the U.S. attorney's office in 2007 to launch a 2008 bid for attorney general.

"I had the resignation letter written,'' Hanaway said this week, as she relaxed over a latte at the Starbucks in Kirkwood, where she now lives.

Her reasons for leaving politics? Her two children: son Jack, 6, and daughter Lucy, 10. "I want to see my kids grow up,'' Hanaway said, adding that her husband, Chris Hanaway, deserves much of the credit for overseeing her children's early years.

Hanaway, who's now 45, hopes to get back into politics -- but will wait at least until her children are in high school.

A hard-charging political career

Hanaway's political career began with a job as an aide to Bond and included numerous stints as the campaign manager or state director for various fellow Republicans, notably George W. Bush's first bid for president in 2000.

In 1998, she was elected to the Missouri House. By January 2003, Hanaway led the GOP as it took control of the state House for the first time in 48 years. She became the state's first -- and so far, only -- woman to serve as speaker of the Missouri House.

Hanaway held a firm grip on the speaker's gavel and acknowledges pounding the lectern as she warned then-Gov. Bob Holden, a Democrat, to forget about his 2003 proposals to raise tobacco and casino taxes, and end some corporate tax cuts, to balance the state's troubled budget.

Her frequent fights with Holden, and her success in getting the huge bloc of GOP legislators to stick together, burnished her credentials as a fiscal and social conservative and a no-holds-barred partisan.

"As speaker, you're in a very competitive environment," Hanaway recalls now. "You need to win elections. But you're also concerned about public-school curriculums and what the 'state dirt' should be."

She still chuckles as she recounts a four-hour House floor debate over which type of dirt should be awarded the official honor, joining the official symbols of state bird, rock and insect, among others. (In the end, dirt got dropped.)

But Hanaway's clout as Missouri's most powerful Republican woman took a hit in 2004, when she lost a close, combative election for secretary of state to Democrat Robin Carnahan -- who now is definitely running in 2010 for Bond's U.S. Senate seat.

(The only announced Republican for the Senate contest is U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Strafford. Ironically, Blunt's potential GOP rival, former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman, had initially planned in 2004 to run for secretary of state instead of treasurer. She backed off and switched races, in a very public change of heart, in the wake of party pressure to clear a primary path for Hanaway.)

The Carnahan-Hanaway battle in 2004 attracted more statewide votes than any other contest on the ballot except governor and U.S. Senate. Carnahan ran an ad hammering at Hanaway's seeming support for a defunct plan to provide state help for the Cardinals' then-proposed new baseball stadium. But Hanaway gives more credit to Carnahan's greater name recognition because of her family's political legacy.

In any case, Hanaway also admits that her own tough-as-nails image may have hurt her with some voters.

"I think I'm the only person who gained a reputation of being warm and fuzzy by becoming a prosecutor,'' Hanaway said with a laugh.

Into the U.S. attorney's office

As U.S. attorney for Missouri's eastern district, Hanaway has focused on prosecuting those caught manufacturing the illegal drug methamphetamine -- a state headache for years -- and in devoting more resources and staff to cases of child exploitation, many of which involve people who use children as young as six months for pornography.

Hanaway said her office also had regularly reviewed city police reports, looking for suspected federal crimes. She is particularly proud of the successful suit her office filed in 2007 against a nursing home chain, Cathedral Rock Corp., which was accused of Medicaid and Medicare fraud because it billed the federal government for services it failed to provide.

U.S. attorneys often are replaced when new presidents are sworn in, especially if they're from the opposing party. So Hanaway knew she was on her way out when Democrat Barack Obama was elected in November.

Speculation of her potential permanent successor is centering on Cole County Circuit Judge Richard Callahan, particularly since St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch -- a Democrat and close ally of U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill -- has told party insiders that he's not interested.

Meanwhile, Hanaway is focusing on her own future. She said she agreed to join Ashcroft because "I wanted to practice law in a setting where we'd deal with complex problems.''

The new law firm, she said, "will specialize in helping people or corporations who have serious problems." As an example, she cited the multiple challenges facing AmerenUE when its Taum Sauk reservoir collapsed in 2006.

Hanaway chuckled as she related a conversation she had this week with her mother about her new career path. "I told her I felt a little like I was jumping off a cliff," Hanaway said.

"Mom said, 'Oh, honey, you've jumped off many cliffs.' "

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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