Immigrant hoping to "give back' seeks office
By DOM COSENTINO
The moment was so surreal, so incredibly unfathomable, that Marina Kats was left to describe it as "an out-of-body experience."
It happened just last month, at a Center City breakfast for Mikhail Gorbachev. The former premier of the former Soviet Union, Gorbachev was in town for a few days to receive the Liberty Medal at the National Constitution Center.
The morning after the ceremony, as he made his way around the private breakfast gathering, Gorbachev was introduced to Kats. A Ukrainian immigrant who had fled the U.S.S.R. with her family nearly 30 years ago, Kats eventually became a successful lawyer and was now running for Congress.
She handed Gorbachev a piece of her campaign literature. He offered to sign it and even pledged his support.
And she couldn't believe it.
"When you left," she said of her family's decision to move to the United States, "you were (branded as) a person who was a traitor, and now a former president of the Soviet Union is signing your palm card as you are running for Congress in the United States of America? It's really mind-boggling to me."
Kats was 18 in 1979, when she came to this country with her parents, Roman and Nelya. She had no money and didn't know any English. But she worked her way through Temple University, then Temple Law, and has since become a successful lawyer and businesswoman with a net worth estimated at more than $10 million, according to financial disclosure reports.
Now 47 and an Abington resident, Kats is running for Congress in the 13th District, which includes parts of Northeast Philadelphia and most of Montgomery County. She is a Republican challenging two-term incumbent Democrat Allyson Schwartz in a race that also includes Constitution Party candidate John McDermott.
Kats is only doing it, she said, because she wants to "give back."
"The country gave me everything," she said. "I am who I am because of this country."
*Those early days were difficult, to say the least.
Kats and her family had a decent standard of living back in Kiev, where her mother was an economist and her father was the director of a food distribution chain. Life behind the Iron Curtain was in some ways not so bad "You're a teenager, so everything is sort of OK," she said but you also couldn't go to the university of your choosing if you were Jewish, as Kats is, and you had to watch what you said.
Even what you wore could attract the attention of the authorities.
"That was always something in the back of your mind," Kats said. "Repression is something that you feel, but it doesn't alter your lifestyle."
To which she added: "Don't believe in all this equality in the former Soviet Union. There was no such thing."
With nothing but the 20 pounds of clothing they were permitted to bring, the family left as part of a Jewish exchange program.
And the adjustment was not easy.
"For the first year," Kats said, "my mother cried every day."
From the beginning, Kats went to work to get through college. She worked in a grocery, waited tables, scooped ice cream, was a dental assistant whatever it took. She first attended community college before enrolling at Temple with ambitions of becoming a doctor until she was assigned to dissect a kitten.
Kats found support in the bustling community of Russian immigrants that populated her Bustleton Avenue neighborhood, several of whom would car pool with her to Temple.
"I loved that time because there was a tremendous amount of camaraderie, a great deal of friendship," she said.
At 19, Kats married Alexander Ratner, another Ukranian immigrant. The pair rented an apartment and often had trouble paying bills. At one point, Kats even sold her wedding dress to make the rent. The couple had a daughter, Kelsey, now 17 Kats' other daughter, Alexandra, is 10. The couple divorced after about a dozen years.
"She was always a hard worker," said Ratner, who still calls Kats his "best friend." "The girl was selling carpets for five dollars an hour to pay for school, to pay the rent."
After graduating, Kats enrolled at Temple's law school. Jan Ting, one of Kats' law professors and a GOP candidate for the U.S. Senate from Delaware two years ago, said Kats would always sit in the front row, right in the middle, ready to learn.
"I remember her as being one of the smartest and best students I ever had," Ting said. "I certainly had a sense that she was interested in doing things and helping people. She's one of our biggest success stories among our alums."
Kats first worked at a local firm before starting her own in Feasterville about 15 years ago. It's mostly a personal injury practice, but she also handles immigration law, family law and some real estate matters.
The lobby of the office on Bustleton Pike is festooned with various awards and media write-ups about Kats. Atop the front desk, there is a photograph of Kats and President Bush. And in the conference room, there are numerous photos of Kats through the years meeting political figures off all stripes, from U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter to Ed Rendell to Bob Casey Sr. to Tom Ridge to William Rehnquist.
Politics, however, was not something for Kats herself.
Not yet, anyway.
*In her years after law school, Kats started a jewelry business while also dabbling in real estate and financial acquisition. She even owned a radio station 1540 AM that played the oldies, and she has served on the advisory boards of numerous community organizations.
As time went on, she became active in the Russian-Ukranian community in Northeast Philadelphia, and before long politicians would come by, seeking votes. Kats frequently organized fundraisers and other community events for members of both parties.
John Friedman, another Ukranian immigrant who runs a jewelry store in Kensington, has known Kats for 20 years. He marveled at her ability to organize those community events, but he also admired the way she worked to help others in the community find their way.
In the early 1990s, Kats promised Friedman she would sell him a house in Elkins Park and she did, even after it was clear she could have sold it to someone else for much more money.
"The first thing I saw in her is a desire to help somebody who can be helped," Friedman said. "I respect people who put their word ahead of money."
In person, Kats has a tendency to speak directly, to pull few punches. Ratner, her ex-husband, said she's not one to hold grudges.
"She's a straight shooter," he said. "She doesn't play games. She says what she means, and that's always a plus."
Kats' own political philosophy was borne of her own self-made persona: Fiscal prudence and personal responsibility are big with her, and she's a moderate who supports abortion rights but with some restrictions. And while she was "very proud" of Ronald Reagan, Kats was not influenced quite as much by Reagan's anticommunism.
"A lot of Republican standards are near and dear to my heart," Kats said before reverting to a clich, as she often enjoys doing. "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach the man how to fish and you'll feed him for a lifetime."
Kats said she was initially tapped by the Montgomery County GOP to run in 2006, but she declined because she knew it would turn out to be a bad year for Republicans. Specter, who said he's known Kats for about 20 years, was instrumental in drafting Kats to run for Congress.
"I've watched her grow into a very mature, experienced, able professional," Specter said. "She pulled herself up even without bootstraps."