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Ed Rendell: A Campaign Profile

A record becomes a platform

Sunday, March 17, 2002

By James O'Toole, Politics Editor, Post-Gazette

The guy in the rumpled suit had to raise his voice over the base thrum of rolling balls and the clashes of falling pins.

Ed Rendell meets residents of Riverview Towers in Squirrel Hill last month. (Robin Rombach, Post-Gazette)

"Hi, I'm Ed Rendell. I'm one of the guys running for governor," he said again and again as he circulated though the tables laden with coats, gym bags and open bottles of Captain Morgan rum.

"You any good at this game?" he'd inquire of one bowler after another, eliciting jokes and the occasional high five.

As he patrolled these alleys in the middle of a Johnstown strip mall, Rendell himself didn't appear to know much about bowling. But he can come close to rolling a 300 in the game he was playing that winter night -- the sport of establishing instant empathy with perfect strangers.

Campaigner Rendell is a natural, a laughing, back-slapping, forearm-squeezing, all-pro schmoozer. The salesman's skills he practiced through two terms selling his city and a couple of years promoting former Vice President Al Gore are focused once again on himself.

There's a retro quality to some aspects of Rendell's campaigning. In a statewide campaign in which television advertising will consume upward of $20 million, he still spends hours away from the demands of fund-raising calls, trying to conquer the commonwealth one voter at a time. On another morning, he raced to his second Homewood church stop of the day, basking in the pastors' endorsements, boasting of the job he'd done through two terms as mayor of Philadelphia.

To this African-American audience, Rendell pointed out the working relationship he cultivated with the man who succeeded him, Mayor John Street.

"He didn't support me for mayor, and I didn't support him for council president, but we decided we had to work together to get the city moving forward with harmony. ... Seeing a Caucasian-Jewish American working together with an African American was an example for young people all over the city."

Race for Governor

Edward G. Rendell

Age: 58

Hometown: New York City

Education: B.A., University of Pennsylvania, 1965; J.D., Villanova Law School, 1968

Career: Partner, Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll; general chairman, Democratic National Committee during 2000 presidential election; mayor of Philadelphia, 1992-1999; Philadelphia district attorney, 1978-1985; Army veteran

Family: Wife, Marjorie O. Rendell, a judge on the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals; son, Jesse, a senior at the University of Pennsylvania


Rendell told the congregations about his plans as governor, but the reference to Street reflected the bedrock of his message -- the record he compiled as steward of the state's largest city. Anecdotes of his eight years there were trotted out at every stop. It's a record he never tires of extolling and one that the campaign of his rival for the Democratic nomination, Auditor General Bob Casey Jr., never tires of belittling. (Republican Mike Fisher is unopposed for his party's nomination in the May 21 primary.)

From the churches of Homewood, Rendell headed to a cathedral of commerce, the Cranberry Township Wal-Mart. He cruised out Interstate 279 in the trademark Edmobile, a John Maddenesque chartered bus, complete with deeply cushioned blue leather sofas, a kitchenette, bathroom and shower.

On this chilly morning, it's clear that Rendell, 58, is receiving some returns for the millions he's spending on television.

"Hey, Ed Rendell -- cool," a young man said as he struggled to shift a shopping bag so he could shake the candidate's hand.

"I see your ads. I like what you have to say."

A few weeks earlier, he'd been greeted with the same familiarity in Johnstown's town square. Such episodes make clear that his television ads make his one-on-one campaigning more productive. But in an age when television rules politics, is this retail campaigning a good use of his time?

"It makes a difference at the margin," Rendell said while gobbling french fries after the Wal-Mart stop. "This could be a one- or two-point race and there's some value in letting people see a real human being, especially in this part of the state."

As if to prove his point, four Carnegie Mellon University students tentatively approach him, asking for his autograph.

Rendell arrived in Philadelphia as a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania. The New York native went on to Villanova Law School in the city's suburbs, and from there to a career as a prosecutor. He was hired by Arlen Specter, who was then district attorney and is now a U.S. senator, and eventually became chief of homicide prosecutions in the office.

In 1977, he ran in the Democratic primary against the man who had defeated Specter for district attorney in a post-Watergate upset, Emmett Fitzpatrick, and won. Four years later, Rendell was re-elected in a landslide, and for a long while that seemed likely to be his political high-water mark.

Rendell made his first run for governor in 1986, taking on the father of his current opponent. In an expensive primary, Robert P. Casey beat him easily. The next year, Rendell challenged W. Wilson Goode in Philadelphia's Democratic primary for mayor and suffered another stinging defeat. Extending his string of losses, 1988 found him as head of the Pennsylvania chapter of the Mike Dukakis presidential campaign.

But Rendell's political luck was about to change. In 1991, he made another bid for mayor, running in the Democratic primary against two black candidates. In part because of the split in the important African-American constituency, Rendell captured the party nomination.

Though Philadelphia was then as now overwhelmingly Democratic, his election was no sure thing as the Republican candidate was the legendary former mayor, Frank Rizzo. Rizzo died over the summer, however, and Rendell had no trouble with the GOP's replacement nominee.

Good luck or good economy?

Rendell had no way of knowing that he was taking office at the beginning of the greatest run of American prosperity in his lifetime. That sunny prospect was far from view as he took over a city on the verge of bankruptcy.

Rendell described that dire budget situation speaking to a political science class at the University of Pittsburgh's Johnstown campus. An animated speaker, Rendell thrust his palms forward, as though he were about to catch a basketball, as he made one point. With his right thumb, he uncurled the fingers of his left, one by one, as he enumerated the factors tugging on his budget.

In response to a question, Rendell described the clashes with municipal labor unions that were part of his effort to curb spending. He acknowledged that the new union contracts contained givebacks to the city, but he said the city saved money while avoiding layoffs.

"The benefit concessions had to come," he said. Referring to one of the former municipal holidays revoked in the negotiations, he added, with tongue in cheek, "The workers had to go through the emotional hardship of being away from their families on Flag Day."

Rendell said that, despite his clashes with city union leaders, he won the votes of a majority of union households in his landslide re-election in 1995. But the scars from those battles are clearly visible in this race. That history is a major part of the reason that so many statewide labor leaders have lined up behind Casey.

Rendell would never be mistaken for a classic New Deal Democrat. He echoes many of the pragmatic, nonideological positions associated with the post-liberal Democratic Leadership Conference and its adherents, such as former President Bill Clinton and Gore. But for all the talk about the value of privatization and the need for streamlining government, Rendell is not a Republican in disguise.

"Government can change lives and outcomes, and that's why all of this is worth doing," he told the Johnstown class. "Ask your parents and grandparents how their lives would be different if FDR hadn't pushed Social Security, if there'd been no Medicare."

The union contracts represented one step in Rendell's successful effort to turn the city's finances around. The improvements in the city's morale and ledgers that occurred under his watch won Rendell gushes of favorable publicity nationally and even internationally -- an image that the Casey camp contends is a triumph of public relations over substance.

In an assertion that the state's television viewers would have had a tough time avoiding in recent weeks, Rendell boasts that his city gained 20,000 jobs in his second term. The Casey camp says Rendell presided over the loss of 34,000 jobs. Both appear to be telling the truth, as far as that goes.

The latter figure is the net change in the city's employment during Rendell's tenure. Rendell maintains that he reversed a pattern of steady job losses that long preceded his inauguration and that the job growth that followed, however modest, is ample reason for celebration.

Beyond the statistical disagreement is the larger debate over whether an improved Philadelphia picture was due to Rendell's leadership or to his good fortune in being in office during a time of relative plenty. The argument is unresolvable because no one will ever know how Philadelphia would have fared in the 1990s under another mayor. But a majority of the people who watched those events most closely seem to side with Rendell. Polls consistently portray him as overwhelmingly popular in Philadelphia and the surrounding bedroom counties.

This campaign has already seen a similar argument over Rendell's record on education. In speeches and in his first campaign commercials, he pointed to a string of improving test scores in the Philadelphia schools, along with their adoption of universal full-day kindergartens. But if the test scores improved, they moved up from relatively low benchmarks. The district's finances, moreover, are so strained that they have been effectively taken over by the state.

The Casey campaign insists that Rendell is defying reality in boasting of his record on education. Rendell counters that the educational gains were real, and that financial problems are a statewide issue, noting that nearly a third of the state's districts are threatened with budget deficits.

On a February afternoon, Rendell discussed education before a roomful of administrators and teachers from the Johnstown School District. Without notes, he gave a comprehensive tour of education issues, glibly reeling off acronyms and intricacies familiar to his professional audience.

He got a good reception. Afterward, Gerald Zahorchak, the district superintendent, said, "I like what he had to say. The platform he is talking about is congruent with the platform of most educators."

In response to a question, Zahorchak conceded reservations about the experience of the Philadelphia schools but seemed ready to at least partially absolve his guest.

"That is troubling," he said of the state takeover. "But Philadelphia has unique problems. It has to have a partnership with the state and the state has to do its part."

Hours later, Rendell made his way though a parking lot, one bowling alley down and one to go before his campaign day is over.

Shuffling toward his gaudily decorated bus, he said: "You asked if there was a difference between [his 1986 run for governor] and now. I can still go from morning till night, but the difference is, now I feel it."

Next week: A look at Auditor General Bob Casey on the campaign trail.

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