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Rendell's wife couldn't campaign because she's a federal judge

Sunday, November 10, 2002

By John M.R. Bull, Post-Gazette Harrisburg Correspondent

HARRISBURG -- As the eyes of the state focused on Ed Rendell while he gave his victory speech on election night, lurking on the periphery of the crowded stage was a well-dressed blond woman.

Marjorie "Midge" Rendell, a federal appellate court judge, embraces her husband, Ed, as he acknowledges supporters on election night after winning the governor's race. (Don Fisher, Allentown Morning Call).

"Come on, come on up here," urged Lt. Gov.-elect Catherine Baker Knoll.

The woman nudged her way a bit closer to Rendell, but only a bit.

Midge Rendell does not crave attention. She leaves that for her husband, who revels in it.

"He's very much a people person," she chuckles the next day in an interview. "I kind of like to shy away from the limelight, and that suits me just fine."

Pennsylvanians did not get to know Marjorie Rendell -- known as "Midge" since she was a baby because she was so small -- during the campaign. She is a federal appellate court judge, and ethics restrictions prevent her from politicking in any way. The candidate could not even use her photograph.

"She's very personable. She's very outgoing. She's not reserved, quiet, behind-the-scenes," said Mike Stiles, longtime friend, neighbor, fellow Penn alumnus and former U.S. attorney in Philadelphia. It's just that beside her "incredibly gregarious" husband, she appears reserved. "Look, she has professional restrictions. She's no shrinking violet," Stiles said.

She and Rendell have been married for 31 years.

It was a courtship from which legends have sprung, and the true story bears being told.

The former Marjorie Osterlund, who grew up in Wilmington, Del., was a junior at the University of Pennsylvania when she and her date went to a party thrown by a brassy young man at Villanova Law School. Yes, it was Rendell. His apartment was known as the "Ape House."

Well, there was some sort of spark, because the next morning, she got a phone call from Rendell, asking her to go to lunch.

He had called her date -- David Montgomery, now president of the Philadelphia Phillies -- to get permission and her phone number. Montgomery gave both, but he wanted a candy bar thrown in to sweeten the deal, Stiles recounts.

The two dated until she graduated in 1969 and moved to Washington, D.C., to go to Georgetown Law. She dated other men, but when she returned to Philadelphia, she and Rendell hooked up again.

"He's this amazing person," she said in a 1997 interview with Philadelphia Magazine. "He's larger than life. He's just too much. But after Ed, everybody else was too little."

They were married in 1970 at the ritzy DuPont Country Club in Delaware. A friend who viewed their wedding photos relates that they looked like "Captain and Mrs. America." After the reception, they and other partygoers zoomed north to Philadelphia to catch a Philadelphia Phillies double-header.

Rendell went to work in the Philadelphia district attorney's office, then headed by Arlen Specter, now a U.S. senator. His wife joined the Philadelphia law firm of Duane Morris, where she was one of less than a handful of women on the staff.

There, Midge Rendell learned how to be a highly effective bankruptcy attorney, and helped build what was a two-person department at the firm into an operation that soon was handling high-profile bankruptcy cases from across the country.

"That's probably some of the most objective evidence of her abilities," said Barbara Adams, now a partner at the law firm. "She is a very elegant, articulate, impressive person, a cut above most of the people you'll ever meet. And she is very gracious."

Midge Rendell has long been involved in Philadelphia's arts community and was instrumental in getting the Kimmel Center built there. The $270 million center for the performing arts is now a cornerstone of the city's arts community. Adams said, "No one will know how hard she worked on that."

Midge Rendell went on to become a federal trial court judge in 1994 and was appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1997 to the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, a district that hears cases from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and the Virgin Islands.

"If you look at the whole roster of judges, she stands out," Adams said. "She's color on a black-and-white TV."

A neighbor for decades, Specter pushed Midge Rendell's appointment through a U.S. Senate that was balking at confirming Clinton nominees. She later would say "Arlen Specter willed it," Specter chuckles.

She is now one step away from a seat on the highest court in the land, the U.S. Supreme Court, and Specter says that could be in her future.

"She's been an outstanding jurist," gushes the state's senior senator, a Republican. "I think she could be a prospect for that someday. I met her when Eddie brought her to a party in the district attorney's office, I think it was 1969. If you call them a power couple, you are understating it."

Some facts about Midge Rendell: She's 54, speaks French, sews, adores dogs, loves the taste of peanuts, is blessed with a Broadway-caliber singing voice, has a great sense of humor and is capable of zaniness.

She once dressed up for Halloween as a moose, friends relate. She is not above throwing herself wholeheartedly into a confetti food fight, as related in author Buzz Bissinger's book "A Prayer for the City."

And she is into sports.

She plays golf and is pretty good at it. It's a game her husband refuses to play, probably to the relief of groundskeepers everywhere. He is not known for his ability to handle frustrating things, while her capacity to "go with the flow" has been well-proven.

She attended many of their son Jesse's basketball games when he was growing up. And after being up until 3 a.m. the other night because of the election, she and her husband joined friends at a Philadelphia 76ers game the next day.

Jesse, 22, is on the verge of graduating from Penn. He couldn't make it to election-night celebrations because he was playing bass for his rock band, Don't Look Down, at a gig in Gainesville, Fla. His father is clearly proud, and mentions that his son has a CD cut and is on tour by order of his record company, although he grumbles that the younger Rendell is probably "sleeping in a van."

The Rendells have long lived in a stone, two-story house set back from the road in the predominantly upper-middle-class East Falls, a neighborhood in Philadelphia's northwest section. Although the property is landscaped and has a lengthy driveway leading to it, the home is by no means palatial. First-time visitors often are struck by how modest the home is, considering that its occupants are a federal judge and the former mayor of Philadelphia, now governor-elect.

Friends say Midge Rendell is genuine.

"When you meet her, you really feel that you know her," Adams said. "If people get a chance to go see her, to hear her speak, take the time to get to know her, they'll be impressed."

State Sen. Vincent Fumo, D-Philadelphia, tells of spending many a late night as part of Ed Rendell's coffee klatch over the years, plotting political strategies with Rendell, longtime finance guru David L. Cohen and the irascible Philadelphia congressman Bob Brady.

Invariably, they would gather at Rendell's home.

"And she's putting out cookies, getting Diet Cokes," Fumo said. "She made Christmas cookies for us once. She is no high falutin', look-at-me-I'm-a-federal-judge type. She's really nice, very bright, very sweet, very caring and very supportive of Ed. She's going to be a great first lady."

That is something, however, for which Midge Rendell is not yet prepared.

"I think she's going into this role with some trepidation," longtime friend Leslie Anne Miller said.

Both Midge and Ed Rendell said they hadn't talked about what to do from here, how to work out the logistics of Ed taking over as governor and adjusting their family life. The matter has gone unresolved to date, partly for fear of jinxing his campaign. He's superstitious about such things.

She may open an office in the federal courthouse in Harrisburg, where she can do research, make judicial rulings and write opinions, she said. Perhaps she'll move into the governor's mansion with her husband and their golden retriever, Mandy, at least part time, but probably not full time.

"We won't sell our house and I don't think we'll move lock, stock and barrel," she said.

And how her job will effect her ability to conduct the duties normally associated with the state's first lady is an obstacle that has yet to be surmounted.

"I think it will be interesting to try to craft what I can do time-wise and ethics-wise," she mused. "I'd have to give it some thought how'd it work."

John M.R. Bull can be reached at jbull@post-gazette.com or 1-717-787-4254.

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