Stateline Story

Keystone State's Gov Looms Large

Photo by Danny Dougherty, Stateline.org Pa. Gov. Ed Rendell (D) speaks to a gathering of statehouse reporters from across the country at the annual Capitolbeat conference last month.

PHILADELPHIA - Ed Rendell is tall, imposing and unapologetically carries his big-city swagger on visits to small towns in Pennsylvania. He's brash, once jerking a tape recorder right out of a reporter's hands. And he's devilishly unpredictable, irking even his Democratic allies, such as when he unexpectedly named Republican Mitt Romney as his ideal presidential candidate or publicly called for Al Gore to concede the 2000 election to George W. Bush when it was definitely not part of the Democratic script.

In five years as governor, the former Philadelphia mayor has become a towering figure in Pennsylvania politics - not only for his success at moving a far-reaching agenda but for being a hoot to watch as he practices an unvarnished form of political persuasion. Some observers here say he possesses the skills to rival former President Bill Clinton, though his super-sized ego has also ruffled countless feathers in the state capitol.

"In the age of scripted, manicured, styled, careful, robotic, Stepford politicos, Gov. Ed Rendell is none of these things," said David Patti, head of the pro-business Pennsylvanians for Effective Government. "Even critics of Rendell administration policies grudgingly admit that what you see is what you get, all in all a pretty straightforward and very earthy kind of guy you like even when you disagree with him." (Click here for a transcript of "Out There's" roundtable with Pennsylvania political experts)

Rendell has used his platform to its fullest. Although recent Pennsylvania governors typically have not articulated sweeping policy agendas, instead focusing on core issues such as holding down taxes, Rendell doesn't think small, said David Cohen, Rendell's chief of staff as Philadelphia mayor and now executive vice president of Comcast Corp.

>Rendell has set in motion increases in the state's share of education funding, which soon will reduce the burden borne by local taxes, and he's pushed improvements to early childhood education. He has proposed universal health coverage for all residents and already has expanded coverage for children. He's promoted mandates for alternative energy generation to such a degree that it's now possible to put "California and Pennsylvania in the same sentence" on that issue, said Muhlenberg College polling institute director Christopher Borick.

"He is perfectly happy to go seven for 16" in enacting his initiatives "as long as the seven are big enough," said Pete DeCoursey, editor of the Capitolwire news service in Harrisburg, Pa.

Ken Jarin, a Democratic fundraiser and adviser, credits Rendell with being especially creative in locating new revenue streams, from proposing to lease the Pennsylvania Turnpike to winning approval to open casinos in the state.

Securing the passage of gaming legislation without a statewide referendum "was the most breathtaking piece of political maneuvering I have ever seen in watching Harrisburg for over 30 years," said William Green, a Pittsburgh-based Republican consultant. "No one thought he could pull it off."

All told, Rendell got "about 85 percent" of his first-term agenda, and the plan for his second term is "the most ambitious of any second-term governor" in the state since second terms were first permitted in 1974, said Franklin and Marshall College political scientist Terry Madonna. "Much of the spending on economic development - $2 billion in the first term - is predicated on the state priming the pump and the private sector pumping money into projects around the state."

Concedes Ray Zaborney, who managed Republican Lynn Swann's unsuccessful campaign against Rendell in 2006: "I remember Republicans saying, 'We'll teach him a lesson: This isn't Philadelphia.' That's true, but we have also gotten taught a few things ourselves. He's exceeded expectations. He was able to work with enough Republicans to get it done."

Not surprisingly, Rendell's expansive view of state revenue generation - and of spending - has disappointed low-tax, small-government Republicans. "A lot of Pennsylvania family businesses are paying billions of dollars more because of the personal income tax," Zaborney said. "The state's last two surpluses have been as a result of that tax increase."

Louis Jacobson is the editor of CongressNow , an online publication launched in 2007 that covers legislation and policy in Congress and is affiliated with Roll Cal l newspaper in Washington, D.C. Jacobson originated the "Out There" column in 2004 as a feature for Roll Cal l, where he served as deputy editor. Earlier, Jacobson spent 11 years with National Journal covering lobbying, politics and policy, and served as a contributing writer for two of its affiliates , CongressDaily and Government Executive . He also was a contributing writer to The Almanac of American Politics and has done political handicapping of state legislatures for both The Rothenberg Political Report and The Cook Political Report.

Many Pennsylvanians also decry his decision to approve a pay hike in 2005 for top officials in the legislative, executive and judicial branches - legislation so controversial that it was rescinded amid a near-rebellion by voters in central and western Pennsylvania.

Indeed, Rendell has yet to win over voters in those Republican-leaning areas. His unabashed Philadelphia persona - exemplified by his boosterism of Philadelphia sports teams at the expense of Pittsburgh's Steeler Nation - doesn't play well outside the southeastern part of the state. And policies that barely cause a ripple of concern in his home base, such as his "clean indoor-air" bill, have become stalled in the Legislature.

In one of the nation's stranger political streaks, the Pennsylvania governorship has switched off between the parties like clockwork every eight years since the end of World War II. As governor, Rendell, once head of the Democratic National Committee, has presided over a blue tide in Pennsylvania.

In one of the most competitive states in presidential elections, Rendell aided a close 2004 victory by Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry. Two years later, as Rendell was breezing to a second term, his party took over the state House for the first time in 12 years - albeit by one seat. Democrats also flipped a U.S. Senate seat and four U.S. House seats. Today, the GOP remains in control of the state Senate, but just two statewide officials, Attorney General Tom Corbett and U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, are Republicans.

Still, analysts in the state say the Republican Party is bound to come back at some point. And how much of the credit Rendell himself deserves for the Democratic surge is still debated.

Rendell's record-shattering fund-raising certainly helped his fellow Democrats, and his popularity solidified gains by Democrats in the once solidly Republican suburbs of the southeast. But analysts say that Democratic congressional gains in Pennsylvania in 2006 likely had more to do with national trends than statewide ones. And most suburbs across the northeastern United States are moving away from the Southern-led, religious-influenced Republican Party, amid a strong distaste for President Bush and the war in Iraq.

Meanwhile, not everyone has been won over by Rendell's approach to governing. Some blame Rendell for adopting a high-handed attitude toward the Legislature, a stance that has at times poisoned relations between the parties, and even within his own.

Some add that they aren't sure that Rendell's legacy will outlast his exit. "He's really one of a kind," Republican consultant Jeff Coleman said. "He governs on the fly, and there's no long-term vision or strategic blueprint to pass on to the next governor. The legacy exists as long as he's there to promote it in person."

As for Rendell's future, it's unclear. He's term-limited out of the governorship in January 2011, and while he's been talked about as a possible cabinet secretary in a Democratic administration, there is broad agreement that he would be a poor fit as a vice-presidential candidate.

"I love Ed, no one has more respect for him, and I believe he would be a great candidate, but I don't, bottom line, see anyone picking him," said Cohen, his former chief of staff. "What makes him so appealing also makes him too loose for the national stage. He wouldn't be miserable, but he would make the president's life miserable."