Governor Comeback

Ed Rendell was dead in the water five months ago. Now it appears he’s a shoo-in to get reelected, and there are whispers about a VP or even a presidential run in ’08. What happened?

It was, in retrospect, the least likely setting for a full-throated, red-meat political filibuster. This past spring, two longtime contributors to the campaigns of Ed Rendell and one former Rendell aide traveled to Spruce Creek, just outside State College, for a few days of rest and fly-fishing. They’d left the insider whispers about what was starting to seem like Rendell’s crumbling governorship back at the Palm and Capital Grille in Center City. On this morning, a local proprietor had opened his store just for them, to sell them fishing licenses.

They recognized the amiable shopkeeper as something of a kindred spirit. He seemed a classic baby boomer who had dropped out of the rat race; he’d bought a Harley, moved upstate and opened a store while spending much of his free time calmly casting lines. He seemed politically moderate and vaguely counterculture, someone much more inclined to see the world through Rendell’s center/left view than from the angry right. So no one thought any buttons would be pushed when they mentioned they were friends with the governor of the state.

But the shopkeeper’s expression turned icy. “What a horse’s ass!” he roared through gritted teeth, before ranting about the Rendell pay raise, the Rendell arrogance, the Rendell Philly-favoritism. The three Philly insiders were taken aback not so much by the view of Rendell, but by the rage driving it. All three had seen Deliverance, however, so they cast their eyes downward rather than engage the debate. Later, over beers, they would laugh about how their friendly shopkeeper had morphed into Tom DeLay before their eyes. But it was nervous laughter. As Rendell’s onetime aide observed, “If Ed’s lost this guy, he’s sunk.”

Back in Philly, the Spruce Creek focus group of one had already proved prescient. According to Rendell’s own internal polls in March, he was down a point to prospective challenger Lynn Swann statewide, 48 to 47 percent. His job approval rating was under 40 percent. In the western part of the state, his name was anathema. Rendell’s longtime lieutenants were searching for answers. One insider, a veteran of many Rendell campaigns, wondered aloud if Ed wasn’t, on some subconscious level, trying to lose the governorship — which would enable him to run for mayor again in 2007. Swann was being afforded breathless celebrity media coverage, and Rendell hadn’t opened a campaign office yet — four years before, he’d already been airing statewide commercials. Now Rendell’s longtime media consultant couldn’t even get a straight answer from the Governor’s staff as to who had green-lighted an op-ed that ran in papers across the state under Rendell’s byline, headlined “Why I Approved These Pay Raises.” No governor in Pennsylvania history had been tossed out after one term. Was Rendell about to make dubious history?

ONE THING THE SPRUCE CREEK fishermen would have been wise to keep in mind from the past 25 years of local headlines: You underestimate Ed Rendell at your peril. It is now some four months since the fishing expedition, and in that time, Ed Rendell has pulled off a comeback that would make his friend, self-proclaimed “Comeback Kid” Bill Clinton, proud.

Rendell is flying high, up 57-37 in polling conducted the last week in June — a lead big enough to potentially dry up Swann’s fund-­raising. So massive has Rendell’s comeback been that just before recessing for the summer, the Republican-led legislature — with which Rendell has repeatedly locked horns since taking office in 2003 — saw fit to pass the two remaining big-ticket Rendell promises from his first gubernatorial campaign: property tax relief and an increase in the minimum wage. For three and one-half years, all we’ve heard at the Palm is how Eddie’s been getting his clock cleaned by the Republicans in Harrisburg. Now here it is, on the eve of the election, and Rendell has, improbably, delivered on eight of eight ambitious, activist promises he made. His state income tax increase helped turn a deficit into a surplus. In addition to the late-term wins on property tax and the minimum wage, he passed slots, passed the environmental and economic development package known as Growing Greener II, funded education at record levels, expanded child health care, cut waste to the tune of $1 billion, and cut business taxes. Rendell’s first term amounts to a political sleight-of-hand that now has national Democrats — and even some of his former adversaries — taking notice and whispering his name as a possible VP or even presidential candidate in 2008 or beyond.

“If Rendell wins big, you’ve got to look at him as a possible president,” says Time magazine columnist Joe Klein, author of Politics Lost: How American Democracy Was Trivialized by People Who Think You’re Stupid. “He has something going for him that other Democrats don’t, and it’s called personality. He’s clearly a guy who loves doing what he does. In a party that keeps nominating snooty, diffident, aristocratic, overly intellectual — have I exhausted all the adjectives for Gore and Kerry yet? — candidates, this is a guy the average voter can imagine having a beer with.”

“If you didn’t know the guy and just looked at his accomplishments as governor, Rendell for president is a salable pitch,” says State Senator Vince Fumo, who has long had a tempestuous relationship with Rendell, and who can barely hide a laugh laced with incredulity. “He’s got a better record as a governor than Bill Clinton did when he ran.”

How did this happen? How is it that Ed Rendell is about to cruise to reelection in one of the nation’s all-important swing states, on a platform of sweeping change in a state historically allergic to it? And why were even the political sophisticates at the Palm so sure that his first term was so grand a failure?

The answers lie in the story of Rendell’s ambitious agenda, and four years that were long on accomplishment but short on public-relations coups. In that sense, it’s been a sort of mirror image of his mayoral second term, when Rendell excelled at feel-good photo ops (diving into pools, hairy back and all) but sacrificed bold reform (why didn’t he spend some of that second-term political capital fixing the schools?) at the altar of political ambition. There was no such reticence when it came to his gubernatorial goals, and the resulting narrative includes a series of bungled PR moments, a Republican majority that overreaches and oversteps, a mad-genius media consultant, and, at the heart of our story, a politician who seems as coated with Teflon as Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton. Now, at a time when fed-up voters seem to be turning more and more to neophytes to fill elective offices — paging Lynn Swann! — Rendell’s comeback is a validation of a consummate player of the sometimes dicey political game, someone willing to do what it takes to get his agenda passed.

Rendell has performed political escape acts before, as in 1991, when he bucked a two-time loser label (once for mayor, once for governor) and became mayor. And during that first mayoral term, when his fiscal policies and can-do optimism staved off union opposition and helped keep the city’s bond rating from falling to junk status. And in 2002, when, down in the polls to Robert Casey in the race for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, and with the party establishment doubting him, he followed his instinctive populist leanings, got on a bus, traveled the state, and talked to as many voters as he could. But his first term as governor may be his greatest comeback yet. It shows that Ed Rendell is either the most skillful politician in America, or the luckiest. Or, more likely, a little of both.

EARLY IN 2003, Rendell got a sardonic “Welcome to Harrisburg” message that had him privately telling friends that things in the state capital were more bitter and partisan than he’d found at the national level. (He’d been chairman of the Democratic National Committee from 1999 through 2001.) When Rendell naively proposed to the legislature a bare-bones initial budget with spending cuts — explaining that he needed a few more weeks to develop his spending plan — John Perzel and Senate Republicans saw an opportunity to show the city slicker who was boss. They passed the bare-bones budget, putting Rendell in the embarrassing position of having to veto his own proposal.

It was new territory for Rendell. “The types of Republicans Ed dealt with in Philly were Arlen Specter and Thacher Longstreth, who aren’t really Republicans west of City Line Avenue,” says Daily News columnist John Baer, one of Rendell’s harshest critics early in his first term. “Conservatives from the western part of the state actually believe the stuff they say, about less being more and about government being the problem. That’s foreign territory for Ed.”

That was clear when, unbeknownst to Rendell, a Pittsburgh newspaper reporter was privy to a conference call between the Governor and members of the Pittsburgh city council. “They’re cowards,” Rendell said, referring to the Republicans in the legislature. “If tomorrow we could cure cancer if they raised taxes, they wouldn’t raise them.” Still, Rendell tried to work them the way he’d worked John Street and Fumo in Philly. He’d host lawmakers at the Governor’s Mansion and turn on his frat-boy charm. Other times, a freshman lawmaker would look up from his desk in the State Capitol, and Ed would be there, stopping by to chat. He made himself accessible; legislative aides would call the Governor’s office and were stunned to hear him answering his own phone. Rendell admits to a Clintonian need to be liked; indeed, Harrisburg lawmakers enjoyed interacting with him. Unlike in Philly, though, the power of Rendell’s personality had little leverage over true conservatives from safe districts.

Early on, Rendell thought he could combat his foes by perpetually campaigning. He kept the Rendell for Governor bus, the one that during the campaign drew rock-star-like crowds and enthusiasm. (At one event, an 18-year-old girl reportedly took one look at the portly then-59-year-old and gushed: “He is so my boyfriend!”) In Philly, you could govern in campaign mode: Show up, and the media will follow. Statewide, it was a harder proposition. Pull into Altoona on the bus, and who awaits? One reporter from the Altoona Mirror. Not exactly a media blitz.

“There was no communications plan,” Baer says. “Even when good things got done, no one knew anything about it.”

In part, that was because the core of Rendell’s Philly team didn’t make the trek to Harrisburg, and the first term was replete with sotto voce complaints that chief of staff John Estey was no David L. Cohen (“David had a Svengali-like power over Ed,” says Fumo) and press secretary Kate Philips was no Kevin Feeley.

But a more pressing problem was the Governor himself. He didn’t seem to like the job. Ed Rendell is a city guy through and through; born and raised in Manhattan, he is more comfortable on urban streets than any white politician this side of Clinton. In that first year, Rendell sat in a meeting with, among others, Meryl Levitz of the Greater Philadelphia Tourism and Marketing Corporation and Paul Levy of Center City District; Mayor John Street wasn’t there. At the end of the meeting, someone said, “Okay, we’ll present this agenda to the Mayor.” Rendell’s eyes took on a faraway look. “Whenever I hear someone say something like that, I still think they’re talking about me,” he said.

Countless Philadelphians came back from Harrisburg visits with tales of how out of place Ed seemed in his high-ceilinged, ornate office. He actually looked small behind the desk. The subtext to the whispers was clear: Ed Rendell was the incredibly shrinking governor.

No surprise, then, that as time went on, he governed more and more from Philadelphia. Rendell’s lack of enthusiasm for the job was easy to understand. As mayor, because of the dire stakes and the populist nature of the position itself, Rendell had been nothing short of an existential hero; he was Mayor Feel-Good for a city that historically hated itself. And — again, like Clinton — he fed off his interactions with each and every voter. But the job of governor is vastly removed from the people, not to mention their collective psyche. It’s about budgets and back-room deals and the routine delivery of services. Besides, it takes place in Harrisburg, not exactly Rendell’s type of stomping ground.

There was another problem as well: Partisanship in general was dragging him down. Democrats were as much of a headache as the opposition party.

Rendell had always seen himself as the ultimate pragmatist; he never had much time for ideologues. But his lack of partisanship rubbed Fumo and other Democrats the wrong way. Early on, he reappointed countless Republicans to state positions, among them Jonathan Newman to the Liquor Control Board, where Newman was bringing an entrepreneurial spirit to the moribund state agency. Harrisburg Democrats felt Rendell caved time and again to the Republicans, allowing Perzel to take over the Philadelphia Parking Authority, for example, and giving his opponents de facto veto power over his economic stimulus package. In order to finally get his first budget passed at the end of 2003 — some six months late, as the headlines pointed out — he further alienated members of his own party by promising not to campaign against several moderate Republicans in exchange for their votes. As ever, Rendell was the consummate deal-maker. “Give me what I want,” he told the Republican moderates, “and then beat me up with it later. Go home and tell your people Rendell raised your taxes.” This is what Rendell means when he says he’s spent almost all of the past four years “winning ugly,” sometimes having to make unsavory deals to get what he wants — and then getting pilloried for it in the media.

After his first year on the job, only 37 percent of the electorate rated his performance as excellent or good. By contrast, his predecessor, Tom Ridge, was at 61 percent after his first year in Harrisburg. In the western part of the state, the headlines proclaimed Rendell the first governor to increase income taxes in a quarter-century. The plan had been to raise income taxes by 29 percent while enabling school districts to cut their local property taxes by 15 to 60 percent. But the property tax component of the plan proved harder to pass than Rendell had anticipated.

The laments that were heard about Rendell from Democrats and Republicans alike echoed those that attended Bill Clinton’s governorship and presidency: He has no balls, no core principles. To Rendell, who had watched and learned from his friend Clinton throughout the ’90s (once, after dinner together on Martha’s Vineyard, they learned that their similarities extended to the lightness of their respective wallets: Neither the leader of the free world nor America’s Mayor had a single dollar on him), politics was about not sacrificing good initiatives for long shots at the perfect. Rendell’s mantra had always been “Live to fight another day.” To him, as to Clinton, playing the game was a principled position. When it came to politics, both men were wheeler-dealers who felt the ends justify the means — when it’s for a good cause, not to mention their cause. To their opponents, their political expediency exposed a lack of character.

Yet Ed Rendell would end up going eight-for-eight on those political promises he’d made entering his first term, by playing the political game. The trouble was, what everybody seemed to notice instead was how messy things were along the way.

AT LEAST CLINTON had some experience in partisan politics early in his career, given the muck that is elective office in Arkansas. In Philadelphia, there was never any real opposition to Rendell. In 2004 and ’05, he was confronted by a well-organized campaign to torpedo his property tax plan. Rendell proposed funding property tax relief with the revenue from slots. He passed the slots legislation, which he thought would be the harder sell. But the individual school boards had to opt in to the property tax plan, known as Act 72. Conservatives throughout the state urged school districts to reject it, arguing that Rendell — the Philadelphia tax-and-spender — had raised taxes and now wanted to take over the schools. Rendell was reactive and ineffectual. He had little political capital to spend on the sale and was incredulous when, on May 30th of last year, 390 school boards rejected his plan. It was a crushing blow.

But it wouldn’t be the last. Just weeks later came the pay-raise imbroglio, when state legislators voted themselves a raise in the dead of night through legislative expense accounts. (In any other business, giving yourself a raise through your expense account is called embezzlement.) Though he had supported the pay raise, Rendell went through Clintonian linguistic contortions over the next months to seemingly play both sides of the issue. When he signed the bill, he said of the tactic, “It’s legal — and that’s all I’m going to say about it.” Then he said it was “good legislation.” Two months later, he said the mechanism of unvouchered expenses was “possibly illegal.” Finally, ever the deal-maker, he admitted that sometimes you have to “kiss a little butt,” implying that he never liked the idea of a pay raise, but considered it the cost of passing his landmark Growing Greener II program, a $625 million, six-year investment in environmental cleanup and conservation projects. As Rendell saw it, this was another example of a pragmatist holding his nose and giving something in exchange for legislation that fulfilled a greater good. But all anybody else seemed to notice was the stink.

Needless to say, Republicans and Democrats alike felt the Governor had thrown them under the bus. Populist voter revolt occurred everywhere in the state except Philadelphia, where such shenanigans have long been met with shrugs. When it became clear that the electorate wasn’t going to forget the pay grab, the legislature repealed it. Still, it looked like Rendell, an instinctive populist throughout his career, would become the face of incumbency come Election Day. In April of 2006, after the twin blows of Act 72 and the pay raise, Rendell’s statewide favorability rating was at 35 percent.

LIKE MOST GREAT POLITICIANS, Ed Rendell is nothing if not lucky, which might be a way of saying he keeps pushing his agenda, making deals, hanging around — until he gets a break. He was in need of one in April in order to jump-start his comeback. Every politician has to have a foil; just as Clinton had Newt Gingrich, it became clear last spring that Rendell had Speaker of the House John Perzel. Perzel was in trouble with members of his own party who felt the Speaker had helped pass too much of Rendell’s agenda in exchange for control of goodies like the Parking Authority. (And rumors are still rampant that he’ll be given the Philadelphia airport next.) But it was Perzel’s foot-in-mouth disease, not his legislative partnership, that was the biggest boon to Rendell. The Speaker couldn’t let go of the pay-raise issue — defending it first on the basis that some mythical farmers make $55,000 to milk cows, and then that tattoo artists make $75,000 (after reading about one such tattoo artist in this magazine). Rendell, who didn’t take the pay raise himself, looked like a statesman by comparison. When a citizens’ group filed a lawsuit over the pay raise, Rendell was a defendant. But he argued in a court filing that he had no standing in the case, since he has no control over the legislative branch. The court agreed, and somehow, Rendell was off the hook. “He spent a year getting everybody into it, and he’s been running away since,” one GOP insider complained to the Inquirer.

In addition to Perzel, Rendell had one other huge advantage in his comeback: his mad-­genius media consultant. For years, Neil Oxman had been Rendell’s message guru. Oxman, who sees 300 movies a year and is a pro-golf caddy when he’s not running elections across the country, orchestrated moderate Republican Sam Katz’s near-mayoral win in 1999, in a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans by 4 to 1.

Oxman took one look at the polls and knew his candidate was in trouble. It’s an ominous sign anytime an incumbent is consistently below 50 percent approval ratings, as Rendell had long been. Moreover, Oxman knew he’d be hamstrung by Rendell’s sense of campaign ethics; the Governor had never let him go negative. He’d okay counterpunch ads, of course, but Rendell — a good-government liberal at heart — often said he’d rather lose than run crash-and-burn TV spots.

In the past, Oxman’s commercials sold Ed Rendell, the charismatic leader. Now that name was a curse throughout much of the state. So Oxman came up with the most radical TV campaign in modern politics: In an age when consultants sell politicians like soap and laundry detergent, he’d sell the substance of Rendell’s first term. Oxman would ask voters to cast their votes based on, of all things, the public record.

Paying for the airtime wouldn’t be a problem; Rendell’s fund-raising skills are legendary. Most politicians find asking for money distasteful, but Rendell enjoys the challenge, and as with so much else, he has an instinctive feel for the game. Once, in a phone call to a donor, the Governor was to ask for a five-figure contribution. But he never popped the question. “It didn’t feel right,” he told an aide. “He wanted to talk issues. I didn’t want to put him off. Let’s see what he does.” Two days later, a check arrived for five times as much. Rendell learned after losing the Democratic gubernatorial primary in 1986 to Robert Casey Sr. that money matters above all else in politics. In that race, he didn’t have the wherewithal to define himself on TV before Casey painted a Philly-centric tax-and-spend caricature of him. In the years since, however, Rendell’s voracious appetite for campaign funds has also raised eyebrows, as when he accepted more than $1 million in campaign contributions from the Democratic Governors Association (Rendell is the organization’s finance chair), which raises money from, among other sources, gambling companies — a potential conflict of interest in a state where gambling licenses are pending.

By last spring, Rendell had $16 million in the bank to Swann’s $1 million, and the airwaves were littered with Rendell commercials. There were five in total: on education, cutting waste, jobs, energy and the environment, and senior issues. Each one began with the phrase “When he was elected governor”; notice the absence of Rendell’s name. In fact, each commercial only mentioned Rendell by name once — at the very end. As in: “Ed Rendell for Governor.” The reason? The name had high negatives. But the accomplishments, Oxman hoped, would sell him.

Meantime, Swann was seeming like a not-ready-for-prime-time candidate, as when he went on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos and proved that he didn’t understand the Roe v. Wade decision. It also worked to Rendell’s good fortune that President Bush’s popularity was plummeting in the Pennsylvania polls.

But sometimes you make your own luck. One other Rendell move helped catalyze the comeback: hiring Dan Fee as campaign spokesman. Fee held the same position in Rendell’s 2002 campaign, and he’d also been Mayor Street’s mouthpiece during the 2003 race. Oxman may have been constrained from going negative, but no such prohibition applied to Fee. Behind the scenes, he provided the press with leads that led to stories about Swann’s record of not voting in a string of national and local elections and about Swann’s failure to pay Pennsylvania business taxes on his sports memorabilia business.

Rendell, a Clinton-like campaigner, was fully engaged. Oxman’s commercials were blanketing the airwaves. And Fee had seen to it that the glowing press afforded Swann came to an end. Stunningly, within six weeks of the media campaign and Fee’s hiring, Rendell was up 20 points.

ONE CRITICAL COMPONENT of Rendell’s comeback was his and his alone: a talent to strike a visceral connection with his audience. And it was on display even during the darkest days of his governorship. Last August 11th, anger over the pay raise was at its height when Rendell shuffled into the Governor’s Reception Room at the State Capitol to issue a statement about seven Pennsylvania National Guardsmen who had been killed in Iraq during the previous week. The press corps thought it would be a run-of-the-mill soundbite. They’d underestimated Rendell.

Looking at hand-scrawled notes, eyes brimming with tears, Rendell spoke from the heart. “These seven men were young, they were middle-aged,” he said. “They were black, they were white. They were policemen and they were firefighters, Wal-Mart store managers, youth counselors, recent high-school graduates. Some were husbands and fathers.”

Here he paused, lips quivering, raspy voice cracking. “All were beloved sons,” he said. “And all were Pennsylvanians.”

He closed by asking all Pennsylvanians to pray for the seven men and their families, as well as for the state’s 3,600 National Guardsmen and women serving overseas in the war on terror. When it was over, when he ambled out of the room, the silence was deafening. He had done what so few poll-tested candidates can: Rendell had appeared genuine, and struck an emotional chord with anyone who saw him. That’s why Rendell the campaigner — along with the holes in Swann’s résumé — has effected such a quick turnaround with voters.

And then there’s the other thing: his record. For much of his first term, Ed Rendell has appeared naïve, reactive, lost in Harrisburg and even petulant — as when he swiped a reporter’s notebook because he didn’t like a line of questioning. But barring, say, an overnight hospital stay (Rendell is heavier than he’s been in years, and any hospital visit could spark fear of wacky lieutenant governor Catherine Baker Knoll, who once inexplicably introduced Rendell as “Edgar G. Robinson,” becoming governor), he is about to get reelected on the basis of having done what he said he’d do. And maybe that’s even swayed the guy in that tackle shop along Spring Creek.

Moreover, Ed Rendell, with an innate talent for emotional connection, belongs to a party that has made the mistake in the past two presidential elections of nominating candidates of the head and not the heart. It was no surprise when, after seeing the Governor’s statement on that emotional day last August, someone muttered, “Well, that was Clintonian.” Who knows? Maybe Ed Rendell’s greatest comeback is still ahead.