Ed Rendell: The Oral History

Looking back on the former mayor as his political career in Pennsylvania nears its end.

What can you say about a man who shoves food in his pockets and eats with his hands? Who tore off his shirt and dove into pools? Who paid an Eagles fan to hurl snowballs? As Ed Rendell nears the end of his political career, Philadelphians remember his triumphs, temper tantrums, obsessions, pranks … and how he changed the city forever

[sidebar]Rendell arrived in Philadelphia in 1961, a 17-year-old New Yorker entering his freshman year at Penn. After getting his undergraduate and law degrees, he went to work in the D.A.’s office.

• Lynne Abraham, Philadelphia district attorney from 1991 to 2010: Ed and I were assistant D.A.’s at the same time, starting around 1967, and we’ve been friends ever since. As charming and engaging and funny as he is, he has a terrible temper. One day he kicked a painted plywood separator, and his foot went right through it. He kept whaling away, and the court officer started running. It was vintage Ed—he would blow up like a volcano in the office. He was crazy all the time, and very fun.
• Sam Katz, candidate for mayor, 1991, 1999 and 2003: Ed and I first met in 1975. Ed was young, out of law school, politically ambitious. He owned a VW Bug and was quite the party animal. Even back then, he was a huge baseball fan—he would go to a game at the drop of a hat. Ed didn’t know that much about politics, but he wanted to.

• Lynne Abraham:
He was chief of my unit, so he gave assignments—he was a very good chief. It didn’t bother me that he told jokes. If jokes were off-color, they weren’t horribly gross—you didn’t think about all the things you must think about today.

There was a guy who used to hang around the office named Armando. He was slow. He was short and stumpy and swarthy and hung around the D.A.’s office shining shoes. We all gave him money to feed him and buy clothes. Ed was especially kind to Armando. He was also the butt of Ed’s jokes. It was when Ed was chief of homicide: “Armando, can we fix you up with a nice girl?”

• Sam Katz:
Ed decided to run for D.A. in 1977. On the surface, he didn’t seem to have a chance against established incumbent Emmett Fitzpatrick.

• Paul Levy,
president and CEO of the Center City District: I met him when he was running for D.A. in 1977.  I just remember everyone said he was an underdog, but he ended up winning.

• John Street, joined City Council in 1979, served as Council president from 1992 to ’98, and was mayor from 2000 to 2008: I was doing the Broad Street Run one year when I was a Council member and Ed was D.A., and I looked up and saw Ed in front of me. And I said, “I can’t let him beat me.” And so I just ran along, and in the last mile I ran in front of him and beat him. And the very next day, when the results were in the paper, it was right there: “Councilman Street beats Ed Rendell.” Ed Rendell actually used to be in the Broad Street Run—you ask him.