Philly blunt

As mayor of Philadelphia and chairman of the DNC, Ed Rendell was criticized by fellow Democrats for speaking his mind. Now he wants to be governor of Pennsylvania.

Published May 1, 2001 8:00AM (EDT)

There was a time during the Florida recount when then Democratic National Committee chairman Ed Rendell thought about running for president in 2004. It would only have occurred, Rendell says, had Vice President Al Gore not won the recount, and had decided not to run again.

"If Al doesn't run, the field's spread out," Rendell, the two-term former mayor of Philadelphia, says. "I thought maybe I'd be DNC chairman for two more years, then raise some money, then run for president. Then I realized it was ridiculous. They've never elected a mayor. It's tough enough for a mayor to make the leap to governor or senator."

Every politician in America thinks about running for president at one point or another, but few acknowledge the thought -- especially to the media. Hell, even the ones who are preparing to run in three years aren't admitting it right now. But that's Rendell.

At this moment, however, the irascible frankness of the big, balding, exuberant Rendell is causing him a few problems. The man the City of Brotherly Love loves like a brother is being accused of being a disloyal egomaniac by Democrats in the swamp that is Washington. And that's a problem, since Rendell is running for governor of Pennsylvania and needs support from anywhere he can get it. Instead, Rendell finds himself ready to face off the son of a former popular governor, Bob Casey, as well as a party still looking for someone to blame for Al Gore's defeat last fall.

It's a curse of public life that men and women who work hard for decades can become most famous for an ill-conceived 15 seconds. This is not quite the case in Philly, where Rendell has 16 years of elected office behind him -- including a well-received eight as mayor -- but in many Democratic circles outside the southeast corner of the state, the shoot-from-the-hip Rendell is known and resented for appearing on TV right after the Supreme Court issued its ruling, and calling for the vice president to concede before Gore had had time to digest the controversial, complicated 5-4 court ruling.

Not that the former vice president isn't willing to let bygones be bygones. Gore is scheduled to fly to Philly Tuesday evening to have dinner with a handful of big supporters and donors and otherwise big cheeses from the cheese-steak capital of the world to thank them for their past support -- and presumably to keep them on board for a potential 2004 run.

Rendell put the event together along with two big Democratic lawyers, Ken Jarin and Alan Kessler; he arranged for Gore's plane and is sending his longtime driver, Brian Copeland, to pick him up at the airport. He even discussed which caterer would be best.

Still, it's not a moment without some tension. Tuesday night will be the first time Rendell has seen Gore since he sent the former vice president a long letter explaining the comments he made on Dec. 12, 2000, in the immediate wake of the Supreme Court's decision. Rendell may have explained those comments to Gore, but he is still explaining them to the world.

At around 10:30 p.m. on Dec. 12, less than an hour after the Supreme Court decision, Rendell announced, on MSNBC's "Hardball," "This is it. He [Gore] should act now and concede."

At the DNC headquarters in Washington, staffers started booing their own chairman.

Soon, on an NBC special, Rendell was asked by Tom Brokaw if he thought it was time for Gore to concede.

"Oh, I think he will concede, Tom," Rendell said. "He's made it very clear he doesn't want any raid on electors, that he would abide by the law of the land. This unfortunately is the law of the land. I disagree with the opinion; I think they should have tried to -- every effort, every last ounce of energy should have gone into making sure every vote counted, but it is the law of the land and the vice president will absolutely abide by that, and I think you'll see him making a terrific speech to the nation very soon."

At his home on the grounds of the Naval Observatory, where Gore was taking it all in, Rendell's off-the-cuff take was not received warmly.

Just a few seconds later, CNN reported that DNC co-chairman Joe Andrew was saying that "Mr. Rendell does not speak for the Democratic National Committee and if he is calling on the vice president to concede he is speaking in a personal capacity, not on behalf of the party."

Said Gore communications director Mark Fabiani to the New York Times at the time: "We've come to expect that from Rendell. He seems to be more interested in getting his mug on TV than in loyalty." The Gorebies had been pissed at Rendell for defending then Gov. George W. Bush for failing a pop quiz on foreign policy that a Boston TV reporter had sprung on him. And they didn't like his mouthing off, before Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., had been selected as Gore's running mate, his view that no one "can calculate the effect of having a Jew on the ticket. If Joe Lieberman were Episcopalian it would be a slam-dunk." (Rendell, who is Jewish, has long wondered aloud about whether his religion would affect his chances of being elected statewide, though this year he says it's not something he's concerned about.)

The list of impolitic comments goes on and on. At the Democratic Convention last summer, Rendell was given a speaking slot at 5:15 in the afternoon on Tuesday.

Toward the end of the race, Gore advisors were aghast when Rendell publicly complained about Gore's strategy to not use President Clinton on the campaign trail. When it was all over, Fabiani griped about Rendell and it was suggested that Gore had been the one who brought Rendell to the DNC. Fabiani said, "Sometimes you make personnel mistakes in this business."

"Some people thought [his comments on TV that night] were a little presumptuous; some people thought it was premature," says a Democratic official. "Being that we'd gone through 35 days of this, they thought it was a time for Gore to make that decision. So all of Rendell's hard work through the whole year sort of slipped away a little bit with that one comment."

This has clearly left a scar. When I ask Rendell if he plans to attend the White House Correspondents Association dinner, he laughs. "I'd be better off standing on the most desolate street corner in Philadelphia -- that would do me more good than going down" to D.C. He immediately begins ranting about a cable news show he almost appeared on until "the producer said, 'We're going to ask him why he deserted Gore!' 'Deserted Gore'?! As I remember it, for 36 days I was almost the only big-name Democrat who was on TV!"

He's calm and smiling but clearly irritated. He wryly refers to "the 36 days where I was 'working for myself.'"

In a restaurant just blocks from City Hall last Wednesday night, as Rendell sits down to talk about his brief tenure at the DNC and his pending race for the Pennsylvania governor's mansion, he stops to listen to the list of dressings that the Capitol Grill provides for its garden salad.

"Parmesan vinaigrette," says the waiter, Alex Tran.

"Sucks," says Rendell.

"Mango lime vinaigrette," Tran offers.

"Terrible," says Rendell.

"Blue cheese."

"Only if you love blue cheese," says the former mayor.

"Caesar," says the waiter.

"Eh," says Rendell.

"Warm bacon dressing," Tran finally suggests.

"Only with the spinach," Rendell says. In the end, he precedes his porterhouse with shrimp cocktail. He downs the steak ravenously. He has an appetite.

This is how Ed Rendell is: Large. Blunt. Direct. Occasionally coarse. Generally entertaining.

Sometimes the style works. Philly looks better than it has in generations; the Capitol Grill on Broad Street is but one of the dozens of new restaurants to open downtown since he took office in 1991 and began his CPR on America's fifth-largest city. "When I became mayor, no one wanted to be here," he says of major restaurant chains like the Capitol Grill. "But we created a lot of verve and zest and life in the city."

Of course, the comments that emanate from Rendell's frank and frequently flapping mouth continue to rub some people the wrong way. The Weekly Standard characterized him as "the recently departed party chairman who committed a gaffe nearly every time he spoke."

There are Democrats who don't disagree; there's plenty of lingering bad blood from Democrats in Washington for Rendell's blunt comments on "Hardball," and it now threatens to hamper his gubernatorial ambitions.

Rendell is amazed that he's still dealing with this. Around Christmas he sent Gore "a long letter explaining my remarks and their context, apologizing for any consternation I might have caused his family." The context of his remarks was significant, Rendell says. With one or two exceptions, the NBC chorus line of correspondents had all declared everything over, as had other commentators.

"I believe what I said -- in the context that I said it -- was right on Supreme Court night," Rendell says. "I believe what I said about Bill Clinton was right, and I probably shouldn't have said it publicly, but I was so frustrated when we were letting the campaign slip away. And I know what I said about George W. Bush and the pop quiz was right. I don't have any regrets."

Well, that's not entirely true. Rendell catches himself: "I regret not understanding the emotional context for the vice president and his family -- I regret that. Because I really became, over the years, tremendously fond of Tipper [Gore]. And I'm told she took it the hardest. That makes me feel sad, because I like her."

According to Rendell, Gore called him on New Year's Day and said that he watched the videotape and while he still wished he hadn't made the comments, he understood their context, and he held no grudges.

But while Gore may have decided to let bygones be bygones, others in Washington are not so eager to do so -- especially now that Rendell is preparing to run for governor of Pennsylvania. His primary opponent will be Auditor General Bob Casey Jr., son of the former popular Democratic governor, the late Robert P. Casey, and client of Gore political consultants Bob Shrum and Tad Devine.

Already, Democratic critics are knocking Rendell in the local media. "I've learned a lesson: You don't want to be in a foxhole with Ed Rendell," former Clinton advisor Paul Begala told the Philadelphia Inquirer in February. "He's a brilliant politician, but he's loyal to Ed and to no one and nothing else."

To Rendell, all of this is indicative of the fact that Washington is one of the few places in the world where frankness is considered a weakness. His take is that in his role as Democratic Party spokesman, less partisan Americans appreciated his saying what he thought. "You want to be the reasonable man to persuade" the 25 percent of the populace in the middle of the political spectrum. "You don't want to be like [former Republican National Committee chairman] Jim Nicholson -- attacking, attacking, attacking, never saying anything good. You want to be the reasonable guy."

"I thought that was one of the reasons I was so effective," he says. "I was honest. People knew on these shows I didn't B.S. them. I didn't give the party line."

The opposing point of view, of course, is that the party chairman is supposed to give the party line.

Rendell's mouth has gotten him into trouble in Philly as well. In the midst of his success as mayor, Rendell was knocked off his game a bit by the minor scandal that ensued after he made crude remarks to a Philadelphia Magazine reporter. And Philadelphia Magazine recently reported that Mayor John Street -- the former City Council president whom Rendell endorsed and campaigned for in 1999 -- is upset that Rendell said nice things about his then opponent, local businessman Sam Katz.

Street's son recently held a fundraiser for Casey. And though the mayor will almost certainly endorse Rendell, he hasn't yet been out there for his predecessor, especially considering the hundreds of thousands of dollars Rendell raised for him or the $100,000 loan his campaign war chest spotted Street's.

There are forces, obviously, who want to hold Rendell's controversial tenure as DNC chairman against him. Rendell spokesman David Yarkin thinks the Gore forces played up resentment about Rendell's Supreme Court comments precisely because Shrum and Devine were already on board with Casey's campaign. After all, Sen. Bob Torricelli, D-N.J., and even one of the most prominent members of Gore's legal team, Harvard professor Laurence Tribe, made similar comments on TV that night, essentially calling on Gore to concede.

Rendell shrugs it all off. "They can't be that stupid," he says, disagreeing with Yarkin. "Do they think that people are going to vote against me because I said that Al Gore should concede that night? Can you see them trying to make it into a TV ad? This is all insider baseball. The people of Pennsylvania want to hear about education, economic development, sprawl." (Neither Shrum nor Devine returned calls for comment.)

"Does this guy know he can turn right?" Rendell asks his driver. "You know, they have right turn on red here!"

We're making our way from Center City to Mercy Hospital in West Philly, where Rendell is slotted to thank a crowd on volunteer appreciation day. Copeland honks the horn. "That's why they have right turn on red, son!" Rendell quietly says to the guy in the car ahead of us, who obviously can't hear him.

We turn onto the South Street bridge, past the Penn Relays where sprinters are preparing for their races, through the University of Pennsylvania campus. Rendell punches up his scheduler, Phyllis Halpern, on his car phone and they start going over the schedule.

"What are we doing with Gore?" Halpern asks. "Betty seems to think we're picking him up."

"Yeah, Brian's picking him up," Rendell says.

"Brian's going to the airport and getting him?" she asks. "Does he need any clearance -- oh, he's just a regular person now."

"Yeah," Rendell says.

In the back of the car, a pair of socks lies on the floor. There's a copy of the day's packed schedule, a Pennsylvania road atlas, the Philadelphia Inquirer turned to the last page of the Metro section, a container of unscented extra-hold Consort hairspray, which "helps men look neat and natural all day." Rendell is natural, but he sure ain't neat.

In fact, when Rendell talks longingly about the 1993 National League Championship "blue-collar" Phillies -- a team made up of overweight, hairy, slovenly overachievers -- and, more specifically, of a "David Letterman" "highlight reel" of the Phils "either spitting or scratching; none of them were pretty," there's more than a bit of identification going on. Rendell seems pleased to be known both for his sloppy moments and for his overall championship performance as mayor.

The car is jostled by potholes.

"The Century's so rocky," Rendell says about the car. "I feel like I'm in a washing machine."

He returns to Halpern and the schedule. An event at a synagogue, another one with Rotarians, something in Harrisburg with Arab-Americans that he can't make, which he wants former Lt. Gov. Mark Singel to attend in his stead.

"Do you know when I'm going to talk to the Pennsylvania League of Cities?" he asks Yarkin.

"You said you didn't want to talk, you wanted to schmooze," Yarkin says on the speakerphone. "You said you wanted to go up on Thursday and schmooze."

"Oy!" Rendell barks as the car jostles. "These streets!"

"The car's buckling," Copeland says.

"Is there something wrong with the suspension?" Hizzoner asks.

We arrive at Mercy Hospital, where Rendell is received warmly. There are no cameras here, no big donors, no small donors even -- just Philadelphians who volunteer at a struggling hospital that provides care for the uninsured.

Rendell notes the official proclamation given by Mayor Street, complete with a lovely picture of City Hall. After effusively praising the mayor and the "foundation" they built together, Rendell makes a little joke about his take on the official mayoral proclamations when he first took office in January 1992 and the city was an inch from bankruptcy.

"I asked how much these things cost," Rendell tells the largely black crowd of approximately 100. "They told me $9. I said, 'How many do we give out a year?' 'Six thousand,' they said." You do the math and that money equals "the cost of two entry-level workers for the city."

Proclamations ended when he was mayor, Rendell says. "We got rid of the pictures," he says. Now the city can afford them again. "Lo and behold I leave, and look at this beautiful picture!"

The transformation of Philadelphia that occurred under Rendell's watch is nothing short of remarkable, and much of it did come from cost-cutting measures like the one he described. Often, however, the decisions were tougher than just a temporary freeze on $9 proclamations. He went to war with the unions. Some city services were cut; others were privatized. In those first few years, many Philadelphians heckled him -- at parades, at a basketball game, in print.

Then, as the city turned around, he was lionized. Businesses came back, sometimes because he personally lobbied them to do so. He was the town cheerleader -- a loose one, but still very popular. When he took office, jobs had been leaving the city at a rate of 2,700 a month. The job loss stalled, then stopped, then reversed itself. In his last year as mayor, 10,000 new jobs were created in the city. The city budget went from deficits to surpluses. City services were improved. The downtown area was cleaned up. The city wage was cut for the first time since World War II, and the personal property tax was eliminated.

"We changed the look and feel of the city," he says. He won reelection in 1995 with 78.6 percent of the vote.

We pop back in the car and make our way to LaSalle University, where Rendell is slated to speak to a group of 20 or so political science honors students. We're very late. Rendell's frequently late.

Copeland uses the horn liberally.

"I'm beloved in Philadelphia, but Brian is hated," Rendell jokes.

"You know, in the Palace of Truth and Justice, mayor is the perfect job for me," Rendell allows. "Governor is too remote. Senator is way, way too remote." If he hadn't been prohibited by the city's charter to run for a third term, he would have. "No doubt," he says. There's still more work to be done, and now's the fun part -- since the city has money to spend for the first time in a while.

A friend who is close to both Rendell and Casey recently tried to talk him out of running for governor. "Why don't you go out on high?" the friend asked. "Everybody loves you. Why risk a negative campaign and risk losing?"

"I said to him I don't have a fear of losing," Rendell says. "I've been in government, in elected office, for 16 years." He enjoyed his eight years as district attorney, he says, "but the eight years as mayor for me were magical. I always wanted to be in a position where I could have the material effect of changing people's lives, of making people's lives better. And I did it. Nobody can ever take that away from me. Shrum, Fabiani -- no one can ever take that away from me. And if that's the high point of my life, that's a great high point. So what if I lose for governor?"

It'll be a tough race, LaSalle political science professor Ed Turzanski tells me when we arrive, 41 minutes late. Turzanski saw one of Rendell's first political speeches, when he was a candidate for district attorney in December 1976 and Turzanski was a high school senior and a prospective LaSalle student.

"He was a fresh face, and engaging," Turzanski says, "the same as he is now." He looks over at the mayor's rather burly frame. "He was a little thinner then," he jokes.

Casey will have support from labor quarters that still resent the way Rendell took on the unions early in his stint as mayor. "And there's the name," Turzanksi adds. "Bob Casey was beloved. There are all those family connections. There's a network there statewide. Plus there's an anti-Philadelphia bias."

Rendell says he's looking forward to working in Harrisburg, though you get the feeling that on the whole, he'd rather be in Philadelphia, and that Harrisburg benefits from comparison with that other capital he has recently spent some time in. "I was on the job full time as DNC chairman for less than two months when stuff started appearing in the Journal and the Times that I was spending too much time preparing to run for governor of Pennsylvania. I hadn't been in the state of Pennsylvania but to pick up my clothes and kiss my wife for one day [out of] every seven! And then stuff appeared that we weren't raising money and everyone was pissed off at me." In the end, Rendell oversaw a DNC fundraising operation that outraised his Republican counterparts. Charged with raising $115 million, the DNC took in $187 million, beating the Republican National Committee by $1 million.

Still, he's not quite beloved among some Democrats in Washington, particularly those who look outside the Gore campaign for targets to blame the campaign's limp performance on.

Thankfully for Rendell, the feedback is a bit different back home. There they like him. Frankly, they love him. "The pattern is you stick around Philadelphia long enough, the city turns on you," Rendell says. "It's true about athletes." Philly fans have booed such legends as Julius Erving of the 76ers and Mike Schmidt of the Phillies. But they aren't booing Rendell. "The reason, I believe, is I think people believe I've never bullshitted them. And I think they're probably accurate."

Wherever Hizzoner goes he's greeted by waves and cheers and applause. People wave at him from the street corners. Our dinner is interrupted over and over.

"You're so down to earth!" a woman from South Philly effuses.

"Accessible to everyone!" shrieks another one.

They're not alone; Rendell's approval ratings in the city hover just above 80 percent. Will he be able to take that statewide? The latest poll has Casey ahead of Rendell, 37 percent to 31 percent, among likely Democratic primary voters -- though Rendell says this isn't because Democrats across the state don't like him, it's because they don't know him.

"In the end I think I'll be the better candidate," he says. "I'll say the most meaningful things to people. I think I have the best plans. And I have the best record of achievement. When you look at the job of mayor of Philadelphia -- particularly in the context of when I took over -- it's probably the toughest executive job in the state. I've done it and I've done it very successfully."

But what of his liberal positions on guns and gays, which might not square with the state James Carville once likened -- subtracting Philly and Pittsburgh -- to Alabama?

"The best politicians are the ones who aren't afraid," Rendell says, citing two other controversial renegade types: Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and former Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb. "If people are going to vote against me because I think gays should have equal opportunity and shouldn't be discriminated against, there's nothing I can do about that. And if I lose because I believe too strongly we should crack down on guns, so what? It's not dishonorable to lose!"

We're driving around on Friday, just two days after Bush appears to have broken with 22 years of U.S. policy toward Taiwan, saying the United States would do "whatever it took" to defend the island -- including, presumably, sending American soldiers and using nuclear weapons. It's unsettling. Did he not know what he was saying? Was he not properly briefed?

But from Philly Friday, other than Sens. John Kerry from Massachusetts and Joe Biden from nearby Delaware, there don't seem to be any Democrats to slam Bush for his comments. In this, part of Rendell wishes he was in the thick of things in Washington to prod the Democrats to get more aggressive.

"I know I can drive Daschle and, to a lesser extent, Dick," Hizzoner says about the Senate and House minority leaders, Tom Daschle and Dick Gephardt. "I would have tried to get them to get our agenda out first, instead of just following Bush ... I think it's ironic. I could have provided a push. But there was certainly no interest in that."

The plan was always for him to return to Pennsylvania to run for governor, but still, he wonders what might have been. On the other hand, no one was exactly begging him to stay in Washington.

Speaking of hypotheticals, what does he think about Gore running again in 2004?

"I have tremendous respect for him as vice president," Rendell says. "He would have made a good president. I had the advantage of seeing him govern, from the perspective of a mayor ... For all the problems Al had as a candidate, it was directly opposite in government. As a candidate he was unsure of himself, and afraid to make mistakes. In government, he was decisive -- he was the one who urged the president to take risks. He was courageous.

"If he'd been a little less afraid to lose, he would have won," Rendell says.

"He did win the popular vote, and he probably won the electoral vote," Rendell says. "He deserves to be president in my judgment. I'd like to see him get another shot at it."

But Rendell being Rendell, he adds this: "Do I necessarily believe he'd be our strongest candidate against President George Bush? I'm not sure."

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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