The best thing that ever happened to Ed Rendell might have been the 1987 Philadelphia mayoral race, when he lost the Democratic primary to W. Wilson Goode.
“I knew the city was hurtling toward financial disaster,” Rendell, 75, recalled from his home in East Falls. “So between then and 1991, I studied every state and local-government initiative around the country to eliminate waste and increase productivity. When I ran in 1991, I had a plan to cut $250 million out of an annual budget of $2 billion without hurting services. We hit the ground running and in 18 months we did it.”
Those four sentences are all Rendell: the tenacious memory, the ready mind, the foot-down, wide-open throttle. In many eyes, he’s the man who turned Philly around into a city attractive to new businesses and residents. Some have called it the Rendell Renaissance.
As Brian Tierney, CEO of Brian Communications, put it, “Ed Rendell changed the trajectory of things, and we’re all beneficiaries of his work decades later.”
As governor of Pennsylvania from 2003 to 2011, he continued his run, despite a legislature dominated by the opposing party. Thus another quintessential Rendell quality: He’s the ultimate deal-maker. That included things that many Democrats wouldn’t like (budget cuts; 10-year tax abatements for businesses; tough give-back union contracts; privatization of city services) and some that they might (a tax hike for Pennsylvania, which he proposed only months into his first term as governor, against all political wisdom, and got passed).
“I’m a risk-taker,” he said. “I have no idea sometimes if it’ll work, but fear of losing never kept me from taking a risk for something I believe in.”
Courage and energy also mark his dealings with Parkinson’s disease. He went public about it in 2018, taking up aggressive treatment, physical therapy, and exercise. He has long been an advocate for research and treatment.
Coworkers trace many of his gifts to his experience as district attorney for Philadelphia. B.J. Clark is a partner at Ballard Spahr LLP, where Rendell is now a special counsel. Clark worked on the Rendell gubernatorial campaign and later as the governor’s public liaison.
“At his core, Ed is a prosecutor,” Clark said. “He has the ability to quickly ask questions that root out important issues, test hypotheses, and cross-examine an issue effectively. Speed-thinking on his feet is a big skill of his, that ability to process things quickly and make a decision.”
Clark added with a laugh: “His temper is legendary and volcanic.”
Beyond temper, there are skills. Donna Cooper, Rendell’s policy czar for most of his two terms as governor, said: “Ed knows how to read people. He’s very good at sussing out what’s likely to get people to consider his point of view, position or proposal.”
Rendell has brokered many a difficult deal: that tax hike, the commonwealth-wide infrastructure program, full-day kindergarten in city schools, the Pennsylvania Convention Center, the Avenue of the Arts. “He always has numbers in his head,” Cooper said. “When they wanted to build a convention center, or when gambling became an issue, he assessed what was possible and he laid the groundwork.” Cooper credits Rendell’s leadership for the $1.5 billion in net revenue that came to Pennsylvania last year from casino gambling.
So tell us, Ed Rendell: What are the keys to the deal?
Boom, he has them ready. “First, you have to think, ‘What does my opponent need to say yes to the plan? What can I offer them that won’t take away the guts of what I was trying to do, yet give them something to take back to their constituents?’
“Second, share credit; even if they didn’t do that much, make them seem equal partners. Third, understand there may be political reasons your opponents can’t vote for your bill. Be ready to say, ‘You don’t have to support 100 percent of my request. If you can support 60, 70 percent, I can still work with you.’”
“People see him as only a politician,” Clark said, “but in the end, he is a politician with principles.” Cooper recalled that, when welfare aid to women and children was being cut, Rendell stomped the halls of Harrisburg and Washington, helping secure significant funds for welfare-to-work programs.
That principled side emerges when Rendell tells you what achievements he treasures most. He begins with improvements in education, the economy, and the environment.
But the big one is the rebirth of Philadelphia. “We had to give businesses financial incentives to come,” he said, “and now they are clamoring to get in. But the other side was, we had to improve the quality of life, make sure we have good sports, entertainment, arts and culture – and we now have an arts district that’s among the very best – restaurants, parks, festivals, make it a city that’s happening. And the young people are flocking to live here.
“To take a major historic American city where this nation was born and change its destiny, to be part of that is by far my proudest achievement,” Rendell said. “I was only one of a bunch of people all working to get that to happen, and it did happen.”