Last month, Gov. Rendell said he doesn't make endorsements in city elections, other than judicial candidates, because it might have an "untoward effect."

He did provide pleasant statements for two at-large City Council candidates, but insisted they weren't endorsements, saying he wanted to stay out of hot water with rival candidates and party activists.

But yesterday, in an about-face, there was Rendell on a podium outside the Community Academy Charter School, K Street and Erie Avenue, endorsing Maria Quinones Sanchez, 38, one of two challengers to Councilman Daniel Savage for the Democratic nomination in the 7th District, which zigzags from North Philadelphia to the Northeast.

Rendell didn't just sing her praises, he shouted hosannas. Why the change?

"If this was an ordinary candidate, I wouldn't be here, but I've known Maria now for a decade and she's anything other than ordinary," Rendell said. "She's smart as a whip, she's passionate and cares about the right things. She's going to get in there and fight hard for progressive values."

Rendell said he was "really disappointed" when ward leaders chose Savage, a fellow ward leader and son of a federal judge, as the party's candidate in last November's special election.

The district is now believed to be majority Latino and Rendell said, "When we have a superbly qualified Latina candidate," how can the party turn its back?

The governor said Quinones Sanchez is the only non-judicial candidate he'll endorse in the May primary.

"Bill Clinton once said that he wants a government that looks like America," Rendell said. "We should have a government that looks like Philadelphia."

Rendell cited Quinones Sanchez's background in working with two charter schools and turning around Aspira, a fiscally weak social agency, as examples of her skill.

After being in the mayor's office for a year, Rendell met her when she lobbied him for the Latino community.

"What an incredibly intelligent and passionate person she was," he recalled.

It also didn't hurt that she played a key role in his 2002 and 2006 gubernatorial elections, rallying Latino voters all over the state.

But Rendell said, "This is not just about the fact that Maria was there to support me. Again, I appreciate that, but it wouldn't have brought me here today if I didn't believe in her. You do have political IOU's but you don't spend them on something as important as a Council election unless that person is superbly qualified."

As for Quinones Sanchez's opponents, Councilman Savage and Marnie Aument Loughrey, Rendell said he feels "sorry" for them because "there is no way they can stack up to someone as qualified as Maria is, but that doesn't mean they are bad people." *