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Stormy Tenure Ends

There were fights, but he made gains save for one regret.

Gov. Rendell, here with his dog Maggie, chalked up a lot of victories during his eight years as governor -- even his critics say so. But not all of them came easily. (Akira Suwa / Staff Photographer)
Gov. Rendell, here with his dog Maggie, chalked up a lot of victories during his eight years as governor -- even his critics say so. But not all of them came easily. (Akira Suwa / Staff Photographer)Read more

HARRISBURG - When Ed Rendell was wrapping up his second and last term in Philadelphia City Hall, there was a farewell party. Everyone from his secretaries to random people off the street waited for hours to see the mayor off with kind words and gifts.

The lines that snaked through City Hall that winter's day in 1999 weren't just a testament to the record that had earned Rendell the moniker "America's Mayor." They were a resounding affirmation of his popularity in a city that was loath to let him go.

These days, as he prepares to leave Harrisburg after eight years as the state's chief executive, the mood in the Capitol's corridors of power is starkly different.

The Rendell gubernatorial era was choked with one fiery policy fight after another - and nonetheless produced a long list of wins for his administration and a record of successes few other governors could boast. Even his critics give him that.

But there is a sense of Rendell fatigue, too, almost as if he exhausted everyone who worked inside the Capitol. Some Republicans are carrying clocks in their pockets that tick down, to the second, the time until noon Tuesday, when Rendell leaves and Gov.-elect Tom Corbett takes over.

Such is the complicated legacy that Rendell leaves in Harrisburg, one colored not just by what he did but - fairly or not - by who he is and how he behaved in the state's top office.

"It's going to take time for the dust to settle and to evaluate his impact," said Eric Epstein, founder of the activist group and an early-on Rendell enthusiast. "But I think it's fair to say that he excelled at the four Es: education, energy, the environment - and Ed."

Rendell, unsurprisingly, labels his tenure a triumphant one.

Among the achievements he touted during an exit interview with reporters: investments that modernized Pennsylvania's classrooms, reduced class sizes, improved test scores, increased access to full-day kindergarten, and pumped billions in economic-development funding into towns and cities across the state.

He said he had accomplished "a great deal of the progressive agenda set forth in the 2002 campaign."

The real story is more nuanced.

From the start, Rendell agitated the entrenched political rhythms in the capital. He was different from the typical Harrisburg insider, staffer, or legislator - and, for that matter, most previous Pennsylvania governors.

He was a native New Yorker, a former big-city mayor who was close to the Clintons and ran in circles that included not just the famous but also the rich. He was the former head of the Democratic National Committee, with access to an eye-popping list of donors and a dais from which to make headlines far beyond Pennsylvania's borders.

With his gritty, grinning, wear-out-the-shoe-leather campaigning style, he had defied the odds to beat one of the state's most favored sons in the 2002 Democratic primary for governor: now-U.S. Sen. Bob Casey.

And he had a reputation. When he wasn't being called America's Mayor, he was known as "Fast Eddie." He wasn't just a politician. He was a celebrity.

Parachuting into the staid, conservative halls of the Capitol in 2003, Rendell almost immediately encountered enemy fire. Longtime legislators wanted to quickly send him the message that in these halls, he was nothing without them.

"There was a big learning curve when he arrived," said former Senate President Pro Tempore Robert Jubelirer, a Republican from Blair County. "I'm not sure he ever completed it."

Jubelirer noted that in Philadelphia, Rendell had the luxury - relatively speaking - of dealing with a City Council dominated by fellow Democrats. When he got to Harrisburg, Republicans controlled both chambers of the legislature.

As Jubelirer put it, "There were some very rocky times."

Rocky may be an understatement.

Within a few months of his arrival, a budget crisis boiled up when Rendell used a line-item veto to strike $4 billion in school funding as a way of forcing concessions from Republican leaders.

That all but set the tone. There always was a fight brewing, it seemed, between the administration and the legislature. The tension was often compounded by a long-standing and not-so-subtle anti-Philadelphia mentality in Harrisburg - as well as a perception that Rendell was out to take care of his hometown and his friends, donors, and political supporters.

Despite all that, Rendell made concessions when he had to, and racked up win after win.

He got approval for a $2 billion economic-stimulus program that injected low-interest business loans and grants into the state's struggling - in some cases, dying - manufacturing towns.

He bolstered the state's health-care safety net by expanding a program that provides low-cost prescription drugs to the elderly, and another that provides health insurance to children. He increased funding for the Growing Greener program, which protects waterways and open space.

Time and again, he managed to direct millions of additional state dollars into basic education, and extended school grants to encourage early childhood education.

Then there was gambling.

Betting on casinos

Rendell legalized it in 2004, winning approval for slot-machine casinos. Foes warned that making Pennsylvania the next Nevada was a fool's way to raise revenue and would prey on addictive gamblers; critics pointed out that some of Rendell's friends and campaign donors stood to gain from casino licenses.

But Rendell forged ahead, pointing constantly at how the state was using the proceeds: Gambling tax revenue, about $1 billion annually, went to reducing the property taxes paid by homeowners.

More recently, with his support, the legislature expanded gambling to include poker and other table games.

For those unaccustomed to the full Rendell treatment, the road to casinos and most of his other initiatives was bumpy and bruising.

The traits that made Rendell who he is - the intellect, the brinkmanship, the quick and nuclear temper; traits easily forgiven and even endearing to his constituents back in Philadelphia - were lost in translation in Harrisburg.

"If you questioned his priorities, his instincts were always to fight," said Drew Crompton, legal counsel to Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson).

Behind closed doors, Crompton said, Rendell could be a bully, berating legislators - even those in his own party. Stories abound of an angry governor hurling phones against a wall or bellowing at his staff.

"I'm not saying he's a bad guy, but to me, he didn't hold that office with a lot of dignity," Crompton said.

So be it, say Rendell's loyalists. Donna Cooper, who only recently left the administration after years as his policy chief, said perceptions of Rendell's personality, accurate or not, were beside the point.

"The question is: Were we proposing the right things, and did we get them passed?" Cooper said. "Whether some people liked him or not isn't relevant. . . . You are elected governor to make the state more competitive and improve the quality of life for the people who live in it. Did you do that? Yes or no? Gov. Rendell did."

The biggest blunder

By his own admission, Rendell made a major mistake near the end of his first term. He signed into law a raise for top officials in all three branches of state government that the legislature had passed in the wee hours.

The pay raise, and the outcry that followed, hit Harrisburg's political landscape like an earthquake. Some legislators lost their seats; others were stripped of leadership positions - including people Rendell had come to rely upon in negotiations, such as former State Rep. John M. Perzel (R., Phila.).

Though Rendell in his second term had the benefit of a slim Democratic majority in the House, the new GOP leaders in the Senate had set their agenda and didn't seem much interested in brokering deals with him.

And a key Rendell ally in the Senate, Vincent J. Fumo (D., Phila.), was convicted in 2009 in a high-profile corruption scandal.

Those losses - along with the recession - hampered the governor in his second term. Some observers say he seemed less focused.

"He was just all over the place," said Epstein, the Harrisburg activist. "It seemed to me that he lost steam - although he found plenty of time for [appearances on] TV and to campaign for Hillary Clinton" when she sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008.

David L. Cohen, the longtime confidant of the governor's, who was chief of staff when Rendell was mayor, rejected that assessment.

For Rendell, Cohen said, education became priority No. 1, and he pounded the political pavement during every budget cycle to ensure increased funding for public schools, even when the economy was at its lowest ebb.

Rendell's frontline advocacy helped secure an increase in the minimum wage in Pennsylvania. He backed the statewide smoking ban in workplaces, including restaurants and most bars; he provided same-sex partners of state employees with the same health benefits as their heterosexual counterparts.

He also pushed hard for stricter gun laws - even testifying on the issue - but ultimately couldn't convince the legislature. Tales of gunshot tragedies in Philadelphia and smaller cities did not sway representatives sent to Harrisburg by gun owners from across the state.

Early in his second term, the governor invested massive state sums in renewable, alternative, and other clean-energy projects, and wrestled - unsuccessfully, in the end - with the state's massive shortcomings in transportation funding.

Rendell's belief was that through it all, government shouldn't stop investing in businesses and in key state programs for residents.

"There's good government spending . . . and there's bad government spending," he has said during his last few weeks in office.

Good or bad, his spending placed him on a constant collision course for much of the last four years with Senate Republicans, who unflinchingly stuck to their credo of no new taxes and no new spending.

The passage of a state budget - never an on-time occurrence in Rendell's first term as governor - became an even more exacting process in his second, culminating in the 101-day budget standoff of 2009. For governor and legislature alike, public approval ratings plunged.

"The days of big spending, high-tax government fell out of favor," said Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware). "And Gov. Rendell is unashamedly a proponent of larger and larger government with the necessary higher taxes that follow."

It's the kind of talk that drives Rendell crazy.

At news conferences, he repeats the mantra that his administration shaved billions from the cost of government operations and has 5,600 fewer employees than when he arrived in 2003.

And he repeats the fact that a 2009 Pew study ranked Pennsylvania seventh in the nation for fiscal stability - repeats it so many times that statehouse reporters can recite it from memory.

Still, with federal stimulus money running out next year, the fiscal reality facing Pennsylvania is bleak - $4-billion-deficit bleak. Those aren't numbers any governor likes to leave behind.

Rendell has a rejoinder: He tried to get the legislature to create a special reserve fund, paid via a tax hike, to offset the loss of federal stimulus dollars, but could not convince legislators to touch the "T" word.

Fiscal conservatives give Rendell poor marks, blaming him for increasing total spending in the state budget and growing the state's debt, though he could not have done either without legislative approval. And Pennsylvania's general obligation bonds still maintain a stable rating, according to Standard & Poor's Rating Services.

Pennsylvania's general obligation debt rose by almost $2 billion, or 28 percent, under the Rendell administration, state records show. Payments on that debt went up from roughly $700 million to $975 million in the current budget.

"This will be an albatross around our economy for years to come," warned Matt Brouillette, who heads the Commonwealth Foundation, a libertarian think tank in Harrisburg.

Even in Rendell's waning days, Brouillette pointed out, the governor pushed to borrow $600 million more for economic-development projects, all of which the governor gets to approve. The list includes millions for private developers and their projects, among other initiatives, with the lion's share directed to Philadelphia and its suburbs.

"Why should taxpayers be paying for that?" Brouillette asked.

One project that has drawn heat: nearly $2 million for a library to house the papers of former U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, Rendell's friend.

The administration's own county-by-county breakdown shows Philadelphia ranking 30th among 67 counties in state money spent per resident during Rendell's tenure - though the numbers also show that in sheer dollars, no city came close to the $3.5 billion in state aid that went to Philadelphia between 2003 and 2010.

Cohen countered that Rendell's investments had been targeted to create jobs and opportunities, often in small upstate communities.

Besides, Cohen said, to view Rendell's legacy simply through the prism of how he steered the state through the recession - or even how he fared as governor - would not be doing justice to the man.

"I hope somebody takes a step back to look at who, in the history of Pennsylvania, has had the sustained record of public service that Ed Rendell has had," Cohen said.

Or as Rendell has joshed reporters several times in the last year: "You're going to miss me when I'm gone."