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Donna Cooper leaving Rendell administration for D.C. think tank

HARRISBURG - Gov. Rendell on Friday announced that his administration was losing its "conscience" and "soul" with the departure of his longtime policy secretary, Donna Cooper.

HARRISBURG - Gov. Rendell on Friday announced that his administration was losing its "conscience" and "soul" with the departure of his longtime policy secretary, Donna Cooper.

Cooper, a Philadelphian who has worked for Rendell off and on - mostly on - for the last two decades, is taking a job with a Democratic think tank in Washington.

Her last day in Harrisburg was Friday. She starts her job as a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress on Monday. The center was founded in 2003 by John Podesta, a White House chief of staff in the Clinton administration, to provide leadership and support to the progressive movement.

"Donna has brought an incredible level of passion and commitment," the governor said at a news conference Friday. "She has been the conscience of this administration. And the soul of it."

Ian Rosenblum, Cooper's chief assistant in the policy office, will replace her, the governor said.

Cooper has been behind some of Rendell's biggest-ticket agenda items, particularly on education. She has worked for more funding for early-childhood education, decreasing class sizes, and increasing annual state subsidies for public schools. Beyond education, she has also left her mark on many of Rendell's health-care and welfare policies.

Few would dispute her influence on the governor, who is famous for listening to only a small circle of people - and not always.

While packing up her office Friday, Cooper said she wished she could have stayed until the end of Rendell's final term in January, but that she was excited by the prospect of a new job where she will focus on poverty, employment, and, not surprisingly, education.

"I learned a lot here," she said of the mostly tumultuous last eight years in Harrisburg. "I'll miss the people. I made a lot of friends both in the legislature and the administration."

But, she added in characteristically direct fashion, she won't miss "the fact that commitment to substantive issues can be lacking" in Harrisburg.

Cooper, who grew up in Oreland, Montgomery County, was an activist before she became a government wonk. For much of the 1980s, she was involved in the no-nukes movement in Washington and New York, and later in women's and peace and social-justice groups in Philadelphia.

After that, she went to work for the City of Philadelphia to oversee programs for youth, seniors, and the homeless.

She met Rendell - then mayor of Philadelphia - and his chief of staff, David L. Cohen, when she took time off in 1991 to run the City Council campaign of a friend.

When she returned to her city job, Cohen remembered her and put her in charge of Rendell's headliner initiatives, including implementing the federal welfare-to-work requirements.

Rendell once said that Cooper was "the one person I can't afford to lose," and on Friday, he reiterated that.

"She has been invaluable," Rendell said. "The taxpayers will miss her passion, particularly the children of Pennsylvania."