Someone once said that the way to understand Ed Rendell is to think of him not as a politician, but as a real estate developer.
Like the best of developers - Tony Goldman and Willard Rouse come to mind - Rendell dreams big dreams about big projects and big buildings. It gets his juices going to take something run-down, neglected or underutilized (think of Center City circa 1980) and orchestrate a glittering remake.
Of course, Rendell is not a developer; he is governor of Pennsylvania. And sometimes his developer side (get it done and get it done now!) runs into his governor side (uphold the law and consider the best interests of citizens).
Anyone looking for those two sides of Rendell could see them on display on the front page of this newspaper last Sunday.
On one hand, we had a story by Howard Shapiro about the wonders Rendell has wrought in a neglected piece of Pennsylvania along the state's northern tier. The way the story tells it, Rendell took a ride down scenic Route 6 one day and saw the potential in the area's wild beauty, its quaint small towns and, best of all, its growing herd of elk. Add 'em up and what have you got? A tourist attraction waiting to happen.
Playing Merlin with state money, the governor conjured up another remake. Getting the local counties to work together, getting money for new roads, bridges and hiking-biking paths, he repackaged it as the Pennsylvania Wilds. Enter tourists, stage left.
On the other hand, same day, same page, a story by Inga Saffron told of another Rendell project: the $700 million expansion of the Convention Center.
On Dec. 22, a team suddenly showed up and began to work on two buildings on Broad Street, prepping them for demolition.
It was shock-and-awe time for local preservationists, because they had a written agreement with the state to save those buildings and they had just gotten the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission to support them when one state agency tried to back out of the deal.
The demolition was stopped by a judge until a full hearing could be arranged.
To summarize, one state agency had ordered the buildings protected, while another sent out crews to demolish them. How could this happen?
The answer is Ed Rendell.
The governor is too smart to have his fingerprints on the knife - or, in this case, the wrecking ball. But if you think the agency - the Department of General Services - that hired the demolition crews did so without his blessing, you don't know Ed Rendell.
The Convention Center expansion is another of his babies. He wants to get it done and get it done now!
DGS argued that even though the state had signed an agreement to preserve and protect those buildings, it would have cost too much to save them. Ergo, it could violate the agreement.
This argument would be laughable if it wasn't despicable. It is one thing for a private developer to try a sneak attack - once the buildings are dust, there is nothing much anyone can do about it. It's another thing for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to do it.
If a private developer had sent those demolition crews, we would have called him an underhanded slimeball. So, what's that make the governor? I say worse than a slimeball.
Why? Because your average private developer hasn't taken an oath on a Bible to uphold the law and act in the best interests of all citizens.
When that agreement was signed, it was hailed as a model of how to deal with preservation issues. For the Convention Center to expand, a number of historic buildings had to come down. Preservationists allowed their demolition to save what they considered the most important: the two fronting Broad Street.
I have seen this side of Ed Rendell before. When he was mayor, he thought the city's law governing billboards was a nuisance and made sure the city put enforcement of the law way down on its list.
Then he went a step further. He began making deals with billboard companies to erect billboards on city property in exchange for rental fees.
His friends in the billboard industry got what they wanted. The city got some money. There was only one problem: The billboards violated the city's laws on placement, size and location.
What do you do when a government entity sworn to uphold a law actively seeks to violate it? Weep, for one thing.
This is not about buildings or billboards; it's about the principle of the thing. No one is above the law.
So, a message to both Ed Rendells. Tell that slimeball developer to cease and desist. Act like the governor we elected and do the right thing.