Ed Rendell, Public Servant

A life’s recounting in the subject’s own words
Renee Rosensteel Ed Rendell, Public Servant
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I was born into a slightly upper-​middle-​class Jewish family in New York in 1944, and lived in Manhattan with my mother, father and older brother. My father was a converter in the textile industry. My mother was a designer whose family had a pretty successful sportswear business.


At an early age, my dad ingrained in me the idea that public service was a good thing. He was a businessman, but had a great deal of love for the Democratic Party, particularly Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whom he believed saved the country. My father also loved Adlai Stevenson, so much so that he and I went around tacking up posters for Stevenson’s presidential campaign in 1952, when I was 8 years old.

The 1950s was a great era to be growing up in New York and I had a terrific time — that is, until my dad died. I was 14, a high school sophomore, and after that, things were different. It seemed as if all the joy had gone out of life. We stayed in the same apartment and everywhere we turned, there were reminders of my dad. But when I went off to college, things got a little easier.

I got my undergraduate degree at Penn and then went to law school at Villanova, during which time I managed to land a summer job in the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office. Eventually, that led to a full-​time job as an assistant D.A., and I was hooked. What I have always liked about public service is that it brings with it the possibility of doing things that can change people’s lives. I’m not now and never have been interested in the trappings of wealth. I’m interested in making a difference and protecting those who really need protection.

In 1977, I was elected district attorney in Philadelphia and started trying to make a difference from the beginning. For example, I created and launched a special rape unit to make sure that our assistants got individualized training in not only the science of rape investigations, but about the trauma that rape victims experience, too. I will never forget one case we had involving a 14-​year-​old girl who was raped at knifepoint in a local park. By the time she was released from the hospital on the day she was attacked, her whole life had changed. She blamed herself for the assault. Every day and every night, this little girl stayed in her room and cried. She wouldn’t go to school. She wouldn’t see her friends and wouldn’t talk on the phone. Her parents took her to psychologists and psychiatrists, but no one could get through to her.

Long story short, that little girl’s assailant was caught about a month later and, after a preliminary hearing, the case was assigned to Andrea Foulkes, an assistant D.A. in our office, who started working with the girl to prepare the case for trial. One day, after a month or so of working with Andrea, the little girl began talking on the telephone and laughing, sounds that her parents thought they’d never hear again. They thanked me in a letter that read, “God bless you, Mr. Rendell, for starting the rape unit, and God bless Andrea Foulkes.” Andrea had given them their daughter back, and we convicted the rapist. I took that letter and wrote on top of it, “Andrea… You wouldn’t get letters like this representing General Motors!” At the age of 35, I knew that I wanted to spend the rest of my life in public service.

Like most paths in life, public service comes with its pros and cons. The cons include a general loss of privacy, but I’ve been used to that for so long that it isn’t a problem. Another drawback is the incredible workload. I almost never have a day off. Then there are people’s expectations, which can get way out of whack. But the downside pales in comparison to the upside. I like interacting with and helping people. And even though I’ve been out of office for nearly two years now, people still come to me for help — not as a lawyer, but as an advocate — if they’re, say, having trouble getting a license renewed or getting the City of Philadelphia to clean a vacant lot. Sometimes all it takes is a phone call. My staff says, “Why do you do that? It’s a waste of your time.” But it’s what I’ve done all my life. Of course, I do get the “I’m sorry to interrupt your lunch, but…” routine a lot. But as I say to my friends, “Coal miners have to deal with getting dust in their lungs all day; all I have to contend with are people stopping me for my autograph, to ask questions, or to have a picture taken with me.” It’s an easy tradeoff. My son used to say, “It takes my dad three times as long as anybody else to walk a block.” But it’s a small price to pay.

As mayor of Philadelphia, I was able to straighten out a complicated and bleak fiscal situation. Everyone was aware that we were facing a crisis but, as they say, “crisis is the mother of opportunity.” When people realize that they’re facing a potential disaster, they’ll accept more significant, radical changes more easily than they would if things were going well. Without a doubt, that helped me. But I also had to find the courage to do the things that I knew had to be done. I didn’t care if doing them would make me a one-​term mayor. But I had a hunch that, if I did those things successfully, I’d get a second term, and I did. Sure, it was a risk, particularly for a democrat, to go after the municipal unions in a city where the municipal unions basically controlled the Democratic Party. And it got pretty dicey. Interestingly, when I ran for re-​election, all four municipal unions opposed me. It was unprecedented, but they endorsed a republican. Nevertheless, I won with more than 80 percent of the vote. In fact, I won in every precinct in the city, even in those where many of the residents were police or firefighters. The rank and file in Philadelphia witnessed the massive layoffs that took place in New York and Washington, D.C., and appreciated that I turned the city around without laying anybody off. During that period in my public life, I had to make many difficult decisions. But with each one, I said to myself, “You worked way too hard to get into office to not do what you believe.” So I did what I said I would do and, as a result, became enormously popular. That’s a lesson for politicians everywhere. People are looking for leaders, even if those leaders lead in directions that they don’t necessarily want to go. They want someone who will act and solve problems.

Sadly, the business of public service has become less desirable in recent years. The ideological polarization is extreme. There’s hardly anybody left in the middle to compromise, which is the key ingredient for effective government. It’s incomprehensible to me that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell [R-​Ky.] would say, in Barack Obama’s first year in office, that the GOP’s top priority was to make him a one-​term president. As an elected leader, his top priority should be to make sure that this country meets its challenges. Putting a political victory ahead of the job of governing demeans the entire system. But that’s the prevailing view in public life these days. There are more attack dogs than ever, and very little comity among players. Tom Daschle, the former senator from South Dakota who was also the Democratic leader, is probably the nicest person I’ve ever met in politics. He lost his re-​election bid in 2004 and, in early 2005, just before he was about to leave, the U.S. Senate had a special session to bid him farewell. Only four Republican senators showed up. Blame it on challenging times, ideological differences, the 247 news cycle, or whatever. Public service really has become an unfriendly business.

When I was governor of Pennsylvania, I would march in parades sometimes and, generally, got a pretty good reception. But I remember one day looking out into a crowd and seeing a 40ish-​looking guy with his son in tow booing me forcefully, his face red with hatred and spittle flying from his mouth. I thought to myself, “What is he teaching his son?” He was modeling intolerance and a lack of respect for government. Look, if you don’t agree with my policies and I walk by, you are free not to applaud. But must you act like a lunatic? Some say that it was Ronald Reagan, in his inaugural speech, that started all of this with the line, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” but I don’t think so. Reagan and House Speaker Tip O’Neill, a staunch Democrat, got along fine. And they made government work. They compromised. I used to tell conservatives — and they don’t believe it, but it’s true — that President Reagan raised taxes 11 times in his eight years because he had to do so. During my eight years as governor, I never had a Democratic legislature. I always had to get some Republicans to vote for the progressive legislation I proposed, and we never failed to get any of our major initiatives into law. Many people would ask me how I was able to do this. I always replied, quoting the great Kenny Rogers song [“The Gambler”], “You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, and know when to fold ‘em.” The key to compromising is to know when you must draw a line in the sand. Some things you must fight for; on others you can make compromises — without losing the crux of what you wanted to do.

Now, regardless of what “60 Minutes” says, gaming in Pennsylvania, which I supported wholeheartedly as governor, has been a huge success. According to the Wall Street Journal, the state now reaps more tax revenue from gaming than any other state in the union, in part because we set our slot machine tax at 48 percent. Many people told us that this was far too high. I said, “We have a senior population that likes to play slots. Build the casinos and they will come.” And they did. Gaming has also created about 25,000 jobs, either directly in the casinos or by way of businesses providing products to them through the supply chain. And we have seen no signs of an uptick in the number of people addicted to gaming here. Before we had gaming in Pennsylvania, an Ernst & Young study showed that more than a million of our residents left the state to gamble in Delaware, West Virginia and New Jersey. Why shouldn’t they be able to gamble at home? And why shouldn’t our state reap the tax revenues from the gaming that our residents do?

Being governor of any state is a tough job. For each decision you make, there’s always a critic. As for some of the decisions made by my successor, Tom Corbett, I say that not pushing for a tax on the Marcellus Shale was a big mistake. The impact fee that he imposed is one-​tenth of what the state should be getting. Every state in the Union that has a shale industry has a tax. In fact, when I was governor, before I proposed one, I called West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin [now a U.S. senator] for some guidance, because it seemed that his state’s tax was the most sensible. I asked, “Joe, after you proposed your tax, did the number of requests for drilling permits slow down?” He said, “No, they increased.” “Did your tax inhibit in any way the growth of shale drilling in West Virginia?” “Absolutely not,” he said. So we put into our statute what West Virginia had in theirs — and it never got through our Republican senate. That was a shame because I believe that, in Pennsylvania, if we can harness the shale economy and do it in a way that is environmentally sound and fair to taxpayers, and if we continue the growth that began with my administration in the areas of wind, bio-​fuels and hydro, we could become a major energy producer. And if we couple that with continued investment in the repair of our infrastructure, we could have one of the best economies of any manufacturing state in America.

These days, I work as an analyst for NBC News and MSNBC, and I travel and make speeches, especially for Building America’s Future, the nonprofit that Michael Bloomberg and I run. I also work for a law firm, consult for several companies, and sit on four or five company boards. During football season, I still intend to do my pre-​game and post-​game TV shows for the Philadelphia Eagles. I also write a regular sports column for the Philadelphia Daily News. After being a district attorney, mayor and governor, all of this work together seems very easy to me.

So, in my career, I’ve held four major positions: D.A., mayor, Democratic Party chairman and governor. The only one I was drafted into was party chairman. President Clinton asked me to do it. The other three jobs, I campaigned hard for and won. Given my executive experience in public service, being president of the United States is the only public position left for me, but I have no interest in spending three years of my life campaigning in New Hampshire and Iowa. Whatever happens for me in the future, I’ve loved the opportunity I’ve been given to serve. In all my years, I’ve never made anything close to what people today would call “real money,” and I truly believe that I haven’t missed anything. Instead, each and every day, I got up knowing that I was using my talent and energy to make people’s lives better. It’s an incredible feeling that makes up for a lot.


Jeff Sewald

Jeff is an award-​winning independent filmmaker and writer who specializes in defining the cultural significance of American people, places, things and events. Among other projects, he is currently producing a television documentary about the history of jazz in Pittsburgh, and is co-​authoring the memoirs of famed forensic pathologist Cyril Wecht.

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