Revved-up Rendell Runs Hard A Referendum On A Mayor Who Keeps In Motion

Posted: October 23, 1995

The mayor reaches for the car radio and punches on KYW.

He hears 15 seconds of news - tops - before his hand reaches out and WIP is talking sports. No telling who's talking about what, though, because the hand goes out again and the Cleveland Indians-Seattle Mariners game is on.

"What's the score?" the mayor asks in the darkness. There's no answer back from the radio, so it's on to the Atlanta game. And then quick back to KYW again.

It's closing in on midnight on a rainy Saturday, and Ed Rendell has been out campaigning and "doing my mayor thing" for going on 17 hours.

Now, with the last stop of the night done and gone, "America's mayor" is on his way home and doing what passes for relaxation - he's surfing the radio, distractedly tapping his left foot, and drinking a soda. He turns on his tiny car lamp and studies the next day's schedule.

"Brutal," he says, his weeks-old cough erupting. "Just brutal."

Sure . . . As if someone else was making him do it. As if he hadn't mapped out the next day's schedule himself.

Ed Rendell is campaigning against former State Sen. Joseph Rocks and the rest of the field as if he's in the fight of his political life.

He is in constant motion - working South Philly diners, shaking hands at supermarkets, dropping in on Bessie Flowers' 104th birthday party in Germantown, attending black-tie galas, cutting ribbons. Last weekend's Saturday/Sunday schedule included more than 30 events, and this weekend's was almost as jammed.

People ask him why he does it, given polls that show him way ahead.

They wonder if he isn't working to pile up a winning margin so big he'll be propelled into another, higher office. They ask why he doesn't just spend some of his campaign millions on TV ads and give himself a little rest.

These often-asked questions presuppose, however, that Rendell is now doing something unusual as he careens around Philadelphia, from one civic event to another.

But as his aides and friends explain - and his printed schedules attest - the mayor is not spending his weekend time much differently now than he has for the last 3 1/2 years. Weekends with 10, 15 public events have long been the norm.

Getting around, talking up the city, schmoozing with Philadelphians of all stripes is simply what Ed Rendell does. He can no more stop doing it than he can stop punching those radio buttons.

"To me, this is what a big-city mayor has to do today - be out there all the time, working to keep morale up," Rendell said. "I truly feel my presence helps."

And if he is reelected, Rendell promises to audience after audience, he will remain Philadelphia's mayor - and America's mayor, he hopes - through 2000.

A Ted Kennedy liberal on social issues, an Orrin Hatch Republican on crime, and an almost Newt Gingrich conservative on economic development, he presents

himself as the kind of aggressive pragmatist the times call for.

And because he is unfettered by political ideology, Rendell is going back to the voters and essentially asking: "How'm I doing?" Issues, scandals, personalities, Rendell's opponents even - they hardly seem to matter. This election is a referendum on Ed.

"I think the city needs me for four more years," he said. "It needs the kind of energy we've brought in."

Some criticize this whirling-dervish style of governance, suggesting Rendell is a mere ceremonial mayor, a "cheerleader" and "ribbon cutter."

Joe Rocks, for instance, contends that Rendell's endless travels are a misuse of the mayor's office. If elected, Rocks said with mock seriousness, he would appoint Rendell city representative. "Rendell would be a very good official meeter and greeter," he said.

But Rendell wouldn't be interested in the job. He's already said (and he might even be serious) that if and when he leaves politics, he wants to be a high-energy sports talk jock on WIP.

*

A campaign day with Ed Rendell starts early and ends late. Along the way, the wonderful, heartbreaking, head-spinning diversity of the city is ever on display. So is the mayor's ability - partly innate, partly practiced - to appear at ease just about everywhere.

Rendell has been on the road for three hours when he pulls up to a just- opened crafts and antiques mall in Mount Airy. Already, he had read a proclamation on the steps of the Art Museum for a charity marathon, and had toured a garden grown from the rubble of a North Philadelphia block. It was pouring rain all morning.

The new shops, created from a long-abandoned warehouse, are filled with wonderful objects, but very few people.

With the crowd sparse and the next stop - the naming of Bobby Rydell Boulevard - canceled by the rain, Rendell heads for a real mall.

1 P.M., CEDARBROOK MALL: "You'll see - I'm not really campaigning," Rendell says, as he walks into a Caldor store. "Lots of people don't even know there's an election coming up, and I'm just reminding them to vote."

The mayor's standard pitch is, indeed, low-key. After a chat with potential voters - a remarkably large percentage of whom ask whether the mayor remembers them from their last meeting - Rendell will lean forward, maybe touch the voters' shoulders or arms, and remind them to vote.

"I really don't care who you vote for," he says. "But it's real important to get the numbers of voters in Philadelphia back up. That's how we get clout for the city."

And for Ed Rendell.

A few days earlier, speaking to law students at the University of Pennsylvania, Rendell said a big win would allow him to keep, and even improve on, his ability to get the ear of political leaders from Bill Clinton to Newt Gingrich. In that Penn Law speech, Rendell also said his winning by anything less than 55-45 would be viewed by many as tantamount to a loss.

The next stop is the new Pathmark supermarket next to the mall. The place is jammed with shoppers, and Rendell knows exactly which city wards they are likely to come from. He wades in with glee, as well as with a keen understanding of the irony of this stop.

Because Rendell is now in Montgomery County. The new Pathmark, which replaced one five blocks away inside the city limits, represents much of what Rendell says he is fighting against: the city's decades-long loss of jobs and residents.

Yet today, the new Pathmark is where the people are, and most of them live in Philadelphia.

"You know, Pathmark wanted to put that new store on the old Temple stadium site (on Cheltenham Avenue in Philadelphia), but the neighbors said no," Rendell said afterward. "And so we lost all the business taxes."

2:50 P.M., CHERASHORE PLAYGROUND: Like most modern Philadelphia mayors, Rendell gets attacked for helping Center City at the expense of the neighborhoods. And like his predecessors, he thinks it's a bum rap.

He can rattle off long lists of neighborhood recreation centers restored, libraries reopened, police stations upgraded, street miles paved, but the argument continues. Because, as becomes apparent as Rendell crosses the city, many neighborhoods are struggling, while Center City remains on a roll.

One of the rec centers with a new playground is Cherashore, in the Fern Rock area. Rendell points proudly to colorful playground equipment, and asks a rec center official if the new swings work well. The woman says that they do and that she is delighted - and surprised - that none have been destroyed over the summer.

Another neighbor pushes forward and complains that the tennis courts were restored but that nets never arrived. The mayor writes himself a note.

Inside the rec center waits a room of giggling kids and officials from Allstate Insurance. The company, Rendell tells the children, is one of several dozen that have formed partnerships with city neighborhoods.

Rendell has come to praise Allstate, climb through a mock-up of a smoldering building for a fire-prevention event, and raffle a few items.

The mayor also has a little surprise of his own. He announces a contest for the kids, with a prize of 76ers or Ice Capades tickets to the winners.

Rendell's first question: "What is the Allstate motto?" The second, "Who is Philadelphia's City Council president?"

And so now, two happy people will be at a game because they knew the name of Rendell's most important political ally, John Street.

7 P.M., HOLIDAY INN, FOURTH AND ARCH STREETS: The mayor is now at a Center City dinner hosted by the Pennsylvania Schoolship Association, a collection of largely silver-haired alumni of training ships once stationed in the area. They are honoring the class of '45 - the year that happened to be, Rendell tells the crowd, the last time that Philadelphia lowered its wage tax. Until 1995, that is.

Rendell loves to tell stories at his own expense. A recent faux pas made at the commissioning of a Navy vessel gave him some good ammunition.

Rendell gleefully tells how he arrived late and unprepped for the event. He saw a shiny new boat in the water and, based on its size and shape, assumed it was a Coast Guard vessel. With the Navy Yard now closed, he also saw no reason why the boat would be anything else.

And so with 400 people looking on, Rendell spoke warmly of the great history of the Coast Guard, and its important role in Philadelphia.

Unfortunately, the crowd was made up of members of the Naval League, and the ship was a Navy boat being commissioned here.

The crowd, and the mayor, howl with laughter.

"But later, I didn't feel so bad," Rendell says. "Hell, they just shut down the Navy Yard, so why should I give them any credit?"

9 P.M., GERMANTOWN CHURCH OF THE BRETHREN: Fresh from City Councilman Thacher Longstreth's 75th birthday party at the Union League, Rendell is flying up the rain-slick streets to Germantown. (The mayor travels light: A plainclothes police officer drives him; one advance person waits at his next stop.)

He is running late for Bessie Flowers' 104th birthday celebration, and wondering whether she will still be awake. He needn't worry.

When he arrives at the church, the Believers in Christ McCullough Gospel band is getting hot. With four trombones blasting, three tubas and some heavy drums accompanying, the joint is jumping and Flowers - a smiling presence in the front pew - is nodding her head to the music and tapping her foot.

Rendell is called to the lectern soon after and shakes his head.

"This has been a long day - I've been moving since 8 a.m. and I'm pretty tired," he tells Flowers and her gathered friends.

"But after listening to that, I'm not tired anymore, and I'm sure nobody else is, either." Grinning and shaking hands, he leaves the church for the dark and rain.

As soon as he gets into the car, he calls an aide and dictates a message. Call the church organizer of the Flowers' event, he says, and get the name of that band. "We've got to get them down to the Convention Center."

He asks the driver to step on it. The day's longest drive is ahead - to the far Northeast, to a large gathering of Hibernians - and the mayor is already running late.

11:45, HOME: Almost midnight. Rendell arrives back at his East Falls home. He plans to make dinner, do some paperwork and get a little sleep.

"With those wet leaves, Deb, it was tough driving tonight," he says to Debbie Sheeron, one of five police officers who drive for him, and have become virtual family.

The Sunday-morning pickup, Rendell tells Sheeron, should be about 7:30.

Before 8, he is due at Nicetown's Triumph Baptist Church.

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