No Slowing Down For Ed Will Success Continue In Final Years As Mayor?

Posted: January 27, 1998

Two weeks ago, Mayor Rendell smashed a guitar to christen the new Hard Rock Cafe at the historic Reading Headhouse. Returning to City Hall, he was ambushed outside his office by PHA tenants angry about his choice of a new public housing director. By afternoon, he was on a plane to California to pitch the city as a Republican convention site.

With two years left in office and counting, Rendell isn't slowing down. But he's likely to find it rougher going.

At the midpoint of his final term in office - and scheduled today to give his second-last budget address to City Council - Rendell can point to continued successes, such as the Navy Yard deal, hotel development, movement on a new orchestra hall and Independence Mall, the planned Meridian One demolition.

Buoyed by signs of growth in the city's economy, Rendell is expected to continue his gradual wage-tax cuts and may even accelerate them with this year's budget.

Yet, Rendell doesn't seem to get a lot of credit these days. Unlike the heady days of his first term, when everything worked and no praise seemed too extravagant, he is confronted with criticism of the Police Department, stories about his temper and questions about his legacy.

He now governs without the round-the-clock service of his old friend, former Chief of Staff David L. Cohen. And he faces the coming tempest of a mayor's race, when candidates will alternately treat him as a punching bag and a rich uncle to be wooed for money and support.

Rendell said he's not worried about any of that.

``Unlike the president, I don't give 30 seconds of thought about legacy,'' he told the Daily News. ``I'm too absorbed in getting things done.''

But that provokes another concern. ``For the first time, I have started to think that in some of the more complex things, I am up against a clock,'' Rendell said.

Most agree that, after a bumpy period after Cohen's departure in April, things are getting done. But competence just isn't news. ``Maybe when you perform at the level Ed Rendell performs at, the extraordinary is considered commonplace, so you may not be fully recognized for what you've done,'' said Greater Philadelphia First President John Claypool.

There's plenty of evidence the administration isn't losing steam. The five-year plan - a massive financial forecast and policy statement - will be ready on time, again offering a new wage-tax cut and a balanced budget. The administration has kept most of its key people and has attracted new talent: computer chief Brian Anderson, homeless czar Michael Nardone, deputy chief of staff John Estey and Deputy Mayor Donna Cooper. And new Chief of Staff Greg Rost has earned high marks for tireless work and his easygoing manner. His only problem, most agree, is that he isn't Cohen.

The absence of Rendell's first chief of staff has been deeply felt throughout city government. ``All of us had come to rely on David,'' City Council President John Street said. ``We were in a rhythm. Now a major player, a major force wasn't there anymore. I think we went through a little bit of a change, but we've made it through it, and we've sort of settled in.''

When Cohen was in the mayor's suite, he handled relations with Council personally, heading regularly to the fourth floor to smooth out problems.

Joe Vignola, a former Council member and now director of the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority, said the administration still gets things done in Council, but with a bit more turbulence.

``The last-minute disagreement on the Kvaerner [shipbuilding] agreement that had to be settled,'' Vignola said. ``If David was around, that thing wouldn't have surfaced publicly.''

As it happened, when a dispute arose in Council over disclosure of the Kvaerner deal details, Cohen, as a private citizen, came in and crafted a deal with Street to settle it.

``I don't think members of City Council feel comfortable making a political deal on a piece of legislation with Greg,'' Vignola said. ``If David said, `This is what we're going to do, it was as if the mayor was in the office.' Greg isn't perceived that way. They would have to hear it from the mayor.''

Cohen continues to play an active role as an adviser to Rendell, occasional broker with Council, and frequent consultant to Rost - all on a volunteer basis. Most Council members said they find Rost responsive to their needs, even if he sometimes needs to check with others to get things done. And he is widely liked within the administration, praised for a collegial style and tireless work ethic. Rost says, ``The mayor doesn't pay me for political advice. He's been doing politics for decades.''

Rendell said he's perhaps better off now, because he can call on a less-harried Cohen and rely on Rost and Estey. He says Rost ``has performed brilliantly.''

The one exception to the cheery chorus is Councilman Michael Nutter, who said dealings by the mayor's office with Council have deteriorated sharply. ``I've probably got close to a half a dozen letters from myself to the mayor that have gone unanswered, unacknowledged,'' Nutter said. ``It seems they can't keep up with stuff.''

Rost said it ``wouldn't be productive'' to respond to Nutter's charges directly, but said he tries to be responsive to everyone.

Other Council members say they get attention and answers when they need them.

Rendell acknowledged it will be tough in the remaining two years to keep cutting the wage tax and meeting other budgetary challenges, but he still promises to turn over a balanced budget to his successor.

Consistent with his belief that jobs are key to the city's future, Rendell said he still spends close to three-quarters of his time on economic development.

``That is a knock-down, drag-out guerrilla warfare,'' Rendell said, ``project by project, deal by deal, business by business.''

He wants to make some progress on an expansion of the Convention Center and development of Constitution Center for Independence Mall. ``I would like to get in place a negotiated deal on stadium construction . . . but there's limited time.''

And Rendell said he believes welfare cuts will have their full impact on the city in 2000, and it would be ``morally irresponsible'' not to make plans for a welfare-to-work transition.

Rendell is aware that he will pursue his ambitious agenda during a time that has proved troublesome for past mayors. He is a lame duck, barred by law from running again, and must work with officials who are either running for re-election or battling to become his successor.

That means he'll be fending off a whole new round of criticism for the job he has been doing.

``The obvious problem for Eddie is that in order to run for mayor, especially in a primary,'' said State Sen. Vince Fumo, D-Philadelphia, ``you've got to say something is wrong and you're going to fix it.''

Claypool said he's seen this before. ``At least for the next 12 months, the only person mayoral candidates can run against is the current mayor,'' he said. ``And you're beginning to see that.''

For example, State Rep. Dwight Evans, D-Philadelphia, an announced candidate, has been highly critical of the Police Department. So has Street, Rendell's closest ally.

When Rendell held a recent news conference to announce the formation of a new 100-officer rapid-response police unit, Street skipped it.

Rendell acknowledged the mayor's race will be ``a distraction'' but said he will use his enduring popularity, his sizable campaign fund and the prospect of his endorsement to maintain clout and keep moving his agenda. He said he intends to endorse a candidate but isn't sure when, and that so far, Street is the most likely choice.

Street is among many veteran observers who said Rendell will be a more effective lame-duck mayor than others have been.

``I think Ed will probably be the strongest mayor in the waning parts of his administration that I've seen,'' Street said. ``In part it's a function of his personality. He's determined to be mayor, because it's what he wants to do. He's chosen to stay, because there's work he's doing he wants to get done.''

Vignola said politics and money will help Rendell from becoming impotent with Council.

``The fact that the 2002 governor's race is a real alternative for him, and the fact that he has a million bucks in his campaign chest, and will raise money and give it, makes him viable,'' Vignola said.

``The Council people need to raise money for re-election,'' Vignola said. ``And it helps if you can put the mayor's name on your invitation list, or have him make a couple of calls for you.''

Rendell said he is troubled by the focus on race among the media and leaders like NAACP President J. Whyatt Mondesire, who is leading an effort to produce a consensus black candidate who can win the office.

He notes that he got 19 percent of the black vote in the primary in 1991 against two strong black candidates. Rendell said he believes most voters don't vote simply along lines of racial identity.

``Black voters are like white voters, it depends on the candidate,'' Rendell said.

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