Rendell-Fumo alliance got slots bill passed Both made concessions to make it fly

Posted: July 07, 2004

The political relationship between state Sen. Vince Fumo and Gov. Rendell has at times seemed like a frustrating session in front of a slot machine. Pull after pull saps the strength. But then one big jackpot makes it all seem worthwhile.

For more than a year, Fumo has been both a proponent and an obstacle for Rendell's campaign promise to legalize slot machines to fund a reduction in property taxes statewide, a cut in the city wage tax in Philadelphia and a series of building projects, including the expansion of the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

Over the July 4th holiday weekend, Fumo came through for Rendell, again pushing the slots legislation through the Senate.

Unlike last July, when the legislation stalled in a feud between the Senate and the House, slots have now rung up a political victory for Rendell and Fumo.

"I hope he appreciates it," was the first thing Fumo said yesterday when asked about Rendell.

Rendell has been quick to credit Fumo and other legislators for their "bipartisan leadership" on the slots negotiations.

"He always understood how important this was for economic development," Rendell said yesterday. "He had to come to grips with the issues and he did, and then the devil was in the details."

The biggest detail in the evolution of legalizing slots was gaming for American Indian groups.

Fumo first supported setting aside slots licenses for such groups if they would waive any federal claim to land, on which they could potentially build tax-free casino operations.

He dropped that idea but then advocated allowing a to-be-created seven-member state Gaming Control Board to negotiate with Indian groups.

The inclusion of the American Indians was a poison pill for the slots legislation last year. And had Fumo persisted this year, crucial Republican support in the House and Senate would've evaporated.

Fumo dropped the language, although American Indian groups now appear to be free to apply for one of the slots licenses.

But Fumo may have done a little horse trading on the issue.

Two weeks ago, when the slots issue started getting hot again, Rendell replaced a local attorney he had nominated for a seat on the Common Pleas Court in Philadelphia with another local attorney supported by Fumo.

"That's the beginning of when things started going better for the Rendell-Fumo camp," said one legislative source. "That was a terribly bitter pill for the Rendell camp to swallow."

Fumo confirms that the judicial nomination was a priority for him and suggests that Rendell's nominee will likely get another look in the future.

Fumo has at times expressed frustration with Rendell's approach to the General Assembly, complaining that the former Philadelphia mayor went to Harrisburg thinking it would be like dealing with City Council but then ran into true political opposition.

Howard Cain, a political operative close to Fumo, said the Philadelphia senator tried to instruct the new governor in the ways of the Capitol.

"I think the governor, for whatever reason, didn't take the advice," Cain said. "I think it took the governor a while to realize that what Vince said was not, per se, just good for Vince, but also the accumulated knowledge of 25 years in the Legislature."

Another Philadelphia political insider who knows both men said Fumo practices a brand of politics heavy with confrontation.

"When Fumo is engaged, there's nobody better in the Senate," the insider said. "The trick is getting Fumo engaged on your behalf. I think the Rendell people are learning how to do that."

Fumo contrasts Rendell with former governors Dick Thornburgh and Bob Casey Sr., who took a "paternalistic" approach to the General Assembly.

"They viewed us as errant children who had to be chastised," Fumo said. "Ed came in too much the other way. He wanted to be one of the guys."

That tempted the Republican-controlled Legislature to toy with Rendell and his agenda.

But the Rendell charm works both ways, even on Fumo, according to state Rep. Bill DeWeese, House minority leader.

"They both don't mind being a disturbing cuckoo in the nest," DeWeese said. "Although I would not call them fervent allies, I would say even Vincenzo occasionally relents to the ingratiating cordiality of the governor."

Fumo said he recently told Rendell to stay out of the room while the state budget was being negotiated by his staff and legislators.

Fumo recounted: "He even said to me, 'Now I know why the governor never goes in the room. They always get their pocket picked.' Now he knows that." *

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