John Baer: Rendell and lame-duck reform: 'Ire' in the hole

Posted: November 23, 2009

LADIES AND gentlemen, presenting a new political drama: "His Edness, Agent of Change," or "Return of Rendell the Reformer."

The starring role is played by . . . well, you know who. Please stand and cheer.

If you missed teasers to this coming attraction, the Guv last week told the Greater Scranton Chamber of Commerce that he's ready to push (again) for broad electoral reforms.

These include limiting campaign contributions, banning lobbyists from making contributions, and citizen creation of legislative and congressional districts.

I can hardly contain myself.

The next day at a Capitol news conference, he said, "Stay tuned," because he might also push for a Constitutional Convention, which could lead to term limits, merit selection of judges and a smaller Legislature.

I, for one, am already cheering: Go, Eddie! Go, Eddie!

Just a few observations and a couple of questions.

First, Rendell's calls for these and other reforms in the past went nowhere. Why would they happen now?

He says he'll tap "ire" of voters over the long-delayed budget (which still isn't finalized) and ongoing scandals. Fine, but lots of that "ire" is aimed at him, especially west of Paoli.

His job-performance ratings in the Franklin & Marshall/Daily News Poll, though much higher than the Legislature's, are the lowest of his incumbency: less than 30 percent of voters in polls taken in June, August and October say he's doing a "good job."

So he enters his last year in an office he can't seek again and wants campaign-finance limits with no lobbyists? This after building a career soliciting and collecting roughly a bazillion dollars from any lobbyist with breath and from any sensate being with a checkbook?

"I think I could pass a lie detector," Rendell told the Scrantonians. "I've never once let a campaign contribution influence a state decision."

Good to know. So this reform would be for everybody else? All the scum, who, I suppose, would not do well with a lie detector? Oh, and certainly no one believes that Comcast or Penn, both of whom pay Rendell for services, have any special influence with his administration.

Second, a Constitutional Convention is a great idea, as it was a decade ago, as it was when raised directly with Rendell more than four years ago. Philly Democratic Rep. Dwight Evans publicly called on the Guv to get behind it. He didn't. And the Democratic-controlled House crushed the proposal.

Things are different now? House Democrats are even more dysfunctional today. And the most a spokesman for the GOP Senate would say is that Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi is open to hearing the pros and cons of holding a convention. Sound like he's on board? Sound like he's feeling the "ire?"

Still, as the body count climbs in the corruption probe of lawmakers and staff caught stealing public dollars for political gain, even talk of reform is welcome.

It's just that Rendell's a lame duck to whom lawmakers barely listen (fellow Democrats shut him out of some budget talks), and he can't get reforms without legislative approval.

So, here's the deal: If serious about changing the political culture, Rendell should take the $2 million he still has in separate campaign accounts, use his prodigious fundraising skills to get more and mount an independent, statewide reform effort.

Focus on getting every legislative candidate to pledge support for a Constitutional Convention. Or join the efforts of Common Cause, the League of Women Voters and others to get citizen signatures for a statewide referendum calling for a Constitutional Convention. Or create and fund a reform endowment to maintain a push for change.

If the system won't cooperate, go outside the system. That would be a performance worth a standing ovation.

Send e-mail to baerj@phillynews.com.

For recent columns, go to

http://go.philly.com/baer.

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