John Baer: Rendell Era: Plenty of bluster and achievement

Gov. Rendell during his rant on CBS's "60 Minutes."
Gov. Rendell during his rant on CBS's "60 Minutes."
Posted: January 10, 2011

IN ONE week, the Era of Ed - or, as they call it west of the Susquehanna, the Error of Ed - is over.

Our soon-to-be-ex-Guv's future includes a book, speeches for pay, a TV presence beyond Eagles postgame, service on some boards of directors, rainmaking for some lucky law firm and continued teaching at Penn.

It does not, he swears, include running for any other office, ever.

"I'm done," he said at a recent Capitol sit-down with journalists.

What follows are final thoughts on a public career notable for its longevity (eight years D.A., eight years mayor, two years Democratic National Committee chairman, eight years governor) and its liveliness.

Always a plus-size personality, activist Ed Rendell pulled Philadelphia to its feet as mayor and kept Pennsylvania on its feet as governor.

As he leaves office, state unemployment is lower than the nation's, lower than in neighbors New Jersey and Ohio, lower than in other large industrial states such as Illinois and Michigan.

Yes, a $4 billion budget deficit awaits Republican Gov.-elect Tom Corbett due to recession, pension obligations and the scheduled end of federal stimulus funds.

But, according to the Washington-based Center on Budget & Policy Priorities, all other large states face larger deficits: California, $18 billion; Illinois, $13 billion; New York, $8.5 billion; Florida, $4.7 billion; Texas, $4.6 billion and growing.

Yet Ed, especially outside southeastern counties, will be remembered as a tax-and-spend liberal (and he did raise taxes and he certainly spent), not as a decent manager during a troubled economy.

"I don't give a hoot what people say about me," said Ed. "I know what I've done."

Proof of not giving a hoot was provided via his snarling appearance last evening on CBS's "60 Minutes." His teeth-baring rant, in which he labeled the show's reporters/producers "idiots" and "simpletons," was a glimpse of the Crazy Eddie rarely seen in public.

Get ready for calls from out-of-state relatives asking if your governor's a madman.

More familiar is the freewheeling Ed - gregarious, outspoken, known for shoot-from-the-lip assessments that get greater attention than his politics.

Among favorites:

* Many Pennsylvanians won't vote for an African-American.

* Speed limits can be safety hazards.

* Janet Napolitano is perfect to head Homeland Security since she "has no life."

* Rumored affairs with leggy blondes should be battled by finding "an unattractive woman" to tryst with.

* State workers should put statues of him on their mantels.

. . . and the recent

* We're "a nation of wussies."

But, because of modern media fixation on easy and immediate, these of-the-moment gems have more weight in defining Rendell than they should.

He did more than mouth one-liners.

If you measure what he said as a candidate against what he did as governor - huge investments in education and economic development, legalized gambling, property-tax relief - it's hard to argue that he didn't deliver on promised policy, especially given that he did so with a GOP Legislature.

And despite his image as a wheeler-dealer, he and his administration leave Harrisburg without charges of corruption at a time when such charges mar the reputations of the Legislature and judiciary.

(Yes, it's a sad comment on the state of the state when not being indicted or not going to jail is seen as achievement for an officeholder.)

But Rendell fell short in making progress on issues to fundamentally improve government and politics, such as campaign-finance reform, redistricting reform, smaller Legislature, term limits and merit selection of judges - all of which he called for in his second inaugural address.

He never did a budget on time. He was 0-for-8. He was facile with facts. A proposed tax increase would cost us a "modest" $234 a year, while an average property-tax rebate was a "significant" $189 a year.

But he was always Eddie (sometimes Crazy Eddie), a mix of mature, dedicated wonk and puerile, loose-cannon pol. And we won't see an era quite like his again.

Send e-mail to baerj@phillynews.com.

For recent columns, go to

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

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