Nostalgic for Ed Rendell's return as mayor

Posted: September 23, 2013

Those were the days.

In this autumn of Philadelphia's discontent, with the schools crippled, a mayor who seems more technocrat than visionary, and a ho-hum field of possible successors, the city turns its lonely eyes to . . . Ed Rendell.

A few business and opinion leaders have been asking: wouldn't it be great if Rendell were to run in 2015 for mayor of Philadelphia, the job he held from 1991 to 2000? Back then, Big Things got done. The city was rescued from the brink. Public pools reopened. (Remember the photo of Big Ed jumping in?) Development soared.

Some of the talk is just speculation, some of it more serious, but there is at least a fair amount of nostalgia for Rendell.

Allan Domb has made it his mission to persuade Rendell to jump back into the pool.

"If Ed Rendell is mayor, the spirit of Philadelphia will change overnight, investment from the business community will skyrocket immediately," said Domb, the Center City condo developer and real estate broker. "We have to do this. Who do you put in a basketball game with 44 seconds left and everything on the line? Your best player."

So far, Domb said, he has been talking up a "draft Ed" movement to everybody he knows. He has spoken with Rendell in passing about it, and hopes to set a meeting soon for a fuller discussion.

"I think he's convincible," Domb said. "He didn't tell me 'no.' "

Through a spokeswoman, Rendell - who has something to say about nearly everything - said he wouldn't comment, thus allowing the concept to marinate unchallenged.

Since leaving City Hall 13 years ago, Rendell has been governor of Pennsylvania, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and an NFL color commentator. He still dissects Eagles games on Comcast Sportsnetwork, parses politics on MSNBC, serves as a senior adviser to the investment bank Greenhill & Co., and is an operating partner at Element Partners, the Radnor-based private equity firm that specializes in energy and environmental companies. And that's only a partial list.

Friends say he's happy, making serious money. Why would he ditch that to squabble with ward leaders, fix potholes, and worry about snowstorms? Besides, they say, Rendell's animating political passion now is to help Hillary Clinton win the White House in 2016.

Sam Katz, twice the Republican nominee for mayor and now head of the state board that oversees the city's finances, said the next occupant of Room 215 in City Hall will face dangerously unfunded pension liabilities, infrastructure expenses, and an uncompetitive tax structure.

"The things the mayor will need to do over the next eight years are not things Ed's going to want to do," Katz said. "He spent the first year in City Hall cutting, and hated it - but most of his experience, in the city and the state, was during times of economic expansion. . . . Why take a reputation that borders on as good as it gets and put it at risk?"

Rendell, 69, has been the object of other political fantasies since he left the governor's office in January 2011. Earlier this year, he was encouraged to run for mayor of New York, the city of his birth, as the favored successor to Mike Bloomberg. Rendell laughed off that overture.

There's also been loose talk that he could clear the crowded Democratic primary field and knock out Gov. Corbett in 2014. Rendell has addressed that one, saying he believes the state constitution limits governors to no more than two terms, even if they are not consecutive.

As the Hillary groundswell attests, the politics of nostalgia packs a punch. Jerry Brown is governor of California, the job he first held in the 1970s. And locally, there's Marjorie Margolies, trying to get back to the U.S. House two decades after Montgomery County voters in the 13th District booted her for casting the deciding vote on President Bill Clinton's economic plan, which raised taxes.

"Who wouldn't want Ed Rendell as mayor again?" said Mary Isenhour, a strategist who ran Rendell's 2006 gubernatorial reelection campaign, adding she knows of no serious discussions toward that end.

Part of the attraction seems to be that the Democrats most mentioned as 2015 mayoral contenders have yet to fire up the donor class: businessman Tom Knox; State Sen. Anthony Williams, City Controller Alan Butkovitz; City Council President Darrell Clark; and Councilmen James Kenney and Bill Green.

"There's nostalgia for competency, leadership, communication skills," said Democratic consultant Daniel F. McElhatton. "All the candidates out there are unknowns. Ed Rendell is a known commodity."

And that could cut both ways, McElhatton said. Philadelphia has enjoyed an influx of young people in the last decade, and there may be a hunger to move beyond the 1990s.

Lawyer Alan Kessler, a Democratic fund-raiser and consigliere for years in the Rendell machine, termed another mayoral campaign "far-fetched," but said: "As long as he's alive, people will be talking about it."


Thomas Fitzgerald: RENDELL'S MANY HATS

Since he left City Hall, Ed Rendell has held a number of jobs.

A partial list:

General chair, Democratic National Committee, 2000.

Governor, 2003-11.

MSNBC commentator, 2011-present.

Senior adviser, Greenhill & Co. investment bank, 2011-present.

Operating partner, Element Partners, 2011-present.

Partner, Ballard Spahr, 2000-2003.

Special counsel, Ballard Spahr, 2011-present.

Chairman, National Governors Association, 2008-09.

Sports commentator for the Philadelphia Daily News, 2011-present.


Contact Thomas Fitzgerald at 215-854-2718 or tfitzgerald@phillynews.com, or follow @tomfitzgerald on Twitter. Read his blog, "The Big Tent," at www.inquirer.com/bigtent.

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