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The Citizen

An interview with former democratic national committee chairman Ed Rendell

By Matt Bieber, Features Writer, MPP ’11 / MDiv ‘13

Ed Rendell served as mayor of Philadelphia, (1992-99) chairman of the Democratic National Committee, (1999-2001) and governor of Pennsylvania (2003-2011).


This interview took place on October 11 at the Institute of Politics.


MATT:             How does our political discourse today compare to when you first ran for office in the 70s?

ED RENDELL:   I think people are more guarded, because there’s more media. I think people are too guarded, frankly, and they’re too afraid of saying something. But on the other hand – to explain politicians’ behavior – you say something at 10:15 and it’s on the news at 10:45. I mean, the world has changed dramatically since the 70’s. Ed Rendell

We didn’t have the 24/7. We didn’t have the intense interest in politics. We didn’t have the left having generally its TV station and the right having generally its TV station (with some exceptions on both sides). So I think people are far too guarded. I think we suffer because of it. The public discourse suffers because of it.

I think politicians are also far too interested in short-term damage control. The best example I will give you is when the situation came out with the African-American woman fired for…

MATT:             Shirley Sherrod.

ED RENDELL:   Yeah. The Obama Administration didn’t have to say, “We’re going to fire her.” They could have said – the appropriate thing is, “Look, we’re going to look into it and see what happens.” Why did they say they wanted to fire her?

MATT:             To end the story.

ED RENDELL:   To end the story. The American people aren’t dumb. I think that’s another thing politicians generally do, probably more so now than before. They underestimate the fairness and the intelligence of the American people, so that they have to give these expected answers or rote answers. So I think it has changed dramatically.

MATT:             Thinking back to your time as governor or mayor, how did you approach the challenge of trying to explain your stance on complicated policy issues to the public, knowing that the media might publish in snippets or take things out of context? How did you think about that strategic challenge?

ED RENDELL:   Well, what I would do is I’d try to explain … I wouldn’t dumb it down, because again, I think politicians who dumb it down underestimate people. Let’s say it was a complex thing involving alternative energy, which a lot of people are not well-versed in.  I would try to take some time explaining it, but I would try consciously at the beginning and at the end to try to put the main message in 45-second bytes. But I would also give the ten-minute version.

But there’s a difference between being a mayor and governor. As mayor, you’re in one media market and you’re dominating. You get your message across and you can do things by force of personality. It’s very different in a state like Pennsylvania, which has six separate and distinct media markets.

The media has changed, but so has the government’s response to the media… In Harrisburg our media director was named Dr. Kirstin Stone. She would have her guys over taping the entire press conference. They’d come back to the studio, she would roll through the 45-minute press conference, looking for the best 25 to 40 seconds. She would pick three that she thought were the best, and she would then offer them by satellite to the 25 different TV stations in Pennsylvania.

So, it was our way of … it’s not controlling the news necessarily, but our way of first getting the message out statewide, number one. And then number two, yes, getting the message out in what we thought were the most favorable bites.

MATT:             Political culture in Washington has changed dramatically since you first entered politics.  In those days, Democrats and Republicans would actually spend time together as friends outside of work hours, getting to know one another and building trust.

ED RENDELL:   Absolutely.

MATT:             That’s happening less and less. Is that true at the state level as well?

ED RENDELL:   Well, you’re absolutely right. In DC, I’ll give you the perfect example: when Tom Daschle was defeated in 2004, he had been the Democratic leader for six or eight years. He was one of the best-liked people in the Senate. You can’t spend half an hour with Tom Daschle and not like him. He’s a really terrific guy. Like the week before he left Washington in early January, they had a ceremony on the Senate floor to say farewell and to honor him. Four Republican showed up. If that scene, instead of 2004, had been in 1974, the entire Senate would have been in their seats.

The lack of socialization makes it harder to govern. There’s no question about it. As governor, I tried to learn what each legislator – what was their hot button issue. I tried to learn something about what brought them to the Legislature, what was the driving force in their lives, so you have an idea of what each person needed and what they wanted, and how to accommodate them to a degree. It’s becoming harder and harder to do. The state capitals are slightly behind – we’re not quite as partisan or ideological as Washington is, but we’re getting there.

MATT:             It sounds like you found Republican legislators in Pennsylvania becoming more skeptical of your outreach over time.

ED RENDELL:   Yeah, as time went on, but we still managed to get things done. Although it’s interesting – in the first term, I got a lot of things done cooperatively with the Republicans. In the second term, we got a lot of things done just because I outlasted them. And the great advantage I had in the second term was they were all interested in getting reelected; I wasn’t, because I was term-limited.

So we had this stalemate two out of my last four years on education funding. During the recession, I wanted to keep Pennsylvania’s education funding rising. And they said, “How can you do this in a recession?” blah-blah-blah. I said, “Because education is important. It’s more important now than it ever was.”

We’re supposed to have a budget by June 30th. One went to the first week in September, and the other one went to the middle of October. I just wouldn’t give in. As governor, when you have the line-item veto, it’s an incredible weapon…I would say to them and I would say to the press and I would say it in public, “Look, they can send me a budget. They’re the ones who have the constitutional power to draw a budget. I invite them to send me a budget.” Then they would never send me a budget without a budget agreement, because they were afraid that I would take the veto pen and line out all their favorite projects, and they never budgeted for a year without any of their pet projects.

So as long as I was obstinate and didn’t care – and my favorable rating went down the chute when we had these budget deadlocks – but I didn’t care.

So I’d say I got more cooperation in my first four years, less in the second four, as the Republican Legislature became more ideological. More pragmatic Republicans were replaced by more ideological Republicans.

MATT:             What’s your take on the Occupy Wall Street movement?

ED RENDELL:   Well, I think that there’s a very good point to be made, and I think they’ve made it. I think the time has come now for them to say, “We’ve made our point. We’ve got our issue across. Now, let’s go out and organize politically to try to change the makeup in Washington so that we can actually make change happen.”

I was on Laura Ingraham’s show and she asked me about it. She said that an Iranian leader said that the Occupy Wall Street folks were the beginning of the ‘American Spring,’ and that there would be revolution in this country. I said, “Look, he doesn’t get it. The way we make change in America is at the ballot box, and that’s the message that the Occupy Wall Street folks have got to learn.”

I’d love to know how many of the Occupy Wall Street folks are registered to vote; that’s number one. But number two, I want them to get up and start registering voters, start playing towards the 2012 election, not just the presidential, but Congressional and Senate elections and state legislative elections. That’s where they can make real change.

MATT:             How do you understand the point that the Occupy Movement is trying to make?

ED RENDELL:   The fact that this country better do something about the increasing disparity between the very rich and the rest of us. The gap between what the richest Americans are making and what the working class of America is making, and the poorest Americans – that gap is not even exponential. It’s exploded in the last fifteen to twenty years. And if we don’t do something about shortening that gap, this country is in real trouble. I think that’s the point, and I think they’ve made it fairly emphatically.

MATT:             Do you think the solutions to the big problems facing the country right now are within mainstream Republican and Democratic discourse?  Or is there a need to expand the discourse in ways that the Occupy movement is encouraging?

ED RENDELL:   Well, first of all, you have to define for me what the mainstream Republican discourse is. I don’t know right now. I don’t know what’s mainstream. But I do know the most important point that I would make to the Republicans and Democrats in the Congress. I do this all the time when I’m on the air; in fact, I do it so much that whenever I’m on Morning Joe, they find this song. It’s a great Rolling Stones song called “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” That’s the answer.

In most cases, in politics, you can’t get everything you want. In my eight years as governor, I thought I made great progress on every part of the agenda that I sketched out as a candidate in 2002. Did I get everything that I wanted? Not by a long shot. Did we still make substantial progress? Absolutely.

So, if the Republicans in the House of Representatives want to substantially reduce federal spending, yes, they can get that. But in return, they’re going to have to increase revenue by legitimate tax reforms so that every corporation pays income tax. Right now, 38% of American corporations pay no income tax – unacceptable. GE made S13 billion in profit and paid no taxes – unacceptable. That has to change. It is time for us to go back to the wealthiest Americans paying more like they did in the Clinton years.


We do have to do something about entitlements, there’s no question about it. It’s not hard, it’s not rocket science. It means that some of the things that we believe in, we can’t necessarily preserve totally intact, and you can’t always get what you want, everything that you want. That’s the message, and hopefully, that attitude will prevail in 2013. If it does, the rest is easy.

When the government was shut down in 1995-96, I was one of five mayors who went down to see the Congressional leadership. We saw the House, and then we went to see [Republican Senate Majority Leader] Bob Dole. He shut the door, and he said, “Listen, if you guys say that I said this, I’ll deny it, but Bill Clinton and I could sit down at a table, and we could resolve the federal budget crisis in two hours.” I believe that Bob Dole and Bill Clinton would have, but you had ideologues over at the House that had to be beaten down, and that crisis was resolved and they were beaten down.

Maybe that will happen in the election. I mean, I would love to see a lot of incumbents who are intransient on both sides – I would love to see them given the pink slip by the voters.

And maybe the message would get across: we want this thing to work, and that means you all compromise. The vast majority of American people, 70 percent-plus, want the government to work together and compromise. There are some ideologues on the left and some ideologues on the right who say, “No surrender. No compromise. No this. No that.” The vast amount of Americans want it to work, and that’s hopefully the message.