Ed Rendell reflects on eight years as governor

HARRISBURG — He may be leaving Harrisburg, but outgoing Gov. Ed Rendell said he won’t forget Punxsutawney.

“I’ll always have a sweet spot in my heart for (Punxsutawney) Phil,” he said during a conference call with Pennsylvania newspaper editors Friday. “Phil was in my first inaugural parade. It was freezing, 18 degrees, and Phil comes along, being driven in his warm traveling pen.”

Just a few weeks after his inaugural in 2003, Rendell, who has served as Pennsylvania governor for the maximum term permitted by law, became the first sitting Pennsylvania governor to attend Groundhog Day since 1909, when Gov. Edwin S. Stuart, also of Philadelphia, attended the Groundhog Banquet, according to author Don Yoder.

“When I went, I was astounded that no one in that field of 40,000 was from Pennsylvania,” Rendell said. “They come from all over the world. It’s a great tourism magnet for us.”

Since his 2003 visit, Rendell has formed his own Harrisburg chapter of the Groundhog Club, appointing J. Mickey Rowley, Department of Community and Economic Development Deputy Secretary for Tourism, as its president. Rendell has also addressed guests at the Groundhog banquet via live or pre-recorded video feeds.

“A little bit of our make-up as a state is affected by Phil,” Rendell said, alluding to the Pennsylvania Lottery’s mascot, Gus the Groundhog. “Gus is a tremendous spokesman, and he’s the Pennsylvania’s ‘second favorite groundhog.’”

Rendell said he’s been criticized for his support of small-town community festivals and events such as Groundhog Day, but noted, “Festivals are what attracts tourists, and they spend money and create jobs.”

Thursday, in interviews with Capitol journalists, Rendell said his biggest regret in his eight years as governor was signing the government pay raise of 2005.

He said he was able to achieve goals through the Republican-dominated Legislature, but said it has become more polarized over the last few years. But, he said, “I treated members with respect, and answered every letter, fax, and I personally called legislators directly.”

“I think government can work, achieve goals and invest in things — even the pay raise was a function of that,” Rendell said. “I turned down a pay raise request the year before, but the next year, I ceded because I thought it was essential for the working relationship so we could pass good legislation.”

The pay-raise legislation, approved without a hearing or debate, gave lawmakers raises of as much as 54 percent and boosted pay for judges and top executive branch officials, including Rendell, according to The Associated Press.

The law quickly turned to political poison, and lawmakers repealed it later in 2005. Angry voters nonetheless turned 24 incumbent legislators out of office in the 2006 election.

Also this week:

• Thursday, Rendell said he has no regrets about supporting the legalization of casino gambling because it generates jobs and revenue for valuable programs, nor about the fact that none of the budgets he signed was passed by the July 1 deadline, saying the delays often produced a better deal in negotiations with the Legislature, The AP said.

“I know you guys didn’t believe this, but I told you all along I was more interested in the final product than my favorability rating,” he said. “I don’t give a hoot what people say about me.”

• Friday, Rendell said funds from the stimulus bill have helped increase Pennsylvania education funding, “but that money is going.”

He also said he told incoming Gov. Tom Corbett “to hold education harmless. He won’t make the same increases, but don’t roll basic education funding back half a million dollars. It would reverse the momentum achieved, and it’s mortgaging Pennsylvania’s future.”

Rendell said he never based his investments in areas and communities based on politics, saying his home county, Philadelphia, ranked 30th out of 67 counties in state investments per capita.

“Most of the places were smaller, mid-sized, mostly Republican counties,” he said.

• Mere weeks after Republican gains in nationwide races, Rendell’s advice to fellow “Democratic survivors” in Pennsylvania: “In this year, you’ll face challenges, but do not act partisan. Work with the governor and make it all add up in the fairest possible way. Give him (Corbett) some time, take him at his word, and let’s see where it goes.”

For Democrats nationwide: “Continue to talk about issues important to us, and things that make us different and better than Republicans: Our support for working families, and our belief that we should have laws that do not unfairly benefit the richest people in society. Tell people there is good government spending and bad government spending, and find the differences between the two.”

• Thursday, Rendell said he expects to remain busy after leaving government — largely working on the book he is writing about his career, delivering paid public speeches and doing “something in TV.” He said he is through with running for elected office.

“It will all be pretty interesting, but it won’t be the same,” he said Friday. “I’ve spent essentially all my adult life trying to help people. There’s no replacing that, and I’m not kidding myself that there is.”