After eight years in the arduous job of mayor of Philadelphia, 55-year-old Ed Rendell was looking forward to a couple of years of relaxation before moving on to his next political objective, winning the Pennsylvania governorship in 2002.
Then last month came the phone call from Marcia Hale, former assistant to President Clinton for intergovernmental relations and now a member of Al Gore campaign chief Tony Coelho's kitchen cabinet. Her question: Would Rendell consider taking over as general chairman of the Democratic National Committee and trying to make his party competitive in the high-dollar demolition derby that so far has been dominated by Republican Gov. George W. Bush of Texas?
He would--and he did, and thus the outgoing mayor of Philadelphia (his term ends Dec. 31) stepped into one of the most thankless jobs in politics: the election-year chairmanship of a party that is really run from the White House.
The men who shared that responsibility in 1996--Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut and Don Fowler of South Carolina--later found themselves facing endless questions about the fund-raising operations ordered by President Clinton and White House aides.
Rendell will encounter equally relentless pressure to collect the millions of dollars Democrats will need to fend off Bush, who has broken all previous records for fundraising by a presidential candidate. In addition, he will have to try to satisfy challenger Bill Bradley and his supporters that the DNC is not giving special treatment to Vice President Gore--despite the fact that Rendell, like most other Democratic mayors, is clearly in Gore's corner.
For a fellow facing daunting challenges, Rendell seemed remarkably upbeat when I had lunch with him the other day. One reason may be that he has had striking success with another turnaround situation--taking Philadelphia from threatened bankruptcy in 1992 to a solid economic recovery that he says has brought $2.5 billion in current construction to his city.
Rendell credits the Clinton administration and Gore in particular with playing a key role in that recovery. "I told the CEOs of our major companies," Rendell said, "that Clinton and Gore had put $1 billion more into our city in their first term than [President] Bush did in his--and you benefited from it."
"I also told them that all you people who voted Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky (a suburban Philadelphia Democrat) out of office in 1994 because she raised your taxes 1 percent have seen your stock portfolios increase 40 times as much because that budget [for which she cast the decisive House vote in 1993] cut the deficit."
That kind of bottom-line bluntness helped Rendell raise hundreds of thousands of dollars from Philadelphia businessmen for the 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign, one of the reasons Gore coveted him for the DNC job now.
And his candor should serve him well in dealing with the Washington press corps. Rendell is probably the best schmoozer to head the Democratic Party since Bob Strauss, so open and engaging that he barely seems to be a partisan pitchman.
Ask him, as a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette interviewer did recently, what other mayors he most admires, and the first name he mentions is Steve Goldsmith of Indianapolis, who happens to head Bush's domestic policy advisory board.
Ask him, as I did, about possible Democratic tickets and he says, "Gore-Bradley would be great, but obviously it can't work the other way around. And if it's not Bradley, I don't know where else Al would find somebody who would really help." Few other Democrats are willing to acknowledge their cupboard is so bare.
Or ask him about possible Bush running mates, and he says the Texan has a lot of attractive options, among them Tom Ridge, the Republican governor Rendell hopes to succeed in Harrisburg, a man he believes could not only help the Republicans in Pennsylvania but in neighboring Ohio and New Jersey as well.
He's even honest about money in politics--which makes hypocrites of almost everyone in the business. "My number one job is to make sure that we are not shut out" during the period from March to August, when Bradley and Gore will probably have exhausted their own treasuries and be waiting for federal funds to finance the nominee's general election campaign.
During that time, the Democrats' only weapon will be "issue ads," paid for by six-figure "soft money" contributions to the party--the very funds the McCain-Feingold bill, now pending in the Senate, would outlaw.
"If the Republicans passed McCain-Feingold, we would be shut down," Rendell said, "and with Bush's ability to raise hard money [individual contributions], it would be over. But they're not that smart."
That's telling it straight.