Despite leading his GOP challenger in most of the polls and holding a commanding lead in campaign contributions, Gov. Ed Rendell showed signs of desperation last week, twice exhibiting behavior unbecoming the incumbent governor and skilled politician that he is.
No matter how you spin it, Rendell had a bad 24-hour stretch. It began with Rendell strong-arming fellow Democrat Joe Hoeffel to drop out of the race for lieutenant governor. A day later, Rendell had a nasty confrontation with a reporter. If the incident had been caught on tape, it could be featured on the next release of "Politicians Gone Wild."
The Hoeffel Shuffle is a clear indication that Rendell is vulnerable in western Pennsylvania. Hoeffel met with Rendell several weeks ago to discuss the prospect of the former congressman seeking the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor. The big problem is that the current lieutenant governor, Catherine Baker Knoll, also wants another term.
Knoll has had a distinguished career in public service and is a proven vote-getter. Her biggest drawback is her age and continuing whispers about her lucidity. At 75, Knoll is seen by many political strategists as a liability. Should Rendell win another term, Knoll would be too old to succeed him. Also, Knoll has behaved erratically in public on more than one occasion.
Enter Joe Hoeffel, a smart, successful lawyer from Montgomery County. Hoeffel wouldn't mind serving four years as lieutenant governor and then succeeding Rendell as governor. Rendell could have told Hoeffel last month to stay out of the race, but the governor decided to test the political waters by allowing Hoeffel to take the plunge. The problem is Hoeffel’s similarities to Rendell.
A Rendell-Hoeffel ticket would have featured two rich, balding white lawyers from the Philadelphia area. Not exactly a balanced ticket, especially when central and western Pennsylvania voters are staging a revolt against incumbents.
Considering Rendell won only 18 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties in 2002, he can't afford to write off two-thirds of the state. That's where Mrs. Knoll comes in. She's from western Pennsylvania and is credited with helping Rendell win in the Pittsburgh area in 2002.
With Lynn Swann, a living legend in Pittsburgh, running for governor this year, Rendell will need every vote he can get if he has any hopes of re-election. The 2006 race will come down to a referendum on Rendell’s first term. And unless a miracle happens over the next few months and the state legislature passes meaningful property tax relief, Rendell will have a tough time persuading voters to give him another four years when he’s failed to deliver on his No. 1 promise — property tax reduction.
Rendell claims he's not a political boss, but forcing Hoeffel out of the race a day after Hoeffel announced his candidacy sure smacks of the heavy handed, back-room dealing that political bosses engage in. Why can’t Democrats have a choice in who the next lieutenant governor is?
While the job is largely ceremonial, the lieutenant governor is next in line should something happen to the governor. And Ed Rendell is not exactly a picture of physical fitness. The governor's waistline has expanded more than state spending in the past three years. Rendell is one cheesesteak away from a heart attack and that would put Mrs. Knoll in the governor’s mansion.
After twisting Hoeffel’s arm to drop out, Rendell turned his wrath on a reporter for the Harrisburg Patriot-News.
This is how the newspaper reported the exchange in one of its editions:
Rendell angrily denied suggestions that his word can't be trusted and that he gives different answers to different people.
"It's all BS. You know it's BS. It's politics," Rendell said, shortly before grabbing a reporter’s tape recorder and refusing to return it before ultimately doing so.
Several hours later, as he was riding an Amtrak train from Washington to Philadelphia, Rendell called and apologized for his remarks.
Imagine if a Republican politician had taken out his hostility on a reporter. It would be the big story on Action News. But since it's the "beloved" Ed Rendell, the story hardly got any mention across the state.
Pennsylvania Republican Party Chairwoman Eileen Melvin raised an interesting point about Rendell's fit of anger: "At a time when serious leadership is required to address the serious problems facing our state — like property tax relief and a stagnating economy — Pennsylvanians should ask themselves if Gov. Rendell has the temperament to lead.
By listening to the concerns of people across Pennsylvania for the last year, and by handling the ups and downs of a statewide campaign and keeping his composure, Lynn Swann has demonstrated the qualities and temperament of a true leader."
Election Day is still nine months away. Will Rendell be able to control his temper — and his appetite — until November? Stay tuned.
E-mail Tony Phyrillas at firstname.lastname@example.org