An Interview with Philadelphia Mayor Edward Rendell

Note: On September 13, 1999, Philadelphia Mayor Edward Rendell delivered a lecture at Brown University. Since taking office in January, 1992, Rendell has gained a reputation for bold and innovative leadership. He is credited with turning around one of our country's most troubled cities. Before his speech, I sat down with him for a wide-ranging discussion about American cities, the presidential campaign, and his political future. The following is a transcript of the interview. Click for Bio.

Q. What is the secret of running a big American city?

A. A whole lot of luck. I think the secret is an innate understanding that you have got to pick and choose your goals. When you become mayor of a big American city, there are so many things that need attention and so many things that have to be fixed that there is no way you can do them all at one time. It's like trying to fight a seven, eight, or nine-front war. There is no possible way you can win that. You have to choose two or three things to do and to go after those. When you accomplish those, then you go after your next priorities. For me, it was clear, I had no choice, it was like the captain of an ocean liner that had a big hole in it and was filling up with water. I had to make sure that our financial crisis was stabilized. I had to eliminate the root causes of our deficit and do it in a way that didn't exacerbate our chances of rebuilding our economy. I couldn't raise taxes. I had to make fundamental repair so that we would be in decent shape going out. So for example, when we negotiated our historical contract with the unions, we did all the economics, the concessions on benefits and wage freezes. The union was stunned that after having conceded to us on all of those, that we still held out for a panoply of 96 or 97 different work rule changes, which were fundamental to getting control of the management again. We did that and did that successfully. Then we embarked on the other side of the cost savings equation, which was management and productivity reforms. I had many ideas coming in on how to do it from other jurisdictions and what they had done and my knowledge as the city's district attorney. We commissioned about 300 loaned executives to work in the government for a nine month period. They gave us 143 other cost-savings initiatives. We had a weekly meeting of the initiative compliance committee to make sure we were making headway. We took about $250 million out of the cost of operating government on a yearly basis and 40 percent of that was on the union side and 60 percent on the management side. Running the city, you have got to have priorities, you have to set goals, you have to communicate well with your constituency what your goals are and why they are important, and you have to have the political courage to stay the course to achieve those goals. So communications skills, political courage, the ability to prioritize, and focus your resources, those are all keys.  

Q. What has been your most difficult challenge as mayor?

A. Prioritizing. You want to do everything. You see all sorts of pain and you want to meet that pain. My most difficult task was disciplining myself to understand I couldn't do that. If we were to recover fiscally and be in a position to do anything about the rest of our problems, a lot of our other problems had to go on hold until we did recover. At the beginning of the second half of my first year as mayor, I heard at a church a minister recite the serenity prayer. I was so taken with the aptness of its message that I got a copy of it and put it right under the glass of my desk. I look at it every day. But that personal discipline, I am at heart a bleeding heart liberal. To have to say no to many worthwhile causes and to have to say you have to wait is a very difficult thing. But unless you do it, you are dead meat.  

Q. What is your favorite thing about being mayor?

A. Being able to see in a relatively short period of time the tangible results in improving the quality of people's lives. When I became mayor, 2 of our 61 branch libraries were open on Saturdays. So working people weren't able to take their kids to the library. I forced the library to start using volunteers. Now all 61 branches are open six days a week during the school year. Every time I pass a library on Saturday and I see parents with younger kids, that gives me tremendous satisfaction. When I became mayor, our swimming pools because of our city budget didn't open until July and closed the second week of August. They now are open from the first week in June through the first week in September and we have reopened 10 that were previously closed and built three new ones. It is pretty easy to make fun of the swimming pools as the Republican Congress did during the debate on the president's economic stimulus program. But you go to an inner city in a hot climate and those swimming pools are an absolute god-send during the summer. I always thought it was ironic they would put money in the budget to build swimming pools for generals and military bases, but they deride swimming pools for poor people in the economic stimulus program.

Q. What do you think American cities will be like 20 years from now?

A. They are obviously changing as we have become less and less a manufacturing economy. Some of the essential elements for cities thriving in the past has dissipated. When technology has removed the need to have people cluster together in a central business district to do business with videoconferencing, with faxes, with email, people can do work from home. One of my biggest supporter in my earlier run for mayor was an investor who put deals together. He did it from a downtown office building and employed 22 people. He now does the same amount of investing from his home in Sun Valley and his home in suburban Charleston, South Carolina. He has one secretary in each location. So as the age-old foundations of cities change, cities are going to have to be gathering places. They are going to have to be places where people come to be together to enjoy cultural experiences and entertainment experiences, to enjoy just being with each other. They are going to have to be transportation centers where goods are moved in and out quickly. They are going to have to be service centers whether it is medical, insurance, or whatever. Cities are going to have a transformed economy. There is a Wharton professor who wrote in an article in Fortune that cities are going to be the theme parks of the 21st century. We hope they are more than that, but there is a lot to what he said.

Q. If you could change one thing about how the federal government deals with urban areas, what would it be?

A. Basically, their total lack of concern for urban areas. The president and vice president have done a pretty good job, but Congress even before the Republicans took over and certainly now has no feel for American cities and very little interest in American cities and very little willingness to help. I don't think you will find many of the modern American mayors wanting to go back to revenue sharing or CETA programs. We would like the federal government to use the tax code to level the playing field. American cities have become the repository for the poor of this country. We are forced and we take that challenge willingly to take care of poor and disabled people, people with AIDS, and people who are vulnerable because of a lack of education and they have been on welfare for too long. That puts us at a tremendous competitive disadvantage with places we compete with economically. The federal government has got to understand that and has got to apply those incentives to bringing back American cities. Right now, there is not a great feel for cities in many places in Congress.

Q. Who is your favorite mayor from the past?

A. Good question. I really like many things about Ed Koch. I thought he was a great modern day mayor, especially his first two terms because he was an unabashed and outspoken promoter of city life. He refused to fall victim to the view that cities can't compete with the suburbs. By the force of his personality, he helped make New York a much more livable place. He helped set a mood that led to great economic development even before the stock market rebounded. Under David Dinkins in his last term and Guiliani, you have seen great economic development in New York, but how much of that is driven by the market. A great deal is driven by the market. Ed Koch didn't have that going for him, but he still brought back the city. And he brought back life and pride to it. He was a good manager. He refused to do a lot of the things that are politically correct but are bullshit that cost you dollars. I thought he was a very good manager. But he got burned out in his third term.

Q. What is your sense of how the Democratic presidential battle between Gore and Bradley is shaping up?

A.  If I were Al Gore, I would be pulling my hair out. He has been without question, the most effective vice president in my lifetime. He has done a great job in shaping some of the policies of the administration. He has done a great job in implementing things as varied as empowerment zones and reinventing government, which gets sloughed over. Republicans talked about reducing the size of government, but they never did. We now have a government that has fewer federal employees than any time since Eisenhower and the vice president did that. But he gets very little credit for it. I think he is an extraordinarily bright and able guy. He is a good balance between being liberal on social issues and moderate on economic and development issues. Yet he is inherently tarred with the brush of the bad things about President Clinton without getting a lot of the upside of what the administration has accomplished, which I think is significant. So he is in a difficult position because he is forced to defend the administration about some of the bad things, but gets very little of the credit for the good things which he had a hand in doing. So he is pictured as the status quo and people don't like the status quo in Washington and they don't like the administration but they also don't like the Congress. Bill Bradley, who is a terrific guy and a very bright and sensitive and decent man, by having the good sense to resign now gets cast in the role of the outsider who cares very much about the nation's poor and our challenges that remain unmet despite the good economy. That's all well and good, but people tend to forget that Bill Bradley voted to support all of the Reagan cuts in the social budget. Everyone makes mistakes. Bill in 1986 in the name of tax fairness eliminated many of the incentives in the tax code that were very important to cities like the historical rehabilitation tax credit. He basically emasculated that. That doesn't make him a bad guy and although I have endorsed the vice president, I would feel very much at peace with Bill Bradley as our nominee and president. But the vice president is in a difficult position. Right now, Bill Bradley is the darling of the media. You have seen all the coverage he gets as the outsider. As the outsider, you have a tendency not to have your warts examined, whereas as the insider you do. I remember when I ran my first time in politics, I ran in 1977. I was the former assistant DA, the head of the homicide unit and I ran against the incumbent who had gotten into a lot of trouble, corruption type trouble. Nobody bothered to look into my background. I could have been a triple ax murderer from New York and nobody would have known. Of course, as soon as I won the primary and was the candidate of the Democratic party in the general election, then everybody started paying attention to me. Bill is enjoying a lot of that right now and enjoying the outsider role that given 18 years in the Senate, he might not legitimately come by. But that's life. I think John McCain has the same potential. If John McCain does at all well in New Hampshire, I look for him to become the media darling and the media will try to portray John McCain as the campaign finance reform champion against George Bush, the campaign reform villain. You can start a run. If Bill Bradley or John McCain wins the New Hampshire primary, it is anybody's ballgame.

Q. Do you have a favorite in that race?

A. I don't want to miss the main point. If Al Gore tomorrow said he has terminal cancer and can't run, I would support Bradley in a heart beat. He is a terrific guy. I have known him since college.

Q. How serious is your interest in running for Governor of Pennsylvania?

A. Well, you know, it is interesting. When I was District Attorney and elected twice as District Attorney, I had a great desire to govern in a position that could be more impactful in helping people's lives than DA. DA is a good position, but it deals with the problems of our society after they occur and not before they occur. I had a burning desire to be in a position to do that. I ran for governor in 86 and lost. I ran for mayor in 87 and lost. Probably a wiser person would not have run again after those two difficult losses. But I ran again because I really believed I could make a difference and I wanted to try and do it. Having won in 91 and having spent eight wonderfully satisfying years as mayor, that overwhelming desire to be a chief executive in public life has been fulfilled. It doesn't mean that I don't want to go on because I don't see much on the horizon that is as interesting. The only thing I have settled on for next year is I am going to teach two courses at Penn, one in Urban Studies and one in Political Science. In terms of elective office, there is only one and that is governor. The Republicans in the Contract for America made devolution one of their goals and they have unfortunately in my judgment succeeded marvelously. The Senate and the House traditionally have very little to do in foreign affairs, but just make the weight of their opinion known. But they always control the domestic affairs in this country. Now they have pretty much ceded crucial decisions in domestic affairs to the governors of this country. Therefore, the 11 big state governors are the most important positions. [In terms of power], it goes president of the United States, 11 big state governor, and then the Senate Majority Leader and the Speaker of the House. I truly believe that is the order. We now have the incredible situation of a welfare family in New Jersey, the mother fails to get a job in two years, she has three children, they lose one-quarter of their family benefits. In Pennsylvania, that same family loses 100 percent of their family benefits. That's the level of the devolution that has been involved and been given to the states. It clearly makes governor the only political office. I could run for Senator this coming year, Rick Santorum is up in 2000 and somewhat vulnerable although not as vulnerable as people think. Poll-wise, I am beating him early, but that doesn't mean anything. But I just don't think there is much left for the Senate to do. And besides, in that book where I had the reporter following me around, at one frustrating time coming back from testifying before a Senate committee, he asked me if I ever wanted to be a Senator and I said "absolutely not. Senators don't do shit." So I would have trouble overcoming that comment in the book.