Transcript of ‘Out There’s’ Pennsylvania Roundtable

By: - September 14, 2007 12:00 am

PHILADELPHIA – Now in his fifth year as governor, Democrat Ed Rendell has left his imprint both on policy and politics in Pennsylvania. On Aug. 3, “Out There” discussed Rendell’s legacy with a roundtable of Keystone State political observers. They were: Christopher Borick, the director of the polling institute at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa.; Larry Ceisler, a Philadelphia-based Democratic consultant; David Cohen, formerly chief of staff when Rendell was mayor of Philadelphia and now executive vice president of Comcast Corp.; Pete DeCoursey, editor of the Capitolwire news service in Harrisburg, Pa.; Ken Jarin, a veteran Democratic fundraiser and adviser; John Micek, a political reporter for the Allentown Morning Call; and Ray Zaborney, a Republican strategist who managed Lynn Swann’s gubernatorial campaign against Rendell in 2006. 

Below are edited excerpts from that conversation.
Out There: Is Pennsylvania right now a red state, a blue state or something in between?
Cohen: I think it’s somewhere in between. When you have the right kind of Democratic candidate, it’s a pretty blue state. The experience of [2004 Democratic presidential nominee] John Kerry shows you that with the wrong kind of Democratic candidate, this state is awfully purple. It happened that Kerry was running against someone who was not the right kind of Republican candidate. If the Republican had been the right kind, the state would have gone Republican in the last presidential election. The swing votes in the state are still the Reagan Democrats. If a Democrat is too liberal and the Republican is 10 degrees to the left of [former Republican Sen. Rick Santorum], Pennsylvanians will vote Republican. There are basically 400,000 swing voters, 75 percent of them in the central and southwestern part of the state.
Ceisler: It’s a moderate state and always has been. You not only have Reagan Democrats in the west but moderate Republicans in the Philadelphia suburbs. The reason Democrats have been able to win statewide is that they get those Republican votes in the suburbs on social and cultural issues. They will have a real challenge if Republicans like Rudy Giuliani are nominated. Democrats will have a hard time holding suburban Republican voters.
Jarin: The Republicans who tend to win are moderates – [former Govs. Tom] Ridge and [Mark] Schweiker and [the late Sen. John] Heinz.
Zaborney: I think we all agree that it’s a state that’s trended blue while it has certainly shown the ability to go red. David hit on it – you don’t necessarily have to be extremely moderate in this state, you just have to not scare people. The Democrats have done a better job recently nominating candidates who don’t scare people. There are 750,000 more Democrats statewide, yet the state Senate has a 29-21 Republican advantage. That tells me that people are willing to – and I learned this the hard way [in the 2006 gubernatorial campaign] – vote for [Democrat Ed] Rendell for governor and [moderate Republican state Sen.] Stewart Greenleaf.
Cohen: I do think the state Senate numbers are one place where Republican redistricting [after the 2000 Census] actually worked.
Micek: The 102-101 Democratic majority in the state House could be specific to the anti-incumbent movement in 2006 stemming from the pay raise or could be the beginnings of a sustainable Democratic majority in the House. I’m not entirely convinced the latter is true. It may have been a special circumstance. Not to diminish the party’s accomplishment, but it was a heck of a lot more volatile situation.
Cohen: I do continue to believe, whether this is fair or unfair, in Pennsylvania, as in other states, it will be a tough year because of the war and President Bush. It was in 2006 will be in 2008.
DeCoursey: Also, what’s interesting is that the Democrats beat legislators who were already voting with Rendell. This is why Democrats win national elections in Pennsylvania. There is a perception among Republicans in the southeast that they have to vote with him or lose their seat. The argument against realignment is that you’re replacing soft-core Rendell votes in the House with hard-core.
Cohen: With the majority, of course, you’re getting procedural control, not just substantive.
Borick: I agree with what’s been said, but I think what we saw was an adjustment in 2006 where there was a market correction for the Democrats – the state was of balance with Republican representation in the state. I did a count earlier this year of Democrats in all elected seats in Pennsylvania, and the Republicans have one more elected seat than the Democrats do. It’s dead even. That’s amazing to me – the correction pushed it back. Pennsylvania is the consummately divided political state. To assume that because the Democrats won the last four presidential elections it’s safe Democratic is ridiculous. I think it’s open for the right kind of Republican.
Cohen: Giuliani puts the state in play, and potentially Romney. No other Republican does.
Jarin: I agree, though I’m not as sure about Romney.
Cohen: I just said he could.
Zaborney: Giuliani can win this state. Polls have shown that McCain is competitive here.
Jarin: I agree.
Zaborney: Fred Thompson would be like Bush in 2004. Something has to happen to get him over the top.
Ceisler: I think if Giuliani is the nominee, you have to look strongly at having Rendell on the ticket to hold Pennsylvania.
Borick: I agree. Giuliani is the nightmare match up for Democrats.
Out There: What’s Giuliani’s appeal here?
Ceisler: He’s not a nut.
Jarin: Well, he’s a different kind of nut – just not on the issues.
Borick: He has the ability to connect. He’s like Rendell in that way. He’s the pragmatic mayor of a big northeastern city who can get the job done, ideology be damned. I think Pennsylvanians like that.
Cohen: He clearly puts Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Connecticut and New York in play.
Ceisler: If that happens, don’t they have to take a look at Ed?
Cohen: I love Ed, no one has more respect for him than I do, and I believe he would be a great presidential candidate, but I don’t, bottom line, see anyone picking him. What makes him so appealing also makes him too loose for the national stage. He wouldn’t be miserable, but he would make the president’s life miserable.
Micek: You can’t view the Democratic Party as monolithic. There are [socially conservative, economically liberal Sen. Bob] Casey Democrats and [affluent and educated] New Republic Democrats in the southeastern suburbs. In the west, Democrats are closer to Republicans.
Cohen: You can’t even say that Democrats predominate in the southeast. It’s in Philadelphia. Outside of the city of Philadelphia, the rest of the southeast is 60 percent to 40 percent Republican by registration, and that’s the closest it’s been.
DeCoursey: But Kerry romped in the ‘burbs. He was [1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael] Dukakis reheated, yet he won the Philly ‘burbs.
Cohen: Yes, but Kerry did six points worse than [2000 Democratic presidential nominee Al] Gore in southeast Pennsylvania.
Zaborney: We didn’t have a candidate built to perform well in southeastern Pennsylvania.
Cohen: I think Rendell helped provide institutional momentum for a shift that will outlive him. I think the record will show that the Philadelphia suburbs will be less Republican and more likely to vote for Democrats. You see some of in registration, but certainly in voting patterns.
Zaborney: I agree with what you’re saying, but I’m not sure you can place that at the feet of Rendell. The suburbs all over are country are doing that. But he does provide fuel – [fundraising] resources and his personality. People like him. It would not have happened as fast, but I think his influence will end. I don’t think it would carry a Democrat to win in the Philly suburbs, especially if it were a candidate from western Pennsylvania. The 2010 election will tell us what the suburbs will look like.
Ceisler: Democrats are outnumbering Republicans in new registrations. People are moving to the suburbs from the city and are remaining Democrats. The governor helped that because there was a Philadelphia perception, I think, having [moderate Democrat Michael] Nutter as mayor of Philadelphia will help Democrats in the suburbs. He’s the type of Democrats they see and will like him.
Micek: Underneath all of this is, structurally speaking, a different state Democratic Party than prior to 2002. The governor, because of his experience as chairman of the Democratic National Committee, put more focus on organization and longer-term structure. When I moved here, the Democrats couldn’t find their ass with both hands.
Cohen: (Laughing.) I’m not sure that’s any different today!
Micek: Maybe it’s one hand now.
Jarin: I think national issues are still huge. I think [President] Bush is more responsible than Rendell. If Montgomery and Bucks counties [in suburban Philadelphia] go Democratic, that will outlast Rendell more than what we’re talking about.
Ceisler: Are Republicans concerned about losing the courthouses in Bucks and Montgomery?
Zaborney: We’re concerned. Of course we are. As someone familiar with the party, I’m pretty sure we’ll hold on to them. But it’s different than it’s been in years past. We could always count on the courthouses, but that’s not the case now. One problem in the party is on display — all these fights. When I first started in politics, and it was not long ago, you could always count on the Democrats fighting so much that they probably would not win. Now, you see we have this fight in our party. It’s hard to describe the differences. Is it really conservatives versus moderates, or reformers versus non-reformers? I don’t even know who’s fighting.
Borick: When resources become tighter, that’s when the fights break out. I’m in the Lehigh Valley, the fastest-growing part of the state. It’s near the Poconos, and most people moving in are ex-New Jersey or New York residents. They’re changing the Democrats in a big way. The old Dutch conservatives are not there.
Ceisler: [Democratic] Rep. Patrick Murphy beat an incumbent in Bucks County in a bad year for Republicans. He lost Bucks, and he only won because of the wards in Philadelphia.
Cohen: The allegedly Republican wards in Philadelphia!
Borick: Right, Murphy doesn’t win if there’s no war.
DeCoursey: The Republicans have a mature political machine in the suburbs that’s been in place for so long that people are fighting over a slice of the pie, while the Democrats have been out of power for 100 years and are hungry. By contrast, the Democrats always fight internally in Philadelphia because they don’t feel threatened and think they can’t lose.
Out There: Tell me about the fallout from the pay raise controversy in 2006.
Micek: The Legislature has 54 new faces ­-a Legislature that had 97 to 98 percent safe re-elections. That was the most immediate fallout. I think that the boiling anger that affected 2006 has cooled some, but we will have another benchmark in November where Tom Sailor, a sitting state Supreme Court justice, is up. Ironically, he wrote a dissent in a court case on the pay raise for judges, but he has a bulls-eye painted on his back. He will be targeted the same way Russell Nigro was in 2005.
Zaborney: Judicial state races are a generic state ballot. We typically do well in off-year elections. There are legislative primaries next year that will tell whether the anger lingers. This is where I have differences with some in my party who are fighting. Gib Armstrong, the Senate appropriations chairman, is the most conservative appropriations chairman we will ever see. But we’ll spend how much money in a growing media market to defeat him. That’s where our problems lie at the moment. It’s possible to get over those problems quickly – the Democratic Party had an awful primary for governor in 2002, but it took just a week to unify and beat [Republican nominee] Mike Fisher.
Borick: I think the low-hanging fruit has been picked. You’ll see some retirements from people who are tired of working in the new system. But after a sea change year, I think you’ll see stabilization.
Ceisler: We don’t have any fallout from the pay raise here in Philadelphia and in the suburbs. It’s only in the “T” and out west.
DeCoursey: Of the 54 new members, 22 lost in the primary and 32 retired. The veteran legislators from the southeast, they don’t want to be here, and you may see another 30 retirements in 2008. It’s no fun for them any more. What reform is doing is breaking up the clubbish atmosphere. I think this probably hurts Republicans a bit more, though, of course, it depends on who retires. The Democrats might be able to win some more Republican seats in the southeast, but a Democrat retiring in western Pennsylvania could be ripe for the Republicans.
Ceisler: From what I hear, the process is becoming more cumbersome.
DeCoursey: You actually have to debate things!
Ceisler: It makes things more difficult and expensive. I can’t wait to see how much reform has cost in dollars.
Micek: In January, we had a new Speaker, a Republican overseeing a Democratic majority in the House, who convened a 20-member, bipartisan commission to do an incredibly arcane overhaul of procedure. In March they had recommendations, such as a 24-hour waiting period on voting, you can’t be in session after 11 p.m., and other stuff to add transparency. This is intended to make the Legislature more contemplative. It did slow things down, and, in fact, added several extra days to the budget finally being approved. The Senate adopted some narrower reforms as well.
DeCoursey: Not to be mocking, but legislators were used to the old system where they simply made a deal with [former Speaker John Perzel] or [for Senate President Robert] Jubelirer.
Micek: Some have been griping that the trains used to run on time. There are a few ironic things. Much was made about the opening up of the process and making it more understandable, but the state budget was still developed by five white guys and given to the members after being negotiated behind closed doors.
Jarin: One result that’s not necessarily good but is more democratic: The Senate Republican Caucus’ dynamics have changed because the leaders have changed. It’s more democratic but more chaotic.
DeCoursey: After eight years of Senate leaders saying their goal was to spend less money, it’s the first time they did it.
Borick: I agree that the leaders are on a shorter leash than in the past. We always have a top-heavy system compared to other states.
Zaborney: From the Republicans’ perspective, whether or not you disagreed with what he did, the Senate president pro tem said they would spend less money and not raise taxes. Perhaps uncharacteristically for those in our party, that’s what happened in the end. They set out two big markers and achieved them. It was consistent with our philosophy.
Out There: How do you rate Rendell’s accomplishments as governor?
Zaborney: I think he’ll go down as a very successful governor. I don’t agree with everything he stands for, but if you score him on what he was able to accomplish, he’s been pretty effective in most areas. When he got here, I remember Republicans saying, “We’ll teach him a lesson – this isn’t Philadelphia.” That’s true, but we have also gotten taught a few things ourselves. He’s exceeded expectations. He was able to work with enough Republicans to get it done. The arguments have been mostly over funding, not the merits of his policies.
Cohen: I think that’s right. Pennsylvania is not known as a state that does much of anything. Maybe some of you will disagree, but the general philosophy of most governors over the past 20 to 30 years has been not a lot of articulation of bold, new programs. It’s been much more about holding down taxes and keeping down the role of state government. Ed, culturally and philosophically, is not a big-government Democrat, but he’s had ideas on energy, the environment, education and gaming. Whether he did it pretty or ugly, he moved the state in a fundamentally different direction in policy and philosophy. He has dramatically increased the share of public education funding borne by the state. Traditionally in Pennsylvania it had been 50-50, but it rose to 62 percent local over a 50-year period. Rendell has moved that back into the mid-40s. And when the gaming flows come in, it will be 50-50. Since he’s not a big government tax-and-spender, the quid pro quo is that you pay less in local taxes. As for gaming, you couldn’t have found a lot of people in this state who thought we’d end up with a gaming bill. I think gaming will be great for the state. Some will always hate it, but it creates an enormous amount of revenue. That will stop the state from having to raise taxes. On energy and the environment, he’s had a whole series of reasonably innovative environmental and energy initiatives. Pennsylvania will be a leader – it’s in the top 5 already – in alternative energy.
Borick: As an academic, I just got a National Science Foundation grant because I study Pennsylvania energy policy. Historically, we were by no means an innovator. We were near the bottom all the time. Now, on things like renewable energy portfolios, we’re up there with California. Putting California and Pennsylvania in the same sentence on energy policy was not something I had ever said in the past.
Ceisler: Nationally, I think his legacy in energy will be very important. I have heard him speak about energy policy, and I can’t believe how passionate he is and how well he understands the issue. I think he could be an energy secretary in either a Democratic or a Republican administration.
Borick: He will be remembered as a great politician, but his policy achievements are substantial.
Jarin: I’d cite three things. He took a state with an aging population, that was not growing – an old, industrial northeast state – and said we have to find more revenue. So you have gaming and the recent deal on transportation, if it doesn’t get blown up in Washington. He’s identified $1 billion to $2 billion from gaming and $1 billion in transportation infrastructure and mass transit money that’s new and permanent. The gaming money will be dedicated to property tax reform and education, and the other revenue will be dedicated to bridges and highways and mass transit. His creativity in finding alternative revenue sources will be a huge part of his legacy. The second thing is that he’s grown as a governor. Some things have always been in his portfolio – secondary and early childhood education, and economic development. But he reversed funding declines for higher education and added that to his portfolio. The third thing is that he’s a lame duck now, and he could have done what most previous governors did and just mail it in for the new budget. He had a $650 million surplus yet came up with very creative initiatives. He got very significant initiatives passed in transportation and education after his re-election, which is an indication that he will not stop working.
Cohen: Pete has written that with education, so many elected officials don’t want to propose anything big because they’ll be labeled as failure if they don’t get it. From the first day he was elected, he had bold ideas, and he knew he would not get everything. He recognized that compromise was essential.
DeCoursey: Rendell is perfectly happy to go seven for 16 as long as the seven are big enough. Transportation is a good example. During the first four years of his term, Republicans in the Senate and the House had no more money for SEPTA [Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority]. Because he had a smart staff, he figured out which money he could flex. He took $400 million from highways and roads and put it into transit in Philadelphia and elsewhere. Swann accused him of taking the money and giving it to Philadelphia. But then he wins 60 percent of the vote and the Republicans couldn’t delay it. Rendell got Republican legislators to act like SEPTA legislators, and they funded the bill. It’s an example of how having a good operation in D.C. can help you. The Republicans didn’t know about the money from Washington. I thought this would be a real problem in the campaign in the rest of the state, but he handled it.
Cohen: Two things led to the transportation compromise. [State Senate President Pro Tem] Joe Scarnati was not fighting with [U.S. Reps.] Phil English and John Peterson to protect SEPTA, so Ed knew he had to prompt a transportation funding crisis. The political genius was creating just as much of a crisis for highway funding in rural areas as in the cities and refusing to let them be separate.
Zaborney: I think Rendell will be willing to tax and certainly will be willing to spend – a 33 percent increase since Tom Ridge was governor. So clearly there was a desire to spend more money. Second, a lot of Pennsylvania family businesses are paying billions of dollars more because of the personal income tax. The state’s last two surpluses have been as a result of that tax increase.
Jarin: Yes, but of 43 states with a personal income tax, we rank 41 st . It’s still low. And the economy has grown too, and arguably grows more because of the increased education funding.
Zaborney: But you could say it’s growing more slowly than it could be because of the increase in taxes.
DeCoursey: In the 2010 primary race for Rendell’s seat, everyone’s cozying up to him. That suggests to me that it’s a big deal, and he’s the personification of that realignment.
Cohen: I honestly don’t think people, especially in high-profile races, vote because this person has been anointed by the most popular elected official. Still, I think all three will run as close as they can to Ed, and it will be a major advantage. They’ll want to be close to the fundraising, but I don’t think who he endorses will make a difference. The only election I’ve seen in 20 years where you can make a credible case through hard data that an endorsement mattered was with [Rendell’s endorsement of Philadelphia mayoral candidate] John Street in 1999. Ed provided permission for 10 percent of the white vote to support Street, when 1 percent would have made a difference.
DeCoursey: There is typically a historical moment in the cycle that is the incumbent party’s high moment. Ridge, after he won a second term, had both chambers of the Legislature controlled by Republicans and his party was starting to win state Supreme Court races. Ridge talked of winning the state in 2000 for Bush. Then it peaked

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