The Temple News: In your first inaugural speech when you were first elected Mayor of Philadelphia, you listed some of the city’s most serious ailments, primarily the fiscal ones, and vowed to attack them and warned that “the cost of failure is unthinkable.” How much progress do you think Philadelphia has made since that day?
Gov. Rendell: In terms of the government’s balance sheet, extraordinary progress. We went from the largest deficit in Philadelphia’s history and I think percentage wise, the largest deficit in any American city’s history to the largest surpluses in our history. During my last four years as mayor, we had consecutively the largest surpluses in our history, and we did that while cutting the wage tax for the first time in our history. In terms of the city’s fiscal stability, there was a 360 degree turnaround and tremendous progress.
In terms of the economy of the city, although there are still challenges, it’s absolutely booming. Property values are way off the charts, not only in Center City, but there are homes being built in Bridesburg, Roxborough, Andorra and Fishtown. Places that people had written off for dead are now booming and land values are going crazy. In Center City, they’re building condominiums and selling them for a $1.5 million.
The city hasn’t by any means conquered all of its challenges, but it’s doing remarkably well. It’s really the comeback city of America in the last 15 years.
TTN: What was the most challenging part of making the transition from mayor of a big city to governor of a state like Pennsylvania?
Rendell: The knowledge base. There were certain subjects that were very important to a governor that I knew very little about as mayor. Agriculture is a perfect example. Agriculture is the biggest employer in Pennsylvania. It has a $45 billion impact on our yearly economy and I had to learn, basically starting from scratch.
I also had to learn about the different municipalities and locations and the different challenges that each section of the state faced. Fortunately, I’m a good reader and I learned a lot during the campaign, and I’ve traveled extensively around the state both during the campaign and during my first two and a half years as governor. I’m a great believer that you learn best by seeing things firsthand, and by talking to people on the ground.
TTN: At Temple, our student body is sympathetic to the needs of the community colleges that are getting more funding – which is good, because they have far less resources than we do – but we’re still wondering: Why the annual cuts in funding for universities such as Temple?
Rendell: We have a strange system. We own our universities in the [Pennsylvania] State System of Higher Education. There are14 of them and our first obligation is to them, because we own them lock, stock and barrel. The community colleges are really part of our workforce development system, and workforce development is crucial. The state [universities] have taken a hit – although last year they didn’t get a cut. They got a slight increase – because they are not in our direct line of authority, and it’s difficult. I wish that we would do more for higher education across the board.
One of the things that we did last year that was hopefully impactful for Temple students was that the administration struck a bargain with Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency. PHEAA put $75 million more a year into our college grant program for students who take out a combination of loans and grants. Upping the amount of grants that were available cushioned the blow of increased tuitions.
TTN: Another issue that students are concerned about, especially at Temple, is the ongoing SEPTA budget crisis. Where does that issue stand right now?
Rendell: The legislature has yet to commit itself to a funding scheme that will give mass transit the operating support that, I believe, it deserves. At the beginning of 2005, we figured out what mass transit’s needs were to get through the next two years without service cuts and without fare increases. I just flexed highway and bridge construction money over to mass transit, so that we could stabilize the situation and there would be no layoffs, no service cuts or fare increases. I’ve gotten criticized for that by the road builders, who say that I took money from highways and bridges, but actually we were able to increase the money available to highways and bridges as well. So, this gets us through until January of 2007. But the legislature is going to have to revisit mass transit and it’s going to have to do something to put SEPTA and Pittsburgh’s transportation system and the other 27 around the state on much firmer footing. For the time being, we’re okay.
TTN: A lot of criticism has been coming from all directions about the recent pay raise that Pennsylvania legislators gave themselves. How can one justify such a pay raise while the minimum wage remains so low?
Rendell: The pay raise bill was like a lot of bills. There was a lot of good in it, and some things not so good. First and foremost, the bill included a pay raise for our judges, who haven’t had a pay raise in 14 years. We had reached the point where the starting salary for a judge in Pennsylvania was lower than the starting salary for a first year lawyer in a Philadelphia law firm, and that needed to be addressed. Secondly, I wanted to get the task of salary-setting out of the hands of the legislature. I didn’t think it was appropriate for the legislature to set its own salaries, nor did I think it was appropriate for it to set the salaries of the judiciary, who rule on cases involving actions taken by the legislature. This bill does that. It takes the power to give raises out of the hands of the legislature and ties it to a scheme that tracks federal salaries. So the legislature no longer has the power to raises its own salaries, and that’s an important plus. You don’t get that in the media.
I thought parts of the legislative pay raise bill were excessive. Some of it was justified in my mind, but parts of it were excessive. Certainly, the taking of unvouchered expenses is an artifice that I think probably violates the law. The legislature shouldn’t take that part of it.
We’re going to push very, very hard to raise Pennsylvania’s minimum wage in two years up to $7.15 per hour. I think we have an excellent chance of getting that done this fall.
TTN: During your hiatus from political life before winning the mayoral race in 1992, did you ever think you’d find yourself filling the office of Governor of Pennsylvania in 2005?
Rendell: Nah. I was at that time concentrating on whether or not I wanted to take another shot at becoming mayor [after losing in 1987 to Wilson Goode]. I never looked beyond there. If there weren’t term limits in Philadelphia, I’d probably still be the mayor and not the governor.
TTN: What advice would you give to college students who are looking to get involved in politics?
Rendell: The first piece of advice I’d give is: build a strong foundation in both the study of law and political science in school, as well as urban studies. Those are things that help you build a strong foundation. That’s number one. Number two, don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty and do menial tasks, helping out other candidates, or helping out a political party, or helping out a political action group. Almost everyone in politics started at the bottom. I remember when I left the district attorney’s office, after I was an assistant district attorney; I volunteered to do free legal work for the Democratic City Committee. I met Pete [Camille], the chairman, and I became friends with him, and he helped me climb up the ladder in part because of my willingness to do a lot of free legal work, a lot of grunt work for the Democratic City Committee.
So, don’t be afraid of starting at the bottom, get involved with candidates or a political party, and wait for your opportunity. When you get your opportunity, be yourself. Don’t try to be Bill Clinton. Don’t try to be somebody you see on TV. Be yourself.
One thing voters have, I think, is a very good sense of who’s real and who’s not real. I think the most important criteria for electoral success is that the voters believe you’re a real person and you’re honest with them. If you make a mistake, say you made a mistake. People appreciate the fact that no one’s superhuman.
TTN: What are your thoughts on the 2008 presidential election?
Rendell: It’s a little bit too soon to get a true gauge on it. I think Hillary Clinton is automatically the frontrunner, because of the Clinton name and her great appeal, and because she has the most money in the bank. Sometimes frontrunners go all the way, sometimes they don’t. We’ll have to see how the campaign plays out.
TTN: I have to ask: Do you have your eye on a bid for the White House in the future?
Rendell: No. I’ve been involved in so many presidential campaigns, helping candidates that the idea of running for president is not appealing to me at all. It’s one of the hardest, most difficult and surreal exercises you can go through. If somebody who won the nomination said, “We’d like you to run for vice president,” I’m sure I wouldn’t say no. But I don’t think that’s gonna happen either. I don’t have any wild, overwhelming desire to be president.
TTN: You recently sued the Pentagon to try and prevent the closure of the Willow Grove Air Force Base. Why is this base so important to Pennsylvania?
Rendell: It’s interesting. A number of newspaper people said Willow Grove would have been much better off had we given it up. It’s a prime piece of land in suburban Philadelphia and it would have been easily developed.
My first answer to that is I’m not sure we need more suburban sprawl. There are other things that make up running a state other than just developing land. There were 7,000 or 8,000 jobs that were on the line in Willow Grove. You can’t turn your back on human beings and say, you know, we don’t need you anymore, we’re going to develop the land, so who cares? Building houses on that land would produce some construction jobs, but after they’re built, almost no jobs.
Number two was the military value of Willow Grove – not so much to the country; That’s the Defense Department’s duty to assess – but to [Pennsylvania] in terms of homeland security. If there was an airborne attack on the Liberty Bell or Independence Hall or some of the downtown office buildings in Philadelphia, those jets would scramble and be able to intercept an airborne attack five, six, seven minutes faster than any of the nearest bases. The personnel at Willow Grove would be helpful if, let’s say there was a credible threat to our transportation system. I might use the 111th National Guard to protect to subway system.
Ironically, two things happened as this was all coming to a head. One, there was a huge tanker truck that turned over and burst into flames right outside the base. Seven volunteer fire companies couldn’t put it out, because they only had water. They didn’t have foam. We were able to dispatch foam fire suppression trucks to where the accident was, and they put out the fire in 60 seconds.
We just sent a National Guard detachment down to Mississippi and Louisiana: 2,500 Pennsylvania Guardsmen, the largest of any state. Fifty of those were military police from the 111th in Willow Grove. So, clearly, you’ve got to calculate the homeland security value in protecting us in the war against terrorism, the value of having those troops to protect us against blizzards, snowstorms or floods and things that the Guard does traditionally. I thought I was obligated to fight to protect Pennsylvania’s security.