During his eight years as Pennsylvania governor, Ed Rendell was never afraid to speak his mind. And in December 2010, after a blizzard in Philadelphia forced the cancellation of an Eagles football game, Rendell went on TV to complain we were becoming a "nation of wusses." The now-former governor has written a book by the same title, and took time out from a publicity campaign to talk to City Paper about what makes a wuss, his successor's budget cuts, and whether Obama really could lose Pennsylvania this November.
You've made many controversial or sometimes outlandish statements during your career. Why do you think the "nation of wusses" line has gotten so much play?
Because I think people believe that it's true. Our elected officials are so afraid of losing their jobs that they've paralyzed this country with inaction. We need risk-takers, because we're just not getting anything done.
Were you ever a wuss as governor?
I think when you look at most of what I did as governor, I was clearly not a wuss. I always had the courage to do the right thing even if it was unpopular. I enacted the second-largest tax increase ever during my first term as governor. Nobody ever did that before. They'd do something like that in maybe the second or third term, or when they weren't running for re-election. Three years later, I ran for re-election, the Republicans ran ads promising tax reform and promised not to raise taxes. You know what? I won by 21 points. I honestly believe people don't mind paying more in taxes as long as they're getting something in return.
There had to be one wuss-like decision you regret ...
In 2005, after originally turning down the pay raise in 2004, the legislature threatened that they wouldn't approve any of my legislation if I didn't approve the pay raise. I should have called their bluff, but I got scared and wussed out. That was a bad day for Pennsylvania.
Gov. Tom Corbett says his budget cuts to higher education and social services are tough but necessary. What do you make of his budgetary approach?
Well, he's definitely not a wuss for making those cuts. He told the voters before he was elected that he wouldn't raise taxes and fees and that would mean cuts in programs. Now, I don't agree with some of his policies, but he's sticking to his guns.
You often get credit for making education a priority. Does it rankle you to see cuts in those programs?
It bothers me, sure. We made some tremendous progress in this state in education, and to see programs like after-school tutoring go away because of cutbacks I think is going to be very detrimental to us in the long term. But again, he told everyone he was going to do this. It's not a surprise.
In fact, Corbett often says he's had to make these cuts because of the financial conditions caused by your eight years in office. How do you respond to that?
When I left office, unemployment was 7.4 percent, and the Wall Street Journal called Pennsylvania one of the 10 most fiscally stable states in the nation. The recession has had an effect on every state, but when I left, Pennsylvania was doing well, and if he's said different, then he's mistaken. You can look it up.
[Editor's Note: We did. Unemployment for December 2010, Rendell's last month in office, was 8.5 percent, but still well below the national average. And in 2009, the Washington, D.C.-based Pew Center on the States — as reported by the WSJ — did rank Pennsylvania as the seventh-most fiscally stable state.]
Last year, Corbett and the state legislature passed onerous restrictions on medical clinics that provide abortions — something they said was a response to horrible conditions discovered in Dr. Kermit Gosnell's Philadelphia abortion clinic. Clearly, state officials during your tenure missed what was going on. Do you ever wonder if the oversight had been sufficient, these restrictions wouldn't have been enacted?
Listen, there's no question that there was a lack of appropriate oversight in that case. But these restrictions were politically motivated, and they were coming in regardless. It was a convenient excuse for them to use, and if that hadn't happened, they would have found something else.
You've said you think Pennsylvania is in play this November, even though polls consistently have Barack Obama ahead of Mitt Romney — by 6 points in a recent poll. Why do you think there's still a chance for Romney to beat Obama?
Six points four-and-a-half months away from the election is nothing. We have a very fluid electorate here in Pennsylvania, and a lot of things can happen that could change the outcome. Also, it wasn't too long ago that Obama's lead was 15 points. I think it would be dangerous to start thinking now that [Obama] can't lose Pennsylvania.