Ed Rendell knows the calls will soon start coming in. After all, when you call a wide array of image-sensitive politicians “wusses,” backlash is all but guaranteed.
That didn’t stop the former governor and Philadelphia mayor from engaging in a Q-and-A to determine whether any Northwest Philadelphia elected officials fit that diminutive bill on Monday.
Part of that willingness can be chalked up to marketing on the first day that his new book, “A Nation of Wusses: How America’s Leaders Lost The Guts To Make Us Great” was available to the purchasing public.
The rest, Rendell said in his Center City office, can be explained by the fact that the East Falls resident never much cared for biting his tongue.
“No one is a complete non-wuss,” said Rendell, before listing personal non-wuss bona fides that included being a district attorney who indicted police officers who were caught on tape beating MOVE’s Delbert Africa, a mayor who faced off against the municipal unions and a governor who backed a tax increase early in his first term.
Despite those “three fairly courageous acts,” he noted that he was a wuss for agreeing to sign off on legislative pay raises in 2005.
“I signed a bill that was a horrible bill,” he conceded, noting that there were threats that his legislation would get gummed up if he didn’t do so. “I should have called their bluff.”
Who’s a Northwest Philly wuss?
That was the caveat he offered before weighing in on whether several Northwest Philadelphia officials – or his successors as district attorney and mayor – qualified as the term which gained international exposure after he called the City fathers for backing the NFL’s decision to cancel an Eagles game in 2010 because of snow forecasts.
We started with Michael Nutter, who was resident Rendell’s district councilperson before moving into his old offices on the second floor of City Hall as Mayor. In the book, Rendell refers to Nutter as a “weenie” for wearing a Phillies hat and jersey when he threw out a first pitch at Citizens Bank Park.
“Michael, on balance, is a non-wuss. He’s willing to do what he believes in,” Rendell said. “The ‘soda tax’ was unpopular, but he fought for it. He was also for Hillary [Clinton in the Democratic primary versus Barack Obama] which was an extremely difficult position for African-American elected officials to take.”
Sticking with his successors, Rendell said “it’s too early to tell” where current District Attorney Seth Williams falls on that wuss/non-wuss spectrum. He lauded Williams’ efforts in the Catholic sex scandal, and supporting alternative sentencing efforts, as plusses, though.
Current state Rep. Dwight Evans is a “non-wuss because he fights for what he believes in” as is former U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, who also lives in East Falls.
“He was staring down the barrel of a gun. When he cast a vote for [President Obama’s] stimulus package, I think he knew he was looking down at an open grave,” said Rendell, equating the grave to knowing he would not win re-election as a result. “He’s definitely a non-wuss.”
When asked to rank U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, Rendell hedged his bets, to a certain degree.
“It’s tough to say,” he noted. “But, he generally fights for what he believes in.”
It was tough to say because his “favorite wusses are Democrats in Congress and Republicans in Congress” who, respectively, refuse to make cuts to entitlement programs or raise taxes out of self-preservation and bowing to the opinions of their political bases.
“We can’t get rid of this deficit without spending cuts and increased revenues,” he said, noting that blunt, honest talk served him well throughout his political career. “As long as Congress stays like this, there is literally no hope for this country. Most wussy politicians underestimate the public.”
East Falls vignettes in the book
Rendell said that over the course of 18 months, he wrote the first “A Nation of Wusses” draft in longhand, which would then be transcribed.
While much of it reads biographically in the sense that the stories shared play in to Rendell’s take on current-day politics in America – he is bipartisan in his criticisms, noting that President Obama has had trouble seizing his bully pulpit and gushing over Hillary Clinton as his preferred POTUS in 2016 – he noted that he wanted to “make it as fun a read as I could.”
Stories steeped in Rendell’s East Falls residency straddle that serious/fun line.
Hearkening back to 1992, and the showdown between City Hall and the municipal unions, he recounted a scene at his son Jesse’s East Falls Little League playoff game.
There, a father from the other team approached him to talk labor, what with his working for the city Water Department.
“He started giving me grief about being too hard on city workers,” Rendell wrote. “The last thing I wanted to do was get into an argument over this at my son’s baseball game. I didn’t have to.”
That’s because the fathers of other players – non-union workers – stepped up and started “reciting chapter and verse what I had been saying for months. I knew at that moment that we would win.”
In another chapter, he lauds East Falls as “a great little section of Philadelphia … [with] blue collar families and professionals, gays and straight, old and young, rich and not so rich. … Our neighborhood is beautiful, friendly (carolers still go house to house) and full of spirit and pride.”
“I could live virtually anywhere, but I can’t conceive of ever leaving the Falls.”
As for why he chose to parlay a quote about a football game into a takedown of politics as usual, Rendell said it was about recording his experiences for posterity’s sake, and more.
“I didn’t write it to make money,” he said. “I thought it would help me remember, memorialize, to be able to look back … and to galvanize people. “The reason leaders are wusses is they don’t hear from ordinary folks. All they hear from are special interests like the NRA. That has to change.”