A challenger in Pennsylvania

Posted: Jul 23, 2006 12:01 AM
A challenger in Pennsylvania

PITTSBURGH -- If you stand Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell next to his opponent, Lynn Swann, you would think the burly Rendell is the former football star. The former two-term mayor of Philadelphia radiates the pugnacious energy of a linebacker for his Philadelphia Eagles. But the comparatively slender Swann, who speaks softly and moves with a dancer's silky smoothness, is the one who played nine seasons as a wide receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers and hopes to become Pennsylvania's first African-American governor.

Swann can take encouragement from recent examples of famous amateurs -- e.g., Arnold Schwarzenegger, two Bush brothers -- making governor an entry-level political job. Rendell is an old pro, a political lifer who got his first job as Philadelphia's assistant district attorney in 1968 at age 24 from the DA, Republican Arlen Specter, who is now chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Governors can raise bushels of money from people whose interests intersect with the executive branch of state government, and many people flinch from giving to a challenger who might fail to unseat a sitting governor. Rendell campaign ads have been on the air for weeks. Swann says he will be on ``at a more traditional time," around Labor Day, by which time, Rendell says, he hopes the race will be over.

Swann will be outspent by a lot, but he hopes his celebrity will get voters' attention, and that he then can persuade them that a change in Harrisburg is required to create jobs and stimulate the economy. But the state's unemployment rate (4.8 percent) is not much higher than the nation's (4.6). And this is one of the few states where private-sector labor unions are still politically potent.

Pennsylvania politics have been roiled by the public's backlash against a pay raise the Legislature voted for itself and other officials. But so far the chief effect of this has been to arouse some conservative Republicans to help defeat Republicans complicit in the pay raise. And the sight of bumper stickers that say ``Remember the pay raise" suggests that people need to be reminded.

The state also has recently been a cockpit for culture wars: The town of Dover voted out of office all eight school board members seeking re-election because the board had tried to insinuate religion, in the form of ``intelligent design" theory, into high school biology classes, beginning with a mandatory decree that evolution ``is not a fact."

Such social conservatism is, Rendell says, one reason there is a ``sea change" under way in the state. He points to suburban Chester County (west of Philadelphia), the state's only southeastern county to twice support George W. Bush and which had not elected a Democratic state senator since the 1870s. In a state senate race this May, which Rendell describes as between two good county commissioners, both of them pro-choice, the Democrat won a 12-point landslide.

Republican Sen. Rick Santorum, a favorite of social conservatives, is in an uphill struggle to hold his seat. His campaign should help Swann's by energizing the Republican base. But, says Rendell contentedly, the Republican vote consists of three increasingly incompatible factions: the loyal base, the disappointed base that may not vote, and Republican moderates who are ``fast concluding there's no place for them in the party." From ``gay-bashing" to restrictions on stem cell research, he says, ``they're appalled by it all."

Rendell believes that the reason there are 12 ``Democratic governors of red states" is that people sharply distinguish between state and national issues. In this state, the elderly, who are more concerned with security of social services than with economic growth, are unusually important. Pennsylvania's population is the nation's third oldest -- only Florida's and West Virginia's are older -- because, Rendell says, of the state's ``ethnic makeup": Germans, Slavs, Poles, Italians who ``want to be around their families."

Swann is trailing Rendell, who is a fierce campaigner. In the 2002 Democratic gubernatorial primary, Rendell once trailed Bob Casey Jr., the son of a popular former governor (and this year's Democratic nominee against Santorum), by 22 points but won by 13. In the 2002 general election, Rendell lost 49 of 67 counties, but piled up huge majorities in the Pittsburgh and Philadelphia media markets. It has been said that Pennsylvania consists of those southeastern and southwestern regions, with Alabama in between -- the T-shaped conservative remainder of the state.

A Swann aide insists that his man generates intensity, whereas Rendell is so familiar his campaign slogan should be ``another century of service." Unfortunately for Swann, Pennsylvanians seem to savor continuity: They have never defeated an incumbent governor.