Pay raise, Rendell pivotal in Pa. political decade

AP News
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Posted: Dec 28, 2009 12:49 PM

Two forces influenced Pennsylvania politics in the first decade of the 21st century more than anything else _ the Legislature's ill-fated, midnight pay grab and the irrepressible Ed Rendell.

Voter anger over lawmakers' clandestine 2005 vote to fatten their salaries became the catalyst for much of what followed, including the ouster of two dozen incumbents and an ongoing corruption probe that has resulted in the arrests of 25 people connected to the House of Representatives.

Terry Madonna, a professor and pollster at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, said the pay-raise fallout, the criminal prosecutions of legislators and the annual state budget gridlock have produced a "demonstrable decline in the confidence level that voters have in state government."

Rendell, a nationally prominent political figure who served as governor throughout most of the decade, built his reputation on a combination of cash, charm and chutzpah.

The Democrat shattered state fundraising records, raising tens of millions of dollars in each of his campaigns. Rendell has governed as a progressive pragmatist, driving hard bargains with legislative Republicans on initiatives from increased education spending to the expansion of legalized gambling.

Overall, the past 10 years have been kind to Democrats. To Republicans, who now lag Democrats in statewide voter registration by 1.2 million, not so much.

"I'm kind of glad to see this decade go," said Rob Gleason, the state GOP chairman since 2006.

In 2000, as Texas Gov. George W. Bush prepared to accept the presidential nomination in Philadelphia at the Republican National Convention, the political grapevine hummed with speculation that he would pick then-Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge as the vice presidential nominee.

It never happened. Bush and running mate Dick Cheney went on to win an election that hinged on a hotly contested ballot recount in Florida. Democrat Al Gore, then the vice president, carried Pennsylvania.

Also in Washington, Pennsylvania's junior senator, Rick Santorum, was elected to a second term and elevated to the No. 3 leadership position, reflecting the GOP's increasingly conservative streak.

In Philadelphia, Rendell rode a wave of popularity out of the mayor's office after two terms and took a high-profile job as general chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

In Harrisburg, several state legislators resigned after being convicted of crimes. They included longtime Senate GOP leader F. Joseph Loeper of Delaware County, who pleaded guilty to federal tax-law violations and later served six months in prison; and former Rep. Thomas Druce, a Bucks County Republican who served two years in prison for trying to cover up his role in a hit-and-run accident that killed a Harrisburg pedestrian.

In 2001, Ridge finally got an invitation to join the Bush administration. In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he stepped down to accept an appointment as the nation's first homeland security chief.

Mark Schweiker, who had been lieutenant governor, was sworn in as governor to serve out the 15 months left in Ridge's term.

In 2002, Rendell became the first Philadelphian to be elected governor in 88 years after a grueling campaign in which he raised and spent more than $40 million.

It was a special victory for Rendell, who lost the 1986 gubernatorial primary to Robert Casey, who went on to serve two terms as governor. In 2002, Rendell defeated Casey's son _ state Auditor General Bob Casey _ in an often-bitter primary battle and beat Republican state Attorney General Mike Fisher in the fall.

T.J. Rooney, a former legislator whom Rendell installed as chairman of the Democratic State Committee in the early weeks of his administration in 2003, said Rendell made it clear he expected the party's leaders to end lingering feuds from the divisive primary and work together to win elections.

"Everybody was (angry) at everybody," Rooney said. "We just decided the best thing we can do is not fight. We didn't change the culture. We changed the mindset a little bit."

Catherine Baker Knoll, a former state treasurer whom party members picked to be Rendell's running mate, made history by being elected as Pennsylvania's first female lieutenant governor.

Working with Republicans who control the state Senate by a 3-2 margin, Rendell pushed through increased spending for public schools, the legalization of slot machine gambling to finance property-tax cuts and an expansion of economic development programs.

But they clashed regularly over state spending and tax increases that the governor has championed.

In 2003, a partisan showdown left Pennsylvania as the only state without a complete budget after Rendell withheld more than $4 billion in school subsidies to use as leverage in budget talks.

He released the money halfway through the fiscal year, after lawmakers approved $1 billion in new taxes to boost education spending and ward off a deficit.

That first year set the tone for the six budgets that followed: none was finished by the June 30 deadline.

Throughout his tenure, Rendell has been a dependable rainmaker for his party, contributing millions of dollars to state and local Democratic organizations as well as individual candidates.

In 2004, U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter was elected to a fifth six-year term, but only after a near-loss in the GOP primary to conservative Pat Toomey, a former congressman from the Allentown area.

In the presidential race, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts became the second Democrat in a row to carry Pennsylvania, while Bush won the national election.

The infamous pay-raise bill, which also boosted salaries for 1,000 judges and top executive-branch officials, was approved without a public hearing and with little advance notice.

It increased the minimum legislative salary by 16 percent to more than $81,000 and increased leaders' pay by as much as 54 percent. It even allowed lawmakers to collect the money right away _ end-running a constitutional ban _ by authorizing the payment of "unvouchered expenses" equal to the raises.

Constituents vented their anger in letters to newspapers and lawmakers. Editorial writers accused the Legislature of arrogance and radio talk-show hosts helped fan the flames. There were lawsuits challenging the legality of the raises and raucous protest rallies that occasionally featured a giant inflatable pig on the steps of the Capitol.

Voters' anger was evident at the polls in November, even in the absence of legislative elections. State Supreme Court Justice Russell Nigro became the first statewide judge to be denied another term in a normally routine yes-or-no "retention" vote, after activists targeted him as a symbol of the pay raise.

Barely a week later, the Legislature repealed the pay-raise law _ just 132 days after it had been passed.

Democrats celebrated in 2006, as Bob Casey answered the call of national party leaders to become the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate and unseated Santorum in his bid for a third term.

Rendell was re-elected, easily turning back a GOP challenge by former Pittsburgh Steelers star Lynn Swann.

Democrats recaptured long-sought majorities in Pennsylvania's delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives and regained control of the state House of Representatives.

Voters cleaned house in the first legislative elections since the pay-raise brouhaha _ ousting 17 incumbent lawmakers in the primary and seven others in the general election.

In 2007, spurred by news reports, state Attorney General Tom Corbett launched an investigation into millions of dollars in bonuses that legislative leaders paid to staff members in 2005 and 2006.

In 2008, midway through his re-election campaign, Republican Corbett announced the first arrests resulting from the grand jury probe _ 12 people connected to the House Democratic caucus, including former Democratic Whip Mike Veon. The charges allege the illegal use of taxpayers' money and resources for political purposes.

Democrat Barack Obama carried Pennsylvania in his victorious presidential campaign, putting Pennsylvania on the winning side for the first time since Bill Clinton was re-elected in 1996. Statewide voter registration surged to record levels, reflecting vigorous campaigning in the Democratic primary and the general election.

In November, Knoll died of cancer. Republican Senate President Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnati of Jefferson County was automatically elevated to lieutenant governor.

This year, less than two weeks after Toomey announced he would seek Specter's Senate seat again in 2010, Specter announced that, after more than four decades as a Republican, he was rejoining the Democratic Party he left in the '60s. Specter said his chances of beating Toomey in an increasingly conservative GOP were slim.

Meanwhile, as candidates line up to compete in 2010 for party nominations for governor, Congress and the Legislature, corruption remains on the front burner.

Former Sen. Vincent Fumo of Philadelphia, a Democratic power broker for decades, was convicted of 137 fraud, obstruction and tax evasion counts in federal court earlier this year. He is serving a 4 1/2-year prison term.

Corbett has arrested 13 additional people from both parties connected to the state House of Representatives, including two sitting legislators _ Republican John Perzel of Philadelphia and Democrat Bill DeWeese of Greene County _ who previously served as speaker.

The only defendant to be tried so far, former Rep. Sean Ramaley of Beaver County, was acquitted on all counts earlier this month.