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Dynamic Duo: Two Powerhouses Get Set to Leave Center Stage

December 30, 2010 By:
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Political strategists: Ed Rendell (left) and Arlen Specter have much in common and have long been allies and friends -- and even neighbors.

For the past eight years, Pennsylvania has had a Jewish governor and a Jewish senator -- a scenario that never happened before and may never come again.

With U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, 80, having delivered his final floor speech and Gov. Ed Rendell, 66, marking the end of his two terms with a Jan. 2 party featuring the Beach Boys, an era in Philadelphia politics is drawing to a close.

While no one is suggesting that either Specter or Rendell -- who have more than 70 years in politics between them -- will exit the public stage, most observers consider it highly unlikely that either will seek elected office again.

As newspapers and political observers across the state take stock of their long careers, many Jews are considering the impact that two very different, but often intersecting, careers have had on the community.

While both Specter and Rendell declined to be interviewed for this piece, a number of Jewish political figures offered their observations.

Larry Ceisler, a communications strategist who worked in the administration of Philadelphia Mayor Wilson Goode, said the simultaneous departure of Specter and Rendell from office is "going to leave a tremendous void in the state, in the region and, I think, in the Jewish community."

Sounding a similar note, Jonathan Saidel, a former Philadelphia city controller who this year ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor, said he doubted he'd ever see such a combination of Jewish lawmakers again in his lifetime.

Though nearly 15 years apart in age, the two men have much in common and, despite being in opposite parties for most of their careers, have long been friends. By many accounts, Rendell was key in convincing Specter to switch parties in 2009. They even live within blocks of each other in the East Falls section of Philadelphia.

Both were born outside Pennsylvania -- Specter in Kansas and Rendell in New York -- and came to Philadelphia for higher education.

Each began their careers as prosecutors in the Philadelphia district attorney's office. In fact, in 1968, when Specter was the district attorney, he hired Rendell right out of Villanova Law School.

And, after being elected district attorney -- Specter in 1965 and Rendell in 1977 -- both suffered a series of crushing electoral defeats before ultimately finding their footing. Rendell has said that, after losing successive bids for Pennsylvania governor and Philadelphia mayor in the 1980s, it was Specter who encouraged him to try again. He went on to be elected Philadelphia mayor in 1991 and Pennsylvania governor in 2002.

"They both happen to be Jewish and, as political figures, they happened to be tremendously successful," said Mark Aronchick, a Center City lawyer and key figure in the local and national Democratic Party. "They both leave their respective stages with great, great accomplishments."

But their differences in style and substance may be as great as their similarities. Rendell's always been an outsized, charismatic personality and Specter a serious lawmaker unafraid to throw sharp elbows. That said, at times Specter has been known to turn on the charm and Rendell, a domestic policy wonk in his own right, to display his temper.

State Rep. Josh Shapiro (D-District 153) noted that Rendell likes to mix business and socializing, recalling how the governor had invited him to the mansion late at night to discuss policy, often switching back and forth between sports programs and cable news. Specter, famously, loves to spend his free time on the squash court. As for Specter, Shapiro first met the state's longest serving senator as an 11-year-old boy who traveled to Washington, D.C., with his family to advocate on behalf of Soviet Jews.

Religious Connections 
When it comes to their Jewish identities, they've expressed their connections in very different ways.

Specter has been more overt in describing his connections to Judaism. Specter and his wife Joan, longtime members of Congregation Mikveh Israel in Center City, switched over to Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley to be close to their son, daughter-in-law and four granddaughters, who have attended Jewish day school.

Specter often talks about his father, Harry Specter, who fled anti-Semitism and persecution in Czarist Russia, and growing up as one of the few Jewish families in Russell, Kan., a former staffer said.

Phil Goldberg, a Mount Airy resident who worked in Specter's Washington, D.C., office from 1982 to 1990, said Specter had explained to President Ronald Reagan that he opposed prayer in public school partly due to childhood memories of being the only student not praising the name of Jesus.

In response to the plethora of Christian Gospel study groups on Capitol Hill, Specter began one that focused on the Old Testament, which was attended by Jewish and non-Jewish members of the Senate, said Goldberg.

Goldberg said he always thought Specter's position on social issues, including his pro-choice stance, stemmed from his Jewish values. His position on abortion, of course, put him at odds with his party for decades. "Criticism toughened him up," said Goldberg. "Arlen would dig his heels in. He was certainly not afraid of a fight."

Specter will probably always be best known for his work on Supreme Court confirmation hearings, notably his 1991 grilling of Anita Hill during the hearings for Clarence Thomas. His role in sinking the chances of Reagan nominee Robert Bork might not be far behind.

But he became a reliable voice on Jewish causes, whether it was on Soviet Jewry or military aid to Israel. In fact, there's trepidation in some circles that Specter's replacement, Republican Pat Toomey, will vote against foreign aid when it comes up.

It's telling that, just last week, Specter chose to introduce a bill that would restore the legal right of Holocaust survivors to sue in American courts to collect the claims of World War II-era insurance policies.

But Specter's connection with the regime in Syria at times irked some pro-Israel advocates who saw little prospect for peace between Jerusalem and Damascus. He's also long pressed for dialogue with Iran.

Steve Feldman, a former reporter for the Jewish Exponent who's now executive director of the Greater Philadelphia district of the Zionist Organization of America, said that Specter "seemed to have a special relationship with Syria, and didn't seem as willing to be as tough with Syria as he needed to be."

With Specter's departure from the Senate, U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz will become the state's lone Jewish member of Congress. "I do feel some responsibility, now that I am the only Jewish representative on behalf of Pennsylvania, that I, even more so, really stay in touch with the Jewish community," Schwartz said.

A Complicated Relationship 
Rendell's relationship to the Jewish community has been more complicated. On the one hand, observers said, the governor's accomplishments, particularly regarding the way he turned around the city of Philadelphia, have long been a source of Jewish pride. On the other hand, Rendell has rankled Jewish leaders, perhaps more than Specter, with some of the choices he's made.

The dedication ceremony for the National Museum of American Jewish History was one of the few times he spoke publicly of having pride in his Jewish heritage.

At the November event, Rendell -- the second Jewish governor in the state's history -- recounted his father telling him that even though he wouldn't go through formal religious education, he should never forget his identity or the freedom this country afforded Jews to preserve their traditions.

This museum, he went on, "made sure that the story will always be told; that the lessons will never be silenced. It deserves to be told and it deserves to be told in a building every bit as great as this one."

Rabbi Solomon Isaacson of Congregation Beth Solomon Kollel and Community Center -- which has a sanctuary named after Rendell's mother -- has known the governor since he first ran for district attorney.

It's true, Isaacson said, that Rendell rarely comes to services and, in fact, has always been somewhat uncomfortable with being seen as a Jewish leader.

Recently, the rabbi said, the governor agreed to a request to move a Jewish prisoner closer to Philadelphia so his elderly father would be able to visit. But he was motivated to do good deeds for people of all backgrounds, Isaacson said.

"He was always concerned about the welfare of other people," said Isaacson. "He didn't show any favoritism whatsoever to anybody of the Jewish faith; whatever he did for them he would do for anybody else."

To be sure, over the years, Rendell has spoken out on behalf of Soviet Jewry and Israel. But according to Isaacson and others, his real impact on the Jewish community has come from his general initiatives, from his push as mayor to revitalize Center City to his efforts as governor to steer more state funding to education.

A Popular Mayor 
While occupying the governor's mansion, Rendell was also considered a reliable ally in pushing for funding for social service agencies. But in some instances, Jewish leaders would have preferred that he take a more aggressive stance. For example, while he signed into law a bill that allowed state pensions to divest from firms that did business with Iran, he never really lobbied on its behalf and opted not to have a signing ceremony.

Rendell was an overwhelmingly popular mayor, but he quickly found it harder to set the agenda in a big, diverse state where Philadelphia is not always viewed favorably.

Howard Cohen, a Main Line Republican businessman who served in the administrations of presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, described Rendell as a "great mayor of Philadelphia, which is a very hard job. It's an open question as to whether he will go down as a great governor."

At times, Rendell openly clashed with members of the Jewish community, particularly when he served as mayor. The most striking example came in 1997, when in an effort to cool racial tensions in the city, he invited Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan -- known for numerous anti-Semitic remarks -- to speak.

Ten years later, shortly into his second term in Harrisburg, Rendell stirred controversy again when he agreed to attend an event sponsored by the Pennsylvania chapter of the Council on Islamic-American Relations, a controversial Muslim group. In the end, U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak took much more heat for his decision to attend than Rendell ever did, in part because Sestak ran for the Senate.

"Rendell is kind of made of teflon, it seems," said Feldman, adding that "he seems to have more political lives than a cat" -- a sentiment that's been used to describe Specter as well.

Rendell's supporters argued that he's the kind of politician who will talk to anybody and favors open dialogue, which is why he spearheaded a rally for religious tolerance earlier in the fall, during the height of the controversy surrounding plans to build a Muslim community center near ground zero.

In the end, Cohen said that what the Jewish community is losing is akin to what the state as a whole is losing -- two leaders who exemplify competence, integrity and, in an increasingly partisan era, an ability to work with the other party.

"Both are smart, thoughtful people dedicated to public service. I hope that is a Jewish tradition," said Cohen, briefly a Republican candidate for Congress before U.S. Rep. Jim Gerlach decided to seek re-election.

Rhona Gerber, a Center City resident who worked as a consultant to Specter's campaign and happened to attend the same Center City swim club as Rendell, said it's far too early to assess the legacy of either man.

"I don't think either one has accomplished everything they want to accomplish. There is still more they each wish to do," said Gerber. "They still want to change the world."

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