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A passion that's not politically correct

Published February 5, 2005

[AP photo]
Rendell waves an Eagles flag during a pep rally in the Capitol. For the past seven years, he has done an Eagles postgame show.

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JACKSONVILLE - At its core, politics is nothing more than a series of choices. The choice between taxes and deficits. Between the environment and growth. Between security and civil liberties.

Between the state budget and the Eagles.

Yeah, well, not much choice there.

In Pennsylvania, the Eagles come first.

So says the No. 1 politician in the state, who also happens to be Pennsylvania's most visible Eagles fan, too.

The budget was supposed to be presented on Feb. 8, but Gov. Ed Rendell convinced the Legislature to push it back a day to allow time for Eagles fans to return from the Super Bowl. And, perhaps, to squeeze in a parade.

Any chance Rendell, who is predicting an Eagles victory, might care to double his budget with a bet on the game?

"Our problems are a little too enormous to try that," Rendell said. "I am a true believer, but I couldn't wager state money on the game."

Rendell, 61, does not seem shy about investing in the Eagles in other ways. With his time. With his passion. And, some have occasionally suggested, with his political credibility.

For the past seven years, Rendell has done an Eagles postgame show for Comcast SportsNet in Philadelphia. It began when he was the city's mayor, continued through his time as chairman for the Democratic National Committee during the 2000 presidential election, and survives today.

His Rolodex may hold the numbers of Bill Clinton and Al Gore, but it also has Andy Reid's fax number. You never know when the need will arise to send an uncomplimentary newspaper story to Reid for bulletin board material.

"He probably doesn't need it," Rendell said. "But just in case."

Yes, NFL fans, meet Ed Rendell. Attorney. Politician. Ivy League professor.

And avowed Eagles nut.

Rendell has had season tickets for the Eagles for more than 30 years, and describes himself as a typical Philadelphia fan. That is to say, he's very loyal. And maybe a little rowdy.

When he was the district attorney in the late 1980s, Rendell famously challenged a tipsy fan to throw a snowball onto the field from the notoriously boisterous 700 section of Veterans Stadium.

Some versions of the story say the fan was aiming at Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson. Others say Rendell paid the guy $20 for the heave. Rendell says he was merely trying to keep the drunk from doing any real harm.

"He's just like any other Philadelphia fan, he lives and dies Eagles football," Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie said. "He's been a great supporter of this team, and everyone recognizes that."

That includes the western half of the state. Two weeks ago, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh were both playing in conference championship games. Rendell not only chose to attend the Eagles game, he also said there was no way he would remain neutral if the Steelers and Eagles met in the Super Bowl.

How does he get away with that?

By being true to himself. It's not his nature to straddle a fence. He has a passion for this team, and he says other true fans respect that.

"Look, que sara sara," Rendell said. "If someone is going to vote against me in the Pittsburgh area because I'm an Eagles fan, so be it.

"Actually ... Steelers fans are the same type of fans as Eagles fans. You know, hard-rooting, wear their hearts on their sleeves, beer-drinking. Patriots fans, they're all white wine and quiche."

This is the image Rendell projects on the Eagles postgame show. He is there as a stand-in for the average fan. He doesn't profess to be an expert, he just wants to ask the questions the people in the bleachers are asking.

It is, he says, his form of recreation. John Kerry has wind surfing, George W. Bush has his ranch, Rendell has the Eagles.

When he was chairman of the DNC during the Gore-Bush race in 2000, Rendell somehow found time during the campaign to do every postgame show but one.

It's a bizarre hobby for one of the more well-known politicians in the country. A man once called America's Mayor by Gore, and a governor whose name has again come up in discussions about the Democratic party's leadership.

Off the set and out of the stands, Rendell is known as a master fundraiser. His skills were, in fact, curiously embraced by both parties during the 2000 presidential campaign.

As mayor, Rendell successfully recruited the Republican Party to hold its convention in Philadelphia, in part by promising to raise $10-million.

At the same time, he was hand-picked by Clinton and Gore to be the chairman of the DNC, making him the party's main fundraiser and one of its most visible spokesmen in an election year.

So do his political friends ever roll their eyes at his devotion?

"Yeah, some of them," Rendell said. "But I don't care."

When he became governor two years ago, Rendell went to great lengths to avoid potential conflicts of interest. He resigned his law firm partnership and gave up his seat on the board of directors for three corporations, costing him about $280,000 in annual income.

But the Eagles? Not on your life. He has continued to attend games, and remains on the postgame show, donating his $10,000 salary to charity.

Rendell suggests it's perfectly natural for a politician to be involved in a city's sports scene. Just look, he says, at the frenzy in Philadelphia.

"The richest guy in Philadelphia stops for a shoe shine and he and the shoe shine guy talk about whether T.O. is going to play. And they're both equals," Rendell said. "It brings a community and a region together like nothing else in our experience in America.

"There's an incredible amount of civic pride, and that civic pride matters."

It is nearing time for Rendell to roll. He has a couple of radio shows to do. He's also being faxed a copy of a lawsuit just filed against Penn State's law school. He has a meeting with his chief of staff this morning and still has to finish his speech for the budget presentation.

Not to mention an Eagles pregame show to be taped.

Neither a governor's, nor a fan's, job is ever done.

[Last modified February 5, 2005, 00:57:15]

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