U.S. Elections 2002 Ed Rendell, Quiet on Jewish Issues, Wins Bid for Pennsylvania Governor

Former Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell didn’t make his Jewishness a campaign issue, but when he appeared on the podium to make his victory speech after he was elected governor of Pennsylvania, his favorite rabbi was there.

“Now we know that, with God’s help and for the next eight years, he is going to be able to take this state and bring it from No. 48 to No. 1,” Rabbi Solomon Isaacson of Congregation Beth Solomon of Somerton said in an interview, referring to the state’s low ratings in many demographic and growth characteristics.

“But he needs the cooperation of everybody to work with him together. So bear with him,” continued the Orthodox rabbi, who caters to a largely Russian-immigrant community in Northeast Philadelphia.

“He made many difficult decisions as mayor that were initially unpopular with many people, but eventually everybody realized and saw that his decisions were the proper thing.”

On Tuesday, Rendell became the first Jew to be elected governor of Pennsylvania since Milton Shapp finished his second term in 1979.

The former Philadelphia mayor not only won his home base in Philadelphia, but he bested Republican Mike Fisher, the state attorney general, elsewhere in the state.

Rendell also won traditional Democratic counties around Pittsburgh, leading him to lay claim to a statewide mandate.

“Make no mistake about it. All over this state tonight, the people of Pennsylvania voted for change,” said Rendell on Tuesday night, standing on a podium in a Philadelphia hotel.

Rendell used his victory speech to announce a “campaign for change,” starting with education, an issue some critics say he failed to address during his tenure as mayor.

The governor-elect also promised to work hard to revitalize Pennsylvania’s economy, by attracting new and diverse jobs to the state, and to provide adequate health-care options to struggling seniors and uninsured children.

Only a handful of politicians and political analysts ever openly questioned whether a Jewish candidate could win statewide election.

Rendell made offhand remarks about the issue early on, but as his campaign picked up steam in the Democratic primary against Bob Casey. Jr., the state auditor general, he dismissed it as a factor.

“If there’s somebody out there who is not going to vote for a candidate purely on the basis of the fact that the candidate is Jewish,” Rendell told the Jewish Exponent in May, “that person was never likely to vote for a

big city mayor who is pro-choice and favors common-sense gun control. It was never in the cards to get that.”

Rendell rarely shared the details of his Jewish background with Pennsylvania voters, preferring instead to make the story of Philadelphia’s revitalization the central message of his campaign.

One of his few stumbles arose from an article in the Allentown Morning Call, which contrasted Rendell and Fisher on the basis of their religious practices.

Some observant Jews were bothered by the fact that Rendell, a secular Jew, repeated a derogatory remark his father used to make about regular synagogue-goers.

Most Jewish voters, however, simply shrugged, noting that this was just another case of “Ed being Ed.”

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