- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 18, 2003

Republicans in Pennsylvania are showing that they can play the kind of hardball politics for which Democrats long have been famous, both sides say — with almost equal astonishment.

“Surprisingly, Republicans showed they can be shrewd, smart and savvy,” said Tony May, a Democratic political consultant and former Democratic state party chairman.

The Republican-controlled legislature outsmarted Gov. Edward G. Rendell over a proposed tax increase.

Mr. Rendell, a former Philadelphia mayor who was Democratic national chairman under President Clinton, thought he had forced the Republican-controlled legislature to give him a full percentage-point increase in the state income tax. Instead, in a deal announced yesterday, he got less than three-tenths of a percent, Mr. May said.

“The problem was that one of the teams was playing golf and the other football,” Mr. May said. “Rendell thought he could win with the fewest strokes, but the Republicans kept pushing him back down the field all year.”

Republicans couldn’t help gloating.

“Rendell made a bush-league mistake,” said Rep. Melissa A. Hart, a Republican from Pittsburgh who was a state senator for 10 years before winning a seat in Congress. “He sent a budget that they approved but that he didn’t want them to approve. So people look and say: ‘Does this guy know what he’s doing?’”

“The governor tried to put the Republican legislature between the dog and fire hydrant,” said Charles R. Gerow, president of the Penn Center, a conservative think tank in Harrisburg. “But the Republicans, filled with jolt of testosterone, uncharacteristically did the right and smart thing.”

House Speaker John Prezell, a Republican from Philadelphia, crows over having put one over on Mr. Rendell.

“He said he hated this budget with every fiber of his body, so we passed it in 48 hours,” said Mr. Prezell. “There are tragedies in life: One is to want something for your whole life and not get it, and the other is to get it.”

Republican Colin Hanna, the elected Chester County Commission chairman, said of Mr. Rendell’s defeat: “It was a perfect case of somebody being hoisted by his petard.”

Widely regarded as one of the Democrats’ rising national stars, Mr. Rendell won the governorship easily a year ago and was considered a shoe-in for a second term.

But Republicans now are so convinced they have made him vulnerable that Bill Scranton Jr., a Republican and the son of one of the state’s most famous past governors, is preparing to challenge Mr. Rendell.

“We’re getting more interested,” Mr. Scranton said in an interview last weekend. “We’ll be forming a political action committee soon.”

Pennsylvania, which George W. Bush lost to Al Gore in the 2000 presidential contest, has had its share of Republican governors, the latest of whom was Tom Ridge, now the Homeland Security secretary. Mr. Rendell beat Mike Fisher, the Republican attorney general, in November 2002 by nine percentage points.

But the state’s Republicans have — or did have — a history of meeting Democrats more than halfway on taxes and spending.

“When [Democrat] Bob Casey was governor, Republicans agreed to the largest tax increase in Pennsylvania history in the early 1990s,” said state Republican Party Chairman Alan Novak. “We didn’t play hardball and lived to regret it. Our guys made sure they understood it wasn’t going to happen again.”

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