Monday, April 28, 1997

Rendell in overdrive

Philadelphia hosted a "summit on volunteerism" that featured three Presidents and Gen. Colin Powell. It was the hyperactive mayor who stole the show.


Five thousand T-shirted volunteers and an invasion of national media poised expectantly at Marcus Foster Stadium heard the first strains of "Hail to the Chief."

And who should emerge, bounding onstage a few steps ahead of the President, the vice president and two former presidents . . . no one but Ed Rendell.

Who else?

Philadelphia's mayor put his signature all over yesterday's opening of the Presidents' Summit.
Not that he tried to outshine the luminaries. He was just himself - to the nth: a ubiquitous presence, a tireless orchestrator, a gemutlich host, a local hero.

And for a man who has stressed the need for America to repair its broken cities, it was just his kind of day.

There he was, hunched on hands and knees, paint roller in hand and specks of gray paint spattering his face, as he spent more than two hours painting the graffiti-defaced surface of an abandoned laundry building on Germantown Avenue.

And there he was, taking a whirlwind tour of the 8 1/2-mile cleanup of the avenue, his car screeching to a halt to order a city Graffiti Blaster to attack an undone corner.

And there he was, clambering upon just-erected equipment at the brand-new playground in Nicetown Park, happily testing the sturdiness of the one-day construction job that reclaimed a weedy lot for neighborhood kids, for one day assuring that Philadelphia indeed was Nicetown.

And there he was, posing for snapshots last evening with retired Gen. Colin Powell's arm around his shoulders and greeting thousands of summit delegates and local donors at "A Taste of Philadelphia," an evening reception at the Convention Center train shed sponsored by dozens of area restaurants.

And there he was at midnight, noshing and mixing at a dessert at the Art Museum that was disappointingly ill-attended because of rain and a Convention Center gala starring Oprah Winfrey that ran about two hours too long.

"A great day," Rendell said earlier as the cleanup wound down.

The best of his mayoralty?

"I don't know - how do you rank the best day? Because I've been fortunate enough to have a lot of good ones. But it's right up there."

Rendell hadn't dreamed up the summit. Nor had he lobbied for it to come to Philadelphia. He was skeptical of its goals, in fact, when it was first announced. But it wasn't long before he and a few key deputies immersed themselves in the planning.

The Germantown Avenue cleanup, for example: his idea. Summit organizers knew they wanted to hold some kind of volunteer event, but didn't know what. Rendell suggested something like last year's graffiti cleanup of Broad Street, this time a one-day, 5,000-person blitz.

"They looked at him like the light had just come on," said Kevin Feeley, a Rendell spokesman.
"And he said, 'Hey, we have a lot of other streets we could do.' " Market Street was considered.

But Germantown Avenue, which crosses a variety of neighborhoods and carries historic resonance, became the choice.

Rendell's day began at 5 a.m. The mayor rose early to take care of some lingering problems with ticket for dignitaries. By 8 he was doing NBC's Weekend Today from its booth at Independence Mall. By 8:30 he was at Marcus Foster Stadium, contending with a security guard who didn't recognize him.

He spoke to an endless number of television and radio reporters.

"Colin Powell said at dinner Saturday that [deputy mayor] Donna Cooper's plan for the invasion of Germantown Avenue rivaled the invasion of Normandy," Rendell told one. "The planning's been great. The weather's great now. Our big worry is the weather late tonight." He was right, it rained.

Onstage with the Bushes, the Carters, the Gores, the Clintons, Powell, Gov. Ridge and Sen. Arlen Specter, it was Rendell who came up with the typically effusive exclamation: "Perhaps the greatest assemblage of American leaders ever in one place."

Hugging and glad-handing the present and former chief executives, Rendell could barely sit still.
He barked logistical orders offstage. When the program ended, he turned traffic cop, hustling volunteers onto buses and sending the buses on their way.

The mayor hied up to where the colonial-era Germantown begins and began looking for graffiti to clean up. It wasn't clear immediately where he was to go. Impatience nearly undid him until his aides settled on a spot: the old Mannheim Laundry on the 5300 block of Germantown Avenue. In a bygone age, it was a livestock market.

Soon, passersby encountered their mayor on his hands and knees, his orange T-shirt and chinos getting dirtier by the minute as the limestone block front wall got its makeover. He was joined by a few aides, some children, his wife, U.S. District Judge Midge Rendell, their 17-year-old son Jesse, NBA great Bob Lanier, even a couple of reporters.

Midge Rendell, watching her husband, noted that his technique showed more enthusiasm than finesse. "We once tried painting a bedroom," she laughed, "and oh, my God - there was lots of flying paint."

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