Fajt emerges as key member of Rendell team

Former legislator directed Revenue Department, now earning praise as governor's chief of staff

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HARRISBURG -- Greg Fajt, the chief of staff for Gov. Ed Rendell, is proof of the old saying that "you can take the boy out of Pittsburgh but you can't take Pittsburgh out of the boy."

Mr. Fajt -- who is a lawyer, an accountant, an ex-state legislator and an ex-state revenue secretary -- has a Steelers helmet, autographed by the "Steel Curtain" defense of the 1970s, sitting front-and-center on a window ledge in his Harrisburg office, which has a door leading into Mr. Rendell's office.

And there's more. Mr. Fajt, who was born in Greensburg and now lives in Mt. Lebanon, has a framed photo of himself and Steeler running back Rocky Bleier next to the helmet. On one wall hangs an oversized framed photograph of the 1960 World Champion Pirates. A folded flag from the recent U.S. Open golf tournament, held in June at the Oakmont Country Club, is propped up on a table, and a model Port Authority bus glides across his bookcase.

Stating the obvious, he said, "I'm a Pittsburgh guy through and through.''

You might think that this could create some strain with the boss, since Mr. Fajt sits so close to Philadelphia's No. 1 sports fan. Mr. Rendell is a former Philadelphia mayor and a current post-game TV commentator for Eagles football games. But Mr. Fajt insists there's no sports-related friction.

"I'm as hard-core a Pittsburgh fan as he is a Philly fan," said Mr. Fajt (pronounced "fight.'')

Although they kid each other about backing the wrong teams, Mr. Fajt and Mr. Rendell agree on most other things. The governor named Mr. Fajt as chief of staff in May when Philadelphia lawyer John Estey, who had the job in Mr. Rendell's first term, said he'd rather work out of the governor's Philadelphia office so he could spend more time with his family.

It's a bit of a surprise that Mr. Fajt is working for Mr. Rendell at all. After all, Mr. Fajt backed the wrong horse in the May 2002 Democratic gubernatorial primary. He was supporting then-state Treasurer Robert P. Casey Jr., who lost the nomination to Mr. Rendell.

But Mr. Fajt, 52, said he and Mr. Rendell were never political enemies. He recalled meeting Mr. Rendell in the 1990s, when Mr. Rendell was the Democratic mayor of Philadelphia and Mr. Fajt was a new Democrat in the state House. He stayed there for six years, then lost a bid for the state Senate in 1996. He returned to Pittsburgh to work for a law firm.

After Mr. Rendell became the Democratic gubernatorial candidate in May 2002, Mr. Fajt jumped on the train. When Mr. Rendell won in November, a transition committee asked Mr. Fajt, who is also a certified public accountant, to head the state Department of Revenue in the new administration.

He initially said no, figuring he'd have to take a pay cut and have to do a lot of traveling between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh. He wouldn't say what he was making as a lawyer but it was more than the revenue secretary's 2003 salary of $112,000.

But after a second request and an interview with the persuasive Mr. Rendell, Mr. Fajt took the cabinet job. Now he says that working for Mr. Rendell is "the best job I've ever had."

Rendell aide Chuck Ardo said that Mr. Fajt has "an innate sense of integrity. He doesn't need to think about doing the right thing because he does it without hesitation.''

As the state's top tax collector, Mr. Fajt kept overall track of $27 billion in annual state tax revenues, enforced state tax laws, supervised the Pennsylvania lottery -- whose profits grew during his tenure -- and managed the department's 2,200 employees.

He's only been chief of staff since May, but he said it's is very different than the Revenue gig. "You get a lot more satisfaction at the end of the day, but it's much harder, too," he said.

As chief of staff he earns $150,000 a year. He took the job just as tensions over the 2007-08 state budget were beginning to heat up. He said it was like "baptism by fire. It was the most intense period of my life."

Fajt served as the governor's lead negotiator during the pressure-packed, 17-day budget impasse in July, which put him at the table with House and Senate leaders for hours every day. The stakes were increased when 24,000 state workers were laid off for a day in July.

Not surprisingly, some Republican officials aren't crazy about Mr. Fajt or his boss. They disliked Mr. Rendell's insistence that the Legislature approve more than just the new state budget before going home for the summer. Republicans resented his insistence that legislators act on so-called "side issues," such as road/bridge/transit funding, energy alternatives, a smoking ban policy, a Jonas Salk biomedical fund and a slots-funded development plan that is helping to pay for the replacement for Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh.

Senate Republicans, in particular, "only wanted to do a state budget [before the recess], but the governor was not willing to accept that," Mr. Fajt said. "In some cases, the other issues were more important than the budget."

Steve Miskin, an aide to House Republican leader Sam Smith of Punxsutawney, said Mr. Fajt "is tough and unyielding," and shows the same kind of "arrogance" that the governor himself shows.

Steve MacNett, counsel to Senate Republicans, said Mr. Fajt "did a decent job at Revenue," but added, "The jury is still out on his role as chief of staff."

Mr. MacNett said that Mr. Fajt "is bright, but not particularly flexible. He has the accountant's penchant for the mathematical rigidity of numbers, columns and lists rather than out-of-the-box thinking and creativity."

He conceded that Mr. Fajt is a hard worker, but "We don't know yet if he can speak for Rendell and whether Rendell stands by his judgments."

He noted that Mr. Fajt "lacks the long-term, close-up experience with the governor" that two previous aides had -- Mr. Estey from 2003-06 and David Cohen, who was chief of staff when Mr. Rendell was mayor of Philadelphia.

This year's budget battle was the toughest since 1991, when Mr. Fajt was a freshman Democratic House member. He thought this year's standoff was even more tense than that year, when a budget deal wasn't reached until August. As a rookie legislator in 1991, however, he wasn't nearly as involved in the budget talks as he was this year.

"The pressure was much different" this year, he said.

So what will he do when Mr. Rendell leaves office in January 2011? He might return home and practice law, but wouldn't rule out running for some political office in the future.

Mr. Fajt especially misses summers in Pittsburgh because he says there is always something to do.

"I've always contended that there's no reason to go on vacation during the summer when you live in Pittsburgh because there's always something to do around town."

Kari Andren is an intern with the Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents Association.


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