Rendell's Right-Hand Woman
Barbara Adams helps keep the state running
Published in 2006 Pennsylvania Super Lawyers magazine
on May 26, 2005
Updated on October 21, 2016
Barbara Adams is not the sort of parent who is satisfied with dropping her daughters off at ballet, music and riding lessons — she has to enroll herself in the classes, too. Over the years as her three daughters cocked their stockinged feet onto ballet bars, rested their chins on violins and dug their heels into stirrups, their petite mom with the long chestnut-colored hair was alongside them, echoing their every move.
But now she is on her own. Adams, who is Gov. Ed Rendell’s general counsel, sits in her wood-paneled office in Harrisburg and taps her foot on the carpeted floor as she explains her life now that her job requires her to live 106 miles away from her husband and children.
“I come up on Monday mornings and try to leave on Thursday evenings,” she says of her commute, which has her taking a train from Philadelphia. “Now [my husband] is at home making dinner for the kids, and I ask him, ‘What vegetables did they have?’ He says, ‘Pasta,’ and I say, ‘Nooo, that’s not a vegetable.’”
As Rendell’s general counsel, Adams serves as the governor’s personal attorney and manages more than 470 lawyers at 32 government agencies. She oversees a broad array of activities, from reviewing criminal extraditions to pursuing lawsuits against the federal government, such as last year’s action against Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for deactivating a state Air National Guard unit without Rendell’s consent. (The state won.)
Nevertheless, there were reasons other than being away from her family that might have led Adams to turn down the job. She’s getting paid a whole lot less than she did as a partner with Duane Morris, where she worked for 28 years, and her office isn’t nearly as cushy as her old digs. In fact, her new office, located in the state Capitol building, is painstakingly maintained by the preservationist society. It is dark and appointed with historical artifacts, a small, heavily draped window and a lot of inlaid walnut-colored wood. The only decorative contribution Adams has made to it is a vase of silk flowers.
“I guess this place is sort of fitting for someone who grew up in coal country,” Adams says, her eyes scanning the staid walls around her.
The 54-year-old grew up in Pottsville, a coal-mining town of about 15,000 people in mountainous Schuylkill County. It was a “fairly provincial town,” Adams says. Her parents both grew up in Pottsville, but Adams knew “at a young age that I had to get out.”
She became interested in politics at an early age. John F. Kennedy’s 1960 run for president galvanized her. She remembers the searing family debates she had with her parents (Republicans) about whether to support JFK, who, like the Adamses, was Catholic. By the time she reached college — Smith College in Northampton, Mass. — Adams was a government major with every intention of becoming an elected politician. But once she got close enough to see what the job entailed — she interned for Sen. Richard Schweiker in Washington, D.C., in 1973 — she chose another path.
She didn’t love what she absorbed about life as an elected official. “The idea of racing in and getting a two-minute briefing about legislation after having talked to the local Girl Scouts on the Capitol steps seemed terribly uninteresting to me,” she says. “You’re doing a lot of fundraising and public relations, and you don’t get into the good stuff, the policy stuff, the nitty-gritty of things. I thought it was far more interesting to be the person who knows about the issues.”
That was the same summer the Senate Watergate Committee was conducting its investigation of Richard Nixon and the Watergate cover-up. Adams’ desk was across the hall from where congressional lawyers were holding committee evidence.
“Do you know I never went to the hearings?” she says. “That still bothers me to this day. How could I not go? If I had put work aside for a day or even a half a day, I could have gone. That was helpful in teaching me not to miss those kinds of opportunities in the future.”
Adams moved to Philadelphia and enrolled in law school at Temple. In 1977, she became a summer associate at Duane Morris. She met Ed Rendell at an event hosted by the firm. Judge Midge Rendell, Ed’s wife, worked for Duane Morris, and Ed was coming off his victory in the Democratic primary for Philadelphia district attorney. “We just clicked,” she says. “I remember the party. We all were talking in a lively fashion — mostly about political things. I’ve been involved with both Rendells ever since. We’re good friends.”
Rendell was impressed with Adams immediately. “She was a great success story: a woman from a small town, working during the day and going to law school at night,” he says.
Adams stayed on at Duane Morris after graduating from law school in 1978. Her focus became public finance, which allowed her to stay active in the political arena. She has overseen scads of government bond sales, from those raising money for public colleges and transportation to subsidized housing and state debt relief. She has been involved in such high-profile public projects as the Delaware River Port Authority and Philadelphia Parking Authority. And she has served on the Philadelphia Gas Commission, the Independent Charter Commission for the city of Philadelphia, and in 2002, Rendell’s transition team.
Last March, she heard that Rendell’s general counsel, Leslie Anne Miller, had resigned, and that he was looking for a new attorney. While doing her taxes, Adams realized the family had saved enough money that she could afford to take the job and still send her three daughters to college. She also realized this post could offer her a possible future in public life, which appealed to her. “I called the governor and said, ‘If you think I could be good at this, it’s something I’d want to do,’” she says.
A few weeks later, Rendell brought her into his office and offered her the position. “This job is a mix of legal scholarship and people management,” the governor says. “Barbara has both [skills]. She’s intelligent and she has a natural ability to get people to like her and want to work with her.”
“I walked out of that meeting very happy and very scared,” Adams says. “It was like jumping off a cliff. But I was happy.”