At the Court Diner in Media, the rest of the table orders chipped beef, pancakes and omelets. Then the waitress asks Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi what he’d like to eat.
“Wheat toast. Dry.”
Dominic Pileggi, 56 years old, is the straight man of Pennsylvania politics, a figure who at first blush is as dull as his breakfast in a statehouse overpopulated by the corrupt, the comical, and a large and growing cohort of ultra-conservatives.
By design, Pileggi rarely makes headlines. By nature, his thinking is nuanced and his politics are precise. He smiles and talks far less than most politicians. Actually, he smiles and talks less than most morticians.
No matter. When Pileggi, whose district includes parts of Delaware and Chester counties, does speak, the entire capital listens — very closely. “He is the most powerful person in Harrisburg,” says Ed Rendell, within seconds of being asked about Pileggi. “He may have been the most influential person in Harrisburg when I was governor.”
It would be hard to argue with Rendell. At the Pennsylvania Society, that annual December bacchanal of the state’s political class held at New York’s Waldorf Astoria, Pileggi stood at the front of a receiving line hundreds deep at his invite-only affair, the queue chockablock with lawmakers and lobbyists and executives keen to pay homage. That speaks to Pileggi’s political talents, of course, but it’s also a referendum on the sorry state of governance in Pennsylvania. The Commonwealth has rarely been known for better-than- average public-sector effectiveness. But the current rot goes well beyond the state’s middling norm.
Tom Corbett is among America’s least popular governors. Our Supreme Court is riven by a vicious feud and tainted by corruption. Tea Party conservatives have hijacked the House, and in the past five years, the General Assembly as a whole has lost five of its most ruthless — and effective — operators to scandal, including Philadelphia’s own Vince Fumo and John Perzel.
Indeed, Philly’s standing in Harrisburg has arguably never been weaker. Worse, every few weeks brings fresh news that the city’s delegation is not just impotent, but venal: In January, State Rep J.P. Miranda and his sister were charged by District Attorney Seth Williams with conflict of interest, perjury and criminal conspiracy. In March, State Senator LeAnna Washington was hit with felony corruption charges by Attorney General Kathleen Kane for allegedly dragooning her taxpayer-funded staff into campaign work. A week later, the Inquirer broke the story that Kane had dropped a problematic probe into four more city lawmakers alleged to have been caught on tape taking cash from a lobbyist-turned-informant.
And Pileggi? In this field of scrub pines, he stands out like a redwood.
Ask around, and you’ll find precious few serious Pileggi critics. He has fans in the press, who appreciate the remarkably strong open-records law he pushed through a reluctant Harrisburg in 2008. His caucus, though more conservative than he, knows he won’t charge ahead without them. Democrats are almost pathetically appreciative of Pileggi’s willingness to include them, to seriously think over their arguments. And Philadelphia’s leaders consider him nothing short of the best friend the city has in the state’s Republican power structure.
“He’s the competent grown-up,” a Democratic Senate staffer says, sighing reluctantly. “You have a dysfunctional House, you have a governor and administration that after four years don’t know what they’re doing. And you have Pileggi.”