Pizzi got his chance to become a player as a 26-year-old during Mayor Rizzo’s 1975 reelection campaign, driving hizzoner around town. That led to Pizzi’s first big-time job a few years later, as a marketing executive at the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation under Walt D’Alessio, one of the city’s premier power brokers. For Pizzi, it was the beginning of a career spent straddling the fuzzy line between business and politics in Philadelphia.
At PIDC — which itself is a nonprofit created jointly by the city and the Chamber of Commerce to lend public money, mostly to private companies — Pizzi began running with other Rizzocrats who would exert huge influence over the city for decades to come, guys like D’Alessio, Fred DiBona Jr., who ran Independence Blue Cross for 15 years, former PIDC president Joe Egan, and WHYY chief Bill Marrazzo.
Eventually, Pizzi moved on to become commerce director for the city in the Wilson Goode Sr. administration, and then, after a brief stint in the private sector doing development deals for Ron Rubin, he was named president of the Chamber of Commerce, filling a position that DiBona and Nick DiBenedictis, the CEO of Aqua America in Bryn Mawr and another important Pizzi buddy, had held.
By any standard, Pizzi has had an estimable career. And yet when you ask people who know Pizzi to describe him, they tend to come up with descriptors that seem a little lame. You hear “nice” a lot. Also “friendly,” “modest,” “passionate,” “sweet” and “a hard worker.” Councilman Frank Rizzo, who has known Pizzi since his father’s 1975 campaign, says, “Charlie’s a great guy, a really good, solid person. He’s not controversial. I think what he has going for him is that he doesn’t have any real enemies — never did.”
It wasn’t their intention, but I came away from these conversations with the distinct impression that, until Tastykake, Pizzi was more or less a good-natured sidekick to the city’s rich and powerful, a guy who might’ve been in the backrooms where the decisions were made but was rarely the one calling the shots. Perhaps sensitive to that perception of Pizzi, D’Alessio characterizes his friend’s ability to put people at ease as truly special and unusual. “He has a great ability to relate to almost any kind of personality. It’s a pretty interesting skill,” D’Alessio says. “I meet blazingly smart people who can’t channel their smarts. That’s not Charlie. He’s useful-smart. He can channel it and use it in his relationships with other people.”
It’s a skill that has clearly served Pizzi well. As his skill and network grew, he sat on an array of high-profile boards and commissions: Independence Blue Cross, Drexel University, Brandywine Realty Trust and the Independence Seaport Museum (best known as Vince Fumo’s yacht house). More recently, he landed a spot on the board of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, which he now chairs. And he helped deliver some real wins for the people of Philadelphia. As commerce director, he was instrumental in keeping Cigna Corporation headquartered here, by coming up with the novel idea of renting out the company’s old headquarters as city offices, a move that saved Cigna up to $100 million on its lease. As chamber president, Pizzi grew the organization’s membership and upped chamber events, tripling revenues. More memorably, he was the public face of the 700-strong “Briefcase Brigade” that marched on City Hall in 2002, demanding a wage-tax cut. That remarkable and un-Pizzi-like spectacle was a smashing success. Council voted for the tax cuts.