Dominic Pileggi: The Grown-Up

Dear Pennsylvania politicians: Dominic Pileggi is what a competent legislator looks like. Any questions?

IN A BASEMENT CONFERENCE room a half block from the State Capitol, two dozen or so small business owners and aspiring Republican politicians have assembled to trade business cards and Obamacare horror stories over coffee and pastry from Dunkin’ Donuts.

Pileggi is the featured speaker at this meeting of the National Federation of Independent Business, a lobbying group whose present members include the owners of a pool-supply company, a dry-cleaning chain and a farmer, among others. They give Pileggi a cheer when he’s introduced as the senator who eliminated the state “death tax” on small business owners.

Pileggi nods and begins a presentation on the state budget.

These are the first moments I’ve spent with Pileggi in person, and I’m struck by a couple of incongruous impressions. His bearing is imposing and average at once. He has a hawk-like nose and dark eyes, and he strokes his chin as he talks, but there’s no haughtiness to him — none of the self- satisfaction so many politicians wear so naturally. When he discusses the budget, he comes across as authoritative even as he calmly explains that in reality, there’s very little he can do to cut spending dramatically or generate much new revenue.

Indeed, Pileggi spends much of the event defining what is and is not actually possible, tempering the expectations of the conservatives around him, even warning of new taxes in the offing. When given the chance to pander during the Q&A session, he declines. Pension reform? Unlikely. Liquor privatization or reform? “I’m mildly optimistic we will get something done.” What about an onerous, job-killing new tax on natural gas operations? “I think it’s inevitable there’s going to be an extraction tax.”

Throughout the session, whatever positions Pileggi himself actually has on these questions are entirely opaque. This is typical. Pileggi is seen as an honest broker, but one who reveals as little about his own feelings as possible. Some call him “Cool Hand Dom.” Is pension reform a good idea or bad? Is liquor privatization sound policy or reckless reform? Pileggi doesn’t say. He’s not there to make a case for his own preferences. Rather, he’s there to explain what’s politically feasible and what’s fantasy.

Historically, the role of truth-teller to the base has been a key element of any majority leader’s job description. There’s the wish list and the political reality, and the caucus leader has to make sure his members understand the difference between the two. Now, though, under intense pressure from deeply ideological members, legislative leaders around the country are abandoning that core duty, particularly on the Republican side of the aisle.

Not Pileggi. “It’s impossible to govern without compromising, especially when you have a divided government,” he tells me a few days later, at a different diner, in an upscale strip mall near the border of Chester and Delaware counties. “I think the people who say that is wrong shouldn’t be a part of … ” And then his voice trails off for a few moments. “I don’t think they have a very good understanding of American history or the way that government works.”

EARLIER THAT MORNING, 11 miles east, Pileggi stood in a cavernous factory in his hometown of Chester, smiling approvingly at a six-foot-wide stainless steel food mixer, the sort used to make pie filling by the ton.

He’s there to congratulate Chester- Jensen Co. on its 100th year of business, most of those in the City of Chester. The factory, surrounded by vacant lots, is a rare survivor of the city’s 60-year descent from thriving industrial port to the profoundly blighted town of today.

The factory is crammed both with relics that would make architectural salvage enthusiasts salivate and the high-tech machines needed to craft specialty equipment for the food processing and pharmaceutical industries. Pileggi is impressed. “We are still making things in Chester,” he says.

A bit later in the tour, company CEO Steven Miller tells me the facility only employs about 20 workers, down from 70 in its peak years. Afterward, Pileggi drives the few blocks to his district office (in a Saturn Aura), passing stretches every bit as wretched as the worst-off sections of North Philadelphia. The difference in Chester is that these blocks are a stone’s throw from the city’s core.

For all his clear-eyed practicality, for all his measured appreciation of government’s abilities and limits, Pileggi has a big blind spot when it comes to Chester, the city where he was raised, the city he led as mayor, and the city he still lives in today.