Dominic Pileggi: The Grown-Up

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

Ask him about Chester’s ills, and he’ll tell you what’s missing is strong local leadership; he’ll argue that its problems might be large, but the city itself is small enough that it can be fixed. “It’s just five square miles,” Pileggi says. “And in that, you’ve got a university and park- land and a medical center and a waterfront.”

In the way of politicians, Pileggi has labored to help out his hometown by bringing one big government-assisted development after another there — a casino, a heavily subsidized soccer stadium, a taxpayer-supported supermarket. These are projects born in large part of pork and Pileggi’s outsize influence, and yet I find it hard to begrudge him his devotion to a down-and-out, heavily minority city, which dates back to his earliest days.

The oldest of five boys in a family of seven kids, Pileggi grew up on a quiet and handsome block at the city’s edge that more closely resembles Swarthmore or Chestnut Hill than the tumbledown streets that comprise so much of Chester. Even then, his brother Francis says, Pileggi was authoritative but “taciturn, or laconic, or one of those words that mean you don’t talk very much.”

The Pileggis were a prosperous family: Mom was a teacher at the local public school, Dad was a lawyer, and the uncle owned a lumberyard where the kids were expected to work from a young age. Everything revolved around the family.

Pileggi’s parents lived next door to his grandparents. When the grandparents died, Pileggi moved his family of five into their old home. He and his wife still live there today, just a few meters from his father and the house where Pileggi grew up. Pileggi flies U.S. and Pennsylvania flags. His father’s front yard is dominated by a large statue of the Madonna. Together, father and son own a law firm, Pileggi & Pileggi, though the Senate majority leader says his practice has all but vanished, given the demands of politics.

In 1950, there were 66,000 people living in Chester. By 2010, the city was half as populous, and the white population had diminished to just 17 percent of what remained. The Pileggis were among the few well-off white families still there.

So, clearly, those family ties played a huge role in Pileggi’s decision not to abandon Chester. But there is some stubborn civic pride at work as well, pride that Pileggi explains in ways that would be familiar to those privileged classes now committing themselves to Philadelphia in spite of the schools, the crime and the blight. “I guess my pivot, my decision, came in the early 1990s, when there was the continuing flight of the middle class out of the city and we had young children starting school. Do we leave? Or do we stay and try to improve the situation?” says Pileggi.

He chose the latter. While practicing law with his father, he caught the eye of Delaware County’s highly organized Republican Party, got involved in public affairs, and climbed the ladder quickly: school board, Chester City Council. Then, in 1997, he won a bid for mayor of the overwhelmingly African-American city.

Pileggi served just one term, resigning a bit early to run for his state Senate seat. These days, his political base isn’t the City of Chester, but the middle-class Delaware County suburbs that surround it. But Pileggi’s understanding and appreciation of the deep challenges involved in turning around a badly impoverished post-industrial city are unassailable, and all too rare in a General Assembly whose leadership is dominated by rural and suburban interests.

I’VE LONG THOUGHT OF Pileggi as Philadelphia’s reluctant savior: a senator from another county and another party, with his finger in the dike, just barely preventing the full force of the state capital’s enduring hatred for Philly from washing over the city.

At lunch, I share this metaphor with Pileggi, and he says “Huh” and looks off into the suburban distance for a few seconds before responding. “Philadelphia is our largest city. It is the core and base of this region, where close to 40 percent of the state’s residents live. So I’m not one to take a position — which is a very popular position to take — of this constant diet of Philadelphia bashing.”

The city and its immediate suburbs actually account for closer to a third of the state’s population, but Pileggi’s point stands: Philadelphia is the capital of the state’s most vital region. For a pragmatist like Pileggi, that makes Philly-bashing not just misguided, but counterproductive. Some of Pileggi’s reluctant allegiance to Philadelphia also owes to his lifetime-in-the-making understanding of the trials and tribulations of cities. “Once a mayor, always a mayor,” Michael Nutter says of Pileggi. “He fundamentally gets it.”