Dominic Pileggi: The Grown-Up

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

Pileggi also extends to Philadelphia the same courtesy he gives to anyone who walks through his door. And so when Nutter or one of the members of the School Reform Commission comes calling, Pileggi listens, offers a candid assessment of the political realities, and — if swayed by the visitor’s arguments — does what he can to help. “He’s direct and honest about what he thinks is possible,” says Nutter. “He knows how to read his folks, what they will support or not support, and what might be in between.”

By rights, this is the way the whole of leadership and the Governor ought to approach Philadelphia. But they don’t, and so Pileggi is now seen as “an absolute star for Philly,” as Democratic state senator and mayoral hopeful Anthony H. Williams puts it.

And Philadelphia has come calling at Pileggi’s door an awful lot in recent years. There was the city’s fiscal crisis during the recession, which required state juggling of pension obligations to avoid the layoff of up to 3,000 city workers. Pileggi delivered. Ditto for property tax reform and the overhaul of the Philadelphia Housing Authority. Last year, he stepped in to save city Democrats from themselves by shutting down Philadelphia’s corruption-ridden Traffic Court.

Still, the city needs more. It needs authorization from Harrisburg to raise city cigarette taxes, so it can funnel the cash to the schools. And — even more importantly — Philadelphia desperately requires a huge infusion of new, stable state funding for the schools.

On that, Pileggi has so far failed to deliver. Worse, he stepped aside and permitted Governor Corbett to gut a hard-won educational funding formula he helped to develop, pushing the School District of Philadelphia to the brink of insolvency. “Knowing that the Senator has a strong commitment to educating kids, it is a mystery to me that he so quickly abandoned the formula,” says Donna Cooper, executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth and a veteran of the Rendell administration who went many rounds with Pileggi in past budget talks.

There’s little question that if it were solely up to Pileggi, significantly more money would be available for schools here and across the state. “I know what I would like to see, and I know what is politically possible,” he says. Always the pragmatist.


He rarely lets it show, but Pileggi, regarded by most as an incrementalist, would actually much prefer that Pennsylvania step up the pace of innovation. “I think it would be better if the state was more open to change, and more willing to be closer to the cutting edge,” he says. “We’re an old state, and there’s a certain pride we have, and that pride can work against you when you’re trying to make a turn towards the future.”

Perhaps that impulse for more radical change was at work when Pileggi led two failed bids to change the way Pennsylvania allocates its electoral votes for president. Had he prevailed, the state would divide its 20 votes proportionally between the leading candidates, instead of employing the winner-take-all approach used by 48 states. Under Pileggi’s plan, President Obama would have received 12 electoral votes, while Mitt Romney would have gotten eight.

In Pileggi’s view, this is simply a more representative way to select a president. And he’s right. If all the states were to adopt proportional voting, Pileggi’s plan would probably be an improvement. “I really wanted to talk about how we should elect a president and what’s the most fair,” he says.

But of course, for Pennsylvania — which is increasingly a blue state in presidential contests — to make the switch all on its own is a different matter altogether. Both times, Pileggi’s plan was derided by liberals locally and nationally. Even many Republicans objected. Both times, the plan went nowhere.

In trying to force through such radical reform, Pileggi was being either naive or uncharacteristically partisan. Either way, the effort stands as a rare but clear misstep.

Pileggi seems unlikely to revive the plan a third time. He might prefer that Harrisburg adopt a less plodding pace, but a man who’s usually so disciplined, so realistic, isn’t going to waste a lot of energy lamenting such a locked-in culture.

Might he leave it behind? It’s possible. Pileggi routinely raises plenty of money, and he flirted with a U.S. Senate campaign against Bob Casey in 2012. But 2018 — when he could run for governor or the Senate — is a long way off. And that’s probably a good thing for the General Assembly, Philadelphia and the rest of the state.

Originally published in the May 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.