Inquirer: Mike DiBerardinis, From Community Activist to Soon-to-be Phila. Managing Director
DECEMBER 10, 2015
Claudia Vargas, Inquirer Staff Writer
Michael DiBerardinis was preaching his personal gospel last Wednesday to parks and recreation directors from across the country, about the importance of working with the people they serve.
“You have to value citizen engagement, you have to value citizen involvement,” he told the group at the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Skyline Room, where they had gathered for a two-day conference. “You have to not only believe in it, but you have to invest in it.”
And it’s something DiBerardinis has done for almost his entire adult life.
It helps explain why the city’s longtime recreation czar has been recruited by Mayor-elect Jim Kenney to be Philadelphia’s next managing director – because of his skill at bringing government and community together. That’s a skill he has honed since his activist days in the 1970s, when he raised hell to get homes for Kensington’s poor and have a high school built.
When DiBerardinis takes the No. 2 job in City Hall on Jan. 4, he will oversee more than a dozen departments, including frontline ones – police, fire, water, streets. His new boss favors a strong-managing-director government, unlike Mayor Nutter, who delegated power to deputy mayors.
When Kenney announced the choice, he made clear how much authority DiBerardinis will have, saying, “I will not be micromanaging anything.”
Between now and inauguration day, DiBerardinis is juggling his current job as Nutter’s deputy mayor for environmental and community resources, managing city land, rec centers, and libraries, and studying up on the departments he will be managing, plus trying to set up his new office. It’s a lot for a man who, at 66, had been considering leaving government and slowing down.
But DiBerardinis, whose looks and manner have been likened to a taller and younger Robert DeNiro, said he is all in.
“It will all come together,” he said last week. “I have the energy to do it.”
From protest to politics
A paper-mill worker’s son, DiBerardinis grew up in Downingtown, attended Catholic school, and came to Philadelphia at 18 to study political science at St. Joseph’s University.
He was inspired by the Jesuits’ message of service and justice. After graduating in 1971, he moved to Kensington, then “pretty tough, working-class and poor,” as he put it, and created the Kensington Joint Action Council.
The group fought to get a new Edison High School built, to keep St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children in the city, and to cure a persistent neighborhood ill: blighted, tax-delinquent housing.
DiBerardinis often was arrested protesting for various causes; his wife, Joan Reilly, also an activist, rolled with it.
“There’s a pay phone in the lockup. So, I put a quarter in and say, ‘Hon, I’m not coming home tonight . . . I’m in the lockup,’ ” DiBerardinis recalled. The couple now have four grown children, all of whom work for the School District or local nonprofits.
To this day, Reilly said, her husband’s community activism is “at the core of everything he does.”
In 1984, he started veering into politics and government. After helping Ralph Acosta win a seat in the state legislature, DiBerardinis worked as his aide in the district, which encompassed Kensington.
Two years later, another Democrat, U.S. Rep. Thomas Foglietta, asked DiBerardinis to be his chief of staff.
“I had to almost leave my neighborhood work entirely and focus on serving him and all of his Philadelphia office work,” DiBerardinis said. But he saw Foglietta as a progressive and liked his economic agenda. So, he went.
That’s how he met the man who soon will be his boss. Kenney was chief aide to Vincent J. Fumo – then a powerful state senator and a Foglietta foe.
“I kind of saw it as [Kenney] and I working to keep the peace and to kind of work underneath these guys who generally fought,” DiBerardinis said. “Me and him had a good relationship.”
In 1991, after his own failed run for City Council, DiBerardinis and his campaign manager, Donna Cooper, joined a mayoral campaign – Ed Rendell’s. Both would become part of the Rendell brain trust.
As mayor, Rendell asked DiBerardinis to be recreation commissioner and reenergize a department he saw as stale and sedentary.
“The fact that he was a community organizer, I liked,” Rendell said last week. “He exceeded beyond my wildest expectations.”
Under DiBerardinis’ leadership, long-shuttered pools and rec centers reopened, and he brought in enough private funding to run baseball leagues for the city’s neediest kids. When Rendell became governor, he tapped DiBerardinis again – to be secretary of conservation and natural resources.
DiBerardinis returned to the city in 2009 under Nutter to coordinate the merger of the Recreation Department and the Fairmount Park Commission. The combined department now has a $69 million budget and 706 full-time employees. DiBerardinis earns a salary of $169,740.
His work ethic and enthusiastic personality – fueled by just one cup of coffee in the morning and green tea in the afternoon – are contagious.
“He’s a visionary, he has good ideas, and he knows how to move them forward,” said Barbara McCabe, a veteran recreation official who directs the department’s dealings with the more than 100 “Friends” groups that support the city’s parks.
“He empties his tank on everything,” said Patrick Morgan, his chief of staff for the last six years. “I’m half his age and it takes a lot for me to keep up.”
The boss Morgan calls “Mike D” is usually in the office by 7:15 a.m., and rarely leaves till after 6. Still, he makes time for family, and for all things Italian. On Sunday he makes a traditional Italian dinner – soup, pasta, fish, meat, salad, dessert, wine, and, lastly, the Italian digestif limoncello – for his family, which, with grandchildren and significant others, rounds out to 14 people in his Fishtown home. “He’s a wonderful cook,” his wife said, ” but he only cooks Italian.”
This spring, DiBerardinis was contemplating going to work for the University of Pennsylvania and leaving his 12-hour workdays behind.
But on the Friday before the May 19 mayoral primary, he was at a bike-to-work event when he ran into candidate Kenney.
“He said, ‘You’re staying,’ ” DiBerardinis recalled.
A few days after Kenney’s landslide primary win, DiBerardinis went over to chat with the Democratic nominee.
“Kenney’s idea of ‘all neighborhoods matter’ was attractive to me,” he said. “I thought there was a real connection.”
Those who know DiBerardinis well are excited about how he’ll handle his new, broader role.
“Even though he’s going to be the highest-ranking nonelected official in the city,” Morgan said, “he’s still Mike D.”
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