Philly managing director ends long career in government with activist spirit intact

Pat Loeb
January 15, 2019 - 4:00 am
Philadelphia managing director Mike DiBerardinis ends long career in government with his activist spirit intact.

Pat Loeb/KYW Newsradio

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PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Philadelphia Managing Director Mike DiBerardinis cut his teeth on rabble-rousing. 
  
In the 1980s, when St. Christopher's Hospital voted to leave North Philadelphia, he organized a children's march patterned on Mother Jones' crusade against child labor. When Kensington needed a new school to replace the decrepit Edison High School, he hatched a plan to occupy Edison to force the school boards to build one. And when the city wouldn't turn over vacant, tax delinquent properties to people who needed housing, he simply moved the people in, calling them "homesteaders."

"We turned on their electricity and we turned on their water and we said, 'if anyone comes to throw you out, make a phone call, we'll all be there,'" he recalled. "So we got picked up a few times for trying to prevent evictions."

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about DiBerardinis' career is that, after nearly 30 years in government, he retains the spirit of his activist youth, showing no signs of cynicism or complacency even as he prepared to pack up his office on Monday, his second-to-last day on the job.

"I think it's an honor to serve a city and a mayor at a high level, it's an honor and I never took it lightly. I always felt blessed," he said in an interview.

The shift from outsider to overseeing city government was a gradual one for DiBerardinis.

It began in the late '80s when then-congressman Tom Foglietta invited him to lunch at Bookbinders, a ritzy restaurant in Old City.

"I had to go buy a sport coat," he said. "I didn't own anything that resembled business attire."

At lunch, Foglietta asked him to be the chief of staff in his local office, a job that allowed DiBerardinis to maintain ties with his community organizations. 

A few years later, DiBerardinis decided to run for office himself for the First District City Council seat, then held by Jimmy Tayoun. By the time of the primary, though, Tayoun had been indicted and Democratic leaders ran Joe Vignola in his place. 

DiBerardinis lost the race but impressed the newly-elected mayor, Ed Rendell, who offered him the job of recreation commissioner.

"I was looking for someone who had the ability to connect with people in the neighborhoods, and Mike showed that during the campaign he was the type of person that could do it," Rendell said. 

Rendell knew the transition might be a challenge. 

"I had to sit him down and say, 'look, there may be times that I have to make decisions that take into account the whole government and you may not be happy with them. But you've got to stick by me and make the best of it,'" he said. 

Rendell calls him "the best rec commissioner the city's ever had," partly because he kept a bit of his outsider's edge.

"He fought for the rec centers," Rendell said. "He improved the physical layout of virtually every rec center and he did a great job, but he was always battling for more things for the community."

Rendell took DiBerardinis to Harrisburg when he became governor in 2003. Both are proud of the work DiBerardinis did at the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. 

"We did major infrastructure investments in the parks, we did trails, we did a lot of smart growth investment and we protected more land in eight years than in the 35 (years) prior to that," said DiBerardinis.

The only problem was his wife and children had stayed in Philadelphia and he missed them horribly, he said. 

So he jumped at the chance to come back to city government when Mayor Michael Nutter offered him the job of overseeing the merger of the rec department with Fairmount Park.

Nutter's successor, Jim Kenney, appointed him to be managing director.

"I noticed that he had a real enthusiasm still, and a fire," said Kenney. "He loves being in government and having his hands on the levers that can make things better for people."

Kenney wanted to return to a strong managing director style of government (Nutter had preferred a more diffuse model with multiple deputy mayors). 

DiBerardinis wrote a paper for Kenney outlining what he thought his duties should be.

"Quality service every day to every citizen in every neighborhood," DiBerardinis summed it up, "and using the office to drive his policy agenda."

He also proposed an important element of that policy agenda: the $500 million plan to rebuild the city's parks, rec centers and libraries, now simply called Rebuild.

Neither foresaw the depth that the opioid epidemic would reach. Addressing it has merged DiBerardinis's activist roots in Kensington with his faith in the problem-solving power of local government.

Taking on Conrail, for example, when a ravaged community of addicts took up residence along its tracks in Kensington drew on his old community organizing skills. 

"I had to pound the table and we had to yell and get in meetings that were acrimonious, pushing and disagreeing, making demands," he said. "But then we reached an agreement. We bent, they bent and we got the work done. So it felt really reminiscent."

DiBerardinis doesn't even look much different than in his rabble-rousing days. His hair is still jet black with only flecks of gray coming in. But he is 70 and ready to slow down.

His wife recently retired from the Mural Arts Program and he looks forward to spending more time with her. He'll also be doing some work at the University of Pennsylvania. 

He said he's leaving the office in capable hands - his deputy Brian Abernathy is taking over - and he sees a bright future for Philadelphia. When he talks about what the city can do, you can hear his activist heart speaking.

"These questions of equity and fairness and opportunity will be and can be settled in America, in big cities and show the way for the rest of the country. And we're doing it in Philadelphia," he said. "We're not separating people around race and class, we're uniting people around a common agenda, we're welcoming people into our city and we're building positive growth for all citizens. This stuff out of Washington is junk and I think it's not enough to be against it, you have to show the way."

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Listen to the extended interview between KYW Newsradio's Pat Loeb and Managing Director Michael DiBerardinis here: