IT'S A LONG WAY from the old paper mills of Downingtown, where Mike DiBerardinis' father worked, to the vast forests of Pennsylvania, where the son stood protector to millions of acres as secretary of conservation and natural resources during Ed Rendell's tenure as governor.
Now, after three decades in public service (following years as an anti-war activist and affordable housing rabble-rouser), DiBerardinis serves as the city's deputy mayor for environmental and community resources, where he finds himself overseeing 10,000 acres of land, 150 rec centers and playgrounds, 150 neighborhood parks and Philadelphia's Free Library system ... and pondering what comes next as Mayor Nutter's second term winds down.
At 65, DiBerardinis has an impressive resume from serving on the staffs of a congressman, two mayors and a governor. Could a run for public office come next?
DiBerardinis, who ran for City Council in 1991, says that is unlikely, though he plans "to stay involved with these things I really care about in the city."
He spoke with Chris Brennan about the path from working-class Catholic schoolkid to top jobs in government, about fracking in the forests upstate and about his catbird seat for the Taney Dragons' sweet run from Philly's public ballfields to Williamsport.
Q What was Downingtown like in the 1950s, and how did that shape you?
It was a Philadelphia-centric youth, working-class values and upbringing, lots of discipline, respect for the church. Catholic school the whole 16 years. There's a sort of ruggedness. You come out of there sharp-edged and straight ahead.
Q You and your wife, Joan Reilly, were antiwar activists. How did that lead to working in the city's river wards?
We both independently moved to Kensington to do organization in white, working-class neighborhoods and [today, with a home in Fishtown] only live a mile from our first house.
Q How did you help people fix blight and find housing?
We moved, in two summers, a thousand families into abandoned tax-delinquent properties. We were asking the city to put them up for sheriff's sale. Of the 1,000, 800 people became property owners. With no public support, they repaired and rehabbed the properties on their own.
Q From activism, you turned to politics. As in housing, you worked from outside the system until you were inside it.
We formed an independent political action committee. It was nonpartisan, supporting people running for office. We supported people for mayor and folks who ran for Congress. We started running our own folks.
Q And that led to your first job in government?
Tom Foglietta called and asked me to go to lunch. It was at Bookbinder's. Everyone went to Bookbinder's then. I had to go out and buy a suit jacket on Kensington Avenue so I could have lunch with him. I was in my early 30s. He offered me the job as chief of staff. I had kids. The pay was significantly more than as a street organizer.
Q You ran for Council in 1991 but lost in the Democratic primary. How did that lead you to a job with Ed Rendell?
Rendell watched the race and saw the job we did. I went to see him after. He said, "Look, I want you to come work for me." He was running against Rizzo. So I became recreation commissioner. All those guys [I challenged] were barking at Ed not to do it. But Ed stuck to me.
Q Tell me about Rendell's penchant for jumping into city swimming pools, a stunt he used to help raise money when that budget item was cut.
That was fun, the way he approached it, his absolute abandonment, stripping down to a swimsuit and jumping in. It was symbolic of the energy and enthusiasm and full-bore commitment. People loved it. And it worked.
Q You did a stint between government gigs with the William Penn Foundation. How did nonprofit work suit you?
I'm not sure I'm built for that world. I bump into stuff. But it was a great experience for me. I learned a lot.
Q What do you think about the fracking for natural gas going on, especially in state-owned parks and forests?
This drilling is a problem, this unbridled drilling. The state Constitution is being abridged and management's prerogative is being taken away by [Gov. Corbett's] administration, which [sets] dollar amounts the department needs to generate from drilling. You're not managing a forest, you're drilling for natural gas.
Q You left Rendell's administration in 2009, before his second term ended. What brought you home to Philly?
I was starting to look. You never want the curtain to hit you in the head at the end of an administration. I loved the work in Harrisburg but I didn't like Harrisburg.
Q You had a great seat for the Taney Dragons' run this year. What does that team's success and the way it was embraced by the city show you about the future?