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'Cool Hand Dom' a key figure in budget drama

HARRISBURG - In the contentious Pennsylvania budget battle, one group is standing in the way of higher taxes, and it's led by a mild-mannered former mayor with a monotone voice.

HARRISBURG - In the contentious Pennsylvania budget battle, one group is standing in the way of higher taxes, and it's led by a mild-mannered former mayor with a monotone voice.

Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware) - or "Cool Hand Dom," as some have called him - is marshaling Senate Republicans in their fortresslike barricade against Gov. Rendell's proposed increase in the state income tax.

With a kind-looking face and thinning gray hair, he is an unlikely, albeit unflappable, front man for such a hard-line defense.

Still, Pileggi has been able to hold a diverse caucus of moderates and conservatives from each corner of the state to the same antitax script.

He has done it, allies say, with his calming, nonthreatening approach to consensus.

"He has a way of listening to people and making them feel comfortable," said Sen. Ted Erickson (R., Delaware), "and it is not easy to keep everyone marching together."

That is precisely what he has done.

Rendell and Democratic leaders in the legislature support increasing the income tax by 16 percent to cover a budget shortfall and preserve what they call "core" services. Senate Republicans, who hold a 30-20 majority, say no to increasing taxes. Instead, they advocate across-the-board spending cuts.

And therein lies the standoff that has forced the state to operate budgetless since July 1.

Pileggi, 51, said he didn't expect a resolution soon. And he insisted his caucus would not blink first. His prediction: no final budget until mid-August, if not a month later.

"I can say unequivocally we will not vote for an increase in the personal income tax in this budget year. It's simply the wrong time to consider such an increase," he said during an interview last week in his suite of offices at the Capitol.

Given the national economic meltdown, Pileggi said, Pennsylvanians have rethought how state government should work.

"Many people are unemployed, facing reduced hours, facing mortgage foreclosures. They don't want to pay any more taxes, and they don't want more government that is not going to directly help them," he said.

Pileggi has stuck to that argument for months despite a relentless media barrage by the Rendell administration aimed at discrediting his caucus's budget alternative.

Administration officials have spoken against the GOP budget proposal in a series of news conferences, and in some cases, county officials and school officials have been brought in to speak against it.

And Monday, Rendell bluntly criticized what he believes is Senate Republicans' intransigence, saying they "lived in a fantasy land" and needed to "get real."

Pileggi will not be moved.

Steve Crawford, Rendell's chief of staff, described Pileggi as "the kind of guy who plays his cards close to the vest."

Nonetheless, "once he has given his word, he never backs away from that," Crawford said. "That's the single most important commodity in a business like this."

Pileggi and President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson) came into power in late 2006 after the men who held their posts, David Brightbill (R., Lebanon) and Robert Jubelirer (R., Blair), were defeated amid voter outrage over the pay-raise debacle.

Scarnati is the quotable one, the guy who went so far in this budget impasse as to call Rendell a "snake-oil salesman."

Pileggi, most Capitol reporters will tell you, is anything but glib. They've been known to review a lengthy interview with Pileggi only to be confounded because he didn't say anything catchy enough to wrap inside quotation marks.

He rarely shows emotion, and the Patriot-News of Harrisburg last month dubbed him "Cool Hand Dom."

Others say that belies his extreme intelligence, and add that his ability to analyze complex policy and details is Spocklike.

Erickson, for one, is not sure the analogy fits, adding with a chuckle that Star Trek's lead Vulcan sometimes showed signs of emotion.

Voters don't seem to mind his inscrutability.

Pileggi has represented the Ninth District, which includes parts of Chester and Delaware Counties, since he won a special election in October 2002.

From 1998 to 2002, he was mayor of Chester, where he has lived all his life.

Wendell N. Butler Jr., Chester's current mayor, credited Pileggi with jump-starting revitalization in an agreement that brought the Chester Downs & Marina racetrack to the waterfront.

"Without him, we would be in dire straits right now. We probably would be in bankruptcy," said Butler, who was Pileggi's police commissioner. "He is like the Pied Piper. He has the ability to lead, and people follow him."

Before he was mayor, Pileggi served as a city councilman and on the Chester-Upland school board. He has a degree in economics from St. Joseph's University and a Villanova University law degree.

Outside politics, Pileggi said, he tries to spend time with his wife, Diana (they will celebrate their 25th anniversary in November), and their three children, ages 19 to 22.


"I don't have any recognizable hobbies," he said after pausing to consider the question. "I'm kind of a boring guy."