Justin DiBerardinis wants to change Philadelphia’s government, and not just by winning a seat on City Council.
At this early stage in the 2019 municipal elections, DiBerardinis is one of the few candidates who has made a big impression.
That’s partly because of who he is — his father Michael DiBerardinis was the city’s managing director until recently — and partly because he’s raised more money than any non-incumbent at-large City Council candidate.
DiBerardinis ended 2018 with almost $145,000, only outstripped by Councilmembers Helen Gym and Allan Domb. All three are Democrats and will compete with each other, and a couple dozen other candidates.
“His fundraising is impressive and your ability to raise money is a clear indicator of how someone should view your candidacy,” said Mustafa Rashed, a prominent Philadelphia lobbyist and political consultant. “If you have a lot of different donors and people willing to support you that speaks to a coalition and it looks like out of the gate he’s assembled a large coalition.”
Even beyond his family’s substantial legacy, DiBerardinis isn’t a political neophyte. He served for six years in Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez’s office, where he focused on tax policy, and then served for six years at Bartram’s Garden, the beloved park in Southwest Philadelphia.
A new deal for Philadelphia?
DiBerardinis’ policy platform calls for both government reform and progressive economic policies, packaged in what he describes as “a New Deal for Philadelphia.” But his website doesn’t include many details, so PlanPhilly asked him to expand on some of the policy proposals.
In the wake of a series of scandals, DiBerardinis says one of his priorities would be reforming City Council by trying to change the way the body functions.
His website calls for some changes that are fairly basic, such as placing strict limits on outside employment for City Councilmembers. (A practice that recently got a lot of bad press after the indictment of Councilman Bobby Henon, who drew dual salaries from the electricians’ union and his council job.) There are other reforms that would be substantially more ambitious, like a fundamental restructuring of the city’s charter.
“Council has surrendered a huge amount of power to the executive,” said DiBerardinis. “In exchange, they were given parochial and local power in their districts. I don’t think that’s a good deal for council. I don’t think it’s a good deal for the city of Philadelphia.”
Under Philadelphia’s current political norms and laws, district council members are given near total power over public land sales, zoning, and streets regulations in their territory. The practice, known as councilmanic prerogative, creates a system where ten mini-mayors have a lot of discretion over their little corners of the city.
Critics argue that this both incentivizes narrow policy making, where politicians craft legislation with citywide implications — like zoning — with the interests of a small sliver of their constituency in mind. It also facilitates a pay-to-play culture, and actual corruption. As a 2015 Pew study noted, council’s control over land use is related to all six of the council members convicted of wrongdoing since 1981.
“When you have a lot of unilateral power in a government system that doesn’t lend itself to collaboration, it lends itself to corruption,” said DiBerardinis.
Much of the conversation around councilmanic prerogative ends with a denunciation of City Council, but DiBerardinis says he doesn’t want to make a narrow case against the mini-mayor system. Instead, he wants to see council play a more active role in crafting the city’s $4 billion budget.
Currently, the chief powers council enjoys over the budget are oversight hearings held every spring and the ability to set spending caps for each city department. After that, the mayor can do whatever he wants (with a few exceptions like the relatively new Office of Property Assessments, where council gave itself veto power over the agency’s top leadership position).
“I’d like to see a more normal balance of powers between executive and legislative branches,” DiBerardinis said. “We need a new era of governmental reform. Let’s take a look at our charter, let’s have a convention to look at how we are structuring government.”
Without seeing the details of such a policy, Rashed said it could be hard to sell district council members on reforms that would lessen their ability to micromanage their territory. That will be particularly true if most of the changes after this election are in the ranks of the seven at-large council members, who run in citywide races, as opposed to the district members who often remain in power for decades.
“If … most of the changes at the at-large level, and the districts remain the same, then they will be inclined towards incremental rather than whole-scale change,” said Rashed, “because they have been so invested in getting their districts where they want them to go.”
Higher taxes for commercial real estate, more city jobs
Government reform isn’t the only ambitious item on DiBerardinis’ agenda. Following the work he performed in Quiñones-Sánchez’s office, he wants to reform Philadelphia’s tax structure to be both more business- and worker-friendly.
DiBerardinis says he likes the proposal floated by Paul Levy and Gerard Sweeney, which is championed by some business leaders and would shift taxes toward commercial real estate and away from wage and business taxes. But the potential council member says he wants to see the idea shifted toward wage tax relief for the poor and working class.
“If we are just looking at the business community, I don’t think that’s a win,” Diberardinis said. “I would like to see those reductions in wage taxes be focused on making a progressive wage tax for working-class Philadelphians. That’s where the real ability for a big coalition resides.”
DiBerardinis’ New Deal for Philadelphia also focuses on a renewed commitment to public sector employment, shifting city resources to hiring teachers aides, school nurses, and street cleaning crews.
“When America had a poverty rate as high as Philadelphia, we did something called the New Deal,” said DiBerardinis. “A massive employment program that drove living wage to communities that needed it the most. You don’t build a program like this overnight. It will take years, maybe a generation. But I want us to start now.”
Like many current councilmembers, he also criticized the ten-year property tax abatement. Unlike most other councilmembers, DiBerardinis ties that critique to a plank about historic preservation in his policy platform. Like his rhetoric around wage tax reform, DiBerardinis says he would like to see the abatement bent toward home repair in rowhome communities rather than chiefly incentivizing new construction.
While historic preservation is rarely debated in the legislative body, demolition and neighborhood character are increasingly foregrounded in community groups as new waves of new construction wash over once-stagnant areas like Fishtown, Francisville, and Point Breeze.
“I would love to see us incentivize preservation, I would love to see us abating people, the homeowners keeping up their old Philadelphia rowhouses,” DiBerardinis said. “This advances ownership and it will do more than any other policy I’ve heard to advance the preservation of Philadelphia neighborhoods.”
DiBerardinis launched his campaign Monday afternoon, at Johnny Brenda’s in Fishtown, the neighborhood where he grew up. There are less than three months until the May primary, which often determines who actually wins power in this overwhelmingly Democratic city.