If you think you have a tough job, try being Valentino F. DiGiorgio, III for a day. Or, if you’re really courageous, try filling his shoes for an entire election season!
Valentino DiGiorgio, he prefers “Val”, is the latest in a long line of effective Chairs of Republican Committee of Chester County.
Following in the footsteps of Alan Novak (a VISTA Today profile of Alan is here) and Skip Brion, previous Republican County chairs, Digiorgio has the unenviable task of uniting passionate activists, many with different points of view on contentious issues, around a common message, finding candidates to carry that message and winning more than his fair share of the each election’s battles.
And if that isn’t enough responsibility, he has to do all that while maintaining his party’s decidedly Republican countywide voter registration majority.
Val DiGiorgio spoke with VISTA Today recently about growing up in South Philly, discovering his leadership abilities in college, his decision to be a Republican committeeman in heavily democratic South Philadelphia in the late 1980’s, what brought him to Chester County and his vision and passion for leveraging Republican principles to revitalize urban neighborhoods like Coatesville and Phoenixville across the United States.
Where did you grow up, Val?
I grew up in a family of 5 children in the Italian Market area of South Philadelphia. When I was a kid, we played ball in the park across the street from Gino’s Steaks. My father, a first generation Italian-American, had two Master’s degrees in Music and was a high school music teacher. When that wasn’t paying the bills, he went out and became a contractor. My mother, a second-generation Italian- American, is very intelligent but grew up in a generation when women didn’t work as much outside the home.
How did your family end up in Philadelphia?
People from the Abruzzi region of Italy often migrated to Philadelphia. My paternal grandfather, like many Italians, went to Argentina first and then immigrated to the United States once he obtained a visa.
What memories do you have of growing up in South Philly?
It was a great place to grow up. I lived in a tough neighborhood typical of many inner-city neighborhoods. Kids didn’t think anything of having a fight. On the other hand, the neighborhood was close knit. I would walk through the Italian Market to go to St. Paul’s School at 9th & Christian. Everyone in the market knew my mother. If I did anything wrong, she knew about it before I got home.
Where did you go to high school?
I had the choice of going to St. John Neumann or the local public school. The local public high school was pretty bad, so we opted for Central High School, which was a public magnet school on North Broad Street, a twelve-mile ride on the subway. Riding the subway every day was interesting to say the least – we frequently had battles with neighborhood kids on Broad Street.
What was your experience at Central like?
The best part about Central High was going to a school in a diverse environment. I was used to always being surrounded by other Italian-Americans in my neighborhood. At Central, there were kids from all over the city -Jewish, Hispanic, African-Americans, many of them who came from very good families. Prior to my experience at Central, the only African-American kids I encountered were from the projects, and I rarely, if ever met kids of other nationalities. The diversity I encountered at Central High helped exposed me to a whole new world and helped give me a more positive view of people from different backgrounds.
Did you work in high school?
I always had a job. I’ve been working since I was twelve. There wasn’t a lot of money floating around in our family of 5 kids, so if you wanted money, you had to earn it yourself. I enjoyed the sense of independence that came from having my own money. My parents owned real estate in Wildwood so I spent summers working on the boardwalk. Starting at age 13, I worked in the Italian Market selling everything from fruit to clothes. In college, I worked for a stockbroker, as a waiter and with my father. After I graduated from college, my first job was with a consumer loan company.
Thinking back on your early jobs what lessons did you learn that stay with you today?
The consumer loan company made 25 percent loans to people who had no other place to turn to get a loan. I was the aspiring capitalist and an accelerated management trainee on a fast-track to a leadership position at corporate headquarters, but I had to train in the branch office first.
One time, as part of my training, the assistant manager took me out on a collection call. He warned me about the woman we were visiting. He said, ‘be prepared, this woman is living in squalor you’ve probably never seen anything like this.’ I’m thinking, how bad can it be? We visited the woman, a widow who was in her late 60’s. Her house had been taken over by junkies. She had trash piled in the living room up to my hip, soot all over her cabinets. It was worse than anything I had ever seen. Here we are trying to collect our $47 payment for a gambling debt her deceased husband had incurred ten years earlier.
After the visit, I asked my manager why we just didn’t write the loan off. ‘We had made our money on the loan, let’s write the thing off.’ My manager informed me collecting delinquent loans was how the company made money. That was too much for me. Within a month, I quit and went to work for the FDIC. Later, I decided to go to law school and go into politics instead of getting an MBA, as I had planned.
Where did you go to college?
I didn’t decide to go to college until April of my senior year. My older brother was a pre-med student at Temple, but I just wasn’t focused on college. I was a C and B student in high school with no real focus. Temple was down the street from Central and the only college I could afford and maybe get into given my grades.
Did Temple end up being a good choice for you?
Yes! Getting away from the crowd I was hanging with and making my own decisions, forced me to grow up. Temple was and continues to be one of the best higher education bargains around.
When did you discover you had leadership ability?
I’ve always been out front. In high school I knew I could lead, but other than the occasional political debate with my mostly liberal high school teachers, I just didn’t have the motivation to try. Plus I wasn’t the kind of tough kid who could lead in South Philly. My mother didn’t want us to get in fights, so I never became the tough South Philly kid. In high school, I was a quiet, behind-the–scene, more of a follower kind-of-guy. Becoming a leader came later for me when I went to college and began to focus on my future.
How did you get into politics?
It sounds corny – but I have always had a deep love for our country and respect for its leaders. I had a passion for politics at a very young age. My parents were not political, but encouraged political discussions around the dinner table. In my neighborhood, when Mayor Frank Rizzo walked down the street, 200 people came out to greet him. And, the Democratic machine won every year. That machine, however, kept putting the same types of people in office. Over time, more and more of those elected officials ended up in jail. It didn’t make any sense. Schools kept getting worse, same with crime and poverty. Everyone seemed to be on the dole. Watching that happen year after year propelled me into Republican politics.
What did you do about your frustration?
Even though South Philly is a tough place for a Republican, I became a Republican Committeeman in the late 80’s. I met Ronald Reagan during the 1980 primary when he visited the Italian Market on a campaign stop and was inspired. I also admired then Congressman Jack Kemp and his message of a smaller but active government, and became a Jack Kemp Republican. I come from a wing of the Republican party that advocates for Republicans playing an active role in the inner city. That’s why I have worked to make the local GOP more active in places like Coatesville and Phoenixville and why the Chester County Republican Party recently sponsored a Latino soccer tournament in Kennett. In my humble opinion, our opportunity message is a better message for those communities.
When you look out over the horizon, who do you see implementing Republican principles in the inner city?
The way we address poverty in the United States has failed. We need a change. I love what Geoffrey Canada is doing in New York City and his Harlem Children’s Zone project and think we should replicate it all over the nation. The idea is to break the cycle of dependency and hopelessness in inner-cities by focusing on single mothers and providing them with job training, high school diplomas, substance abuse training and life training in a safe and caring place and to educate and care for their children, in one facility. I think this is an area where we can have bipartisan agreement.
What brought you to Chester County?
I had no intention of leaving Philadelphia. I was working in Harrisburg first as an attorney in the Ridge administration and then for State Senator Melissa Hart. The commute from South Philly to Harrisburg everyday was killing me. I looked at the map, drew a mile radius around the Downingtown exit of the Turnpike and settled in Uwchlan Township. I live in West Whiteland now. I have never looked back. I love Chester County!
Who gave you your big break that propelled you from the committee person in South Philly to Chair of the Chester County Republicans?
One thing that always impressed me with the Chester County GOP is how welcoming the party was to me. Alan Novak and Skip Brion, the two previous County Republican Party Chairs, were always looking for new talent. When I moved to Chester County, Alan Novak sought me out and in time allowed me to head a committee and challenged me to get something done with it. Skip Brion brought me fully into the GOP Executive Committee and gave me many opportunities to show my talents and work for the party. He had a big impact on my career.
What are the big challenges and opportunities for you over the next 6, 12, and 18 months?
Our biggest challenge is messaging and finding the right messenger to deliver our message. For the presidency, we have several great candidates. One candidate that has a great message and can reach out to young voters and minorities is Marco Rubio. He is a conservative and has an opportunity message for those demographics. He recently accepted our invitation to be our featured guest at our October 15th fall reception – and we are thrilled to have him.
We’ve tried to insulate the Chester County party from the national wave that has come at us every four to six years when people are angry at the party nationally or because of a government shutdown, etc.
The way we’ve done that is by reminding people that for over 150 years, the Republican Committee has made Chester County a great place to live, work and raise a family. That message is on every piece of literature and email we send out and in every speech I give. It’s even on our answering machine at headquarters. We say it so much, I think my donors and committee people are tired of hearing it! That message though has insulated us from the national waves. We win our local races with as much as 62% of the vote.
I don’t want people to judge the Chester County GOP by what’s going on in Washington. Judge us instead by Chester County’s open spaces, good schools, relatively low taxes and excellent quality of life. GOP leadership is largely responsible for that.
The other challenge is showing Republicans care! When we don’t care and fail to spend time and resources in urban areas, we give up ever winning those neighborhoods by default. We also don’t give inner city voters a real choice and leave them mired in the failed policies of the left. You only have to look at places like Philadelphia, Detroit and Chicago where liberals have governed for generations, to see what I mean.
By failing to provide urban Americans an alternative, they get the impression the only people who care about their issues are Democrats.
Two years ago, when House leaders in Harrisburg drew up the new house seat that runs from Downingtown through Coatesville to Parkesburg and Atglen, I was not happy. It was a gerrymandered Democrat seat that President Obama had won with over 60 percent of the vote. I told Republican leaders in Harrisburg that despite the demographics, I planned to win that seat. I sought out Harry Lewis and went to him several times to make the case as to why he should be the Republican Party’s nominee. Harry is a life-long Republican and a local star who loves his community. He worked hard, carried our message to Parkesburg, Coatesville and Downingtown and won the seat handily.
Harry Lewis is proof that when we have the right messenger carrying our message, the GOP can win in cities, boroughs and towns – we can win anywhere
Finally Val, what is the best piece of advice you ever received?
When I first moved to Chester County, I struggled with the decision of whether I should get involved in local County politics. I wasn’t sure I would fit in or that people would like an outsider from South Philly. A buddy, Joe O’Connell, with whom I had grown up and worked in South Philly and who now lives here in Chester County, reminded me of two things – be myself and that the cream always rises to the top. He encouraged me to go out, do my best and show local leaders my capabilities – and then leadership opportunities would come along. He was right.
Editors Note: A profile of Brian McGinnis, Chair of Chester County’s Democratic Party, will be published in the next week or two.