DiCiccio's entry in Valley government came after political about-face
August 1, 2012
The Arizona Republic
As a self-described "populist conservative," he has been among the most controversial figures in Phoenix politics since his 2009 return to City Hall.
But District 6 city Councilman Sal DiCiccio's roots don't hint at the conservative Republican that he grew to be.
He was born in the pro-labor, rust-belt town of Youngstown, Ohio. As with many Italian immigrants, his extended-family members were New Deal Democrats.
Against that background, DiCiccio morphed into the lightning-rod for conservative causes in the Valley, often going against the grain of everyone up to and including the mayor. DiCiccio has pushed for greater transparency in city-union contracts.
His transformation came during his high-school and young adult years, influenced by limited financial resources when he was a kid in Tempe, forever ingraining the lesson financial frugality. Growing up in Arizona also exposed him to the ideas and influences of John Rhodes and Barry Goldwater.
"I just don't believe government always works in the best interest of the public," he said.
Former Phoenix mayor and Democrat Phil Gordon acknowledges that while he and DiCiccio have fundamental and philosophical differences that often caused them to spar, they get along well and are friends.
"Sal is very reflective of the way this country's politicians have gone in the last two decades," he said. "In Arizona, the representative majority is much more extreme. Certainly, Sal has carved out a notch and raised a lot of issues, a couple we worked on in agreement."
Gordon said their cooperation on those issues shows that DiCiccio is not always an ultra conservative.
"I think there has been a significant contradiction over the past eight years on some of his policy issues," he said. "But I'm grateful for his help. He deserves credit for the investment in education, and police and fire and building universities."
DiCiccio said he returned for a second stint on City Council in 2009 because he believed that he could use his financial background to help the city during its financial crisis. He started out as a "team player" but said he "realized the public was being told a phony story and wasn't being told the truth."
"The last two years have been basically bloody," he said. "They have just been horrible...I mean, its hard walking in an elevator when you've got everyone thinking that you hate them, when in fact you don't. You just want them to clean up and do what the private sector does."
But it was DiCiccio's connections to the private sector that led to questions about his public role in the debate to move the South Mountain Freeway from Pecos Road to the Gila River Indian Reservation.
In 2006, DiCiccio was hired as a consultant by the Arizona Department of Transportation to persuade GRIC to allow the freeway to be built on tribal land.
The following year, DiCiccio made an agreement with GRIC to develop a 75-acre parcel at Pecos Road and 40th Street. Unless the freeway is not built, the land will bring a large profit, with DiCiccio making 20 percent.
"People always claim that I have a conflict on it because I've had a small interest on a piece of property on the Gila Indian Reservation," he said. "I know there is a way to fix it to where everybody can get a win-win. The Gila River Indian Community, the taxpayers and the Ahwatukee Foothills."
Gordon pointed out that DiCiccio was upfront about the land deal and was cleared to participate by the city attorney.
"I really never understood a lot of the details," Gordon said. "But the appearance (of a conflict of interest) was there, which in our profession is as meaningful to the voters as the legal technicalities."
DiCiccio said he got involved in the discussion after returning to office because it is the most important issue facing Ahwatukee in the past two decades.
"My first priority is to protect the public out there," he said. "And if you look at Ahwatukee Foothills, it would literally tear up 200-plus homes, a church, businesses all up and down that road...I'm going to continue to say something about it because I have an obligation and a responsibility to make sure that my citizens are protected."
Like his parents, who are now 84 and Chandler residents, DiCiccio could not speak English when he arrived in Arizona in the early 1960s.
DiCiccio's younger brother, Paul, said their mother was worried about Sal entering first grade because of the language barrier. But instead, he excelled to the point that there was discussion about moving him up a grade. The family decided against it. But DiCiccio's new skill brought additional responsibility: family spokesperson/negotiator/translator.
DiCiccio said his parents, Paul, a bricklayer, and Nicolina, a seamstress, were always too busy searching for steady work and keeping food on the table to pay attention to matters of state.
"If I could be half the man my dad was, I'd be a very happy man," DiCiccio said. "He went through big periods of unemployment. He'd keep the job and then he'd lose it...Moneywise was always a stressful time in our family."
His grandfather, Ray, who lived with the family in Tempe, was a strong backer of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. As a student at Tempe High, DiCiccio was introduced to another liberal mind: former Tempe mayor and Democratic Congressman Harry Mitchell, who was DiCiccio's government teacher. DiCiccio said Mitchell's class, in which he could attend City Council meetings for extra credit, was also part of his awakening to public service.
"We all hated going to the first one," he said. "But after a while, there was an evolution where we started engaging."
Around this time, DiCiccio said discussions with the T.J. Mahoney family that lived down the street caused him to begin questioning his liberal background.
"He and his family were very conservative," DiCiccio said. "But then, they would always walk me through it. They never criticized any of my beliefs. But what they did is they would ask me questions."
T.J. Mahoney was a judge in Pinal County but it was his wife, Jeanne, the brother of Jack Daum, who worked for Manuel Lujan, and eventually got DiCiccio his first internship. "All through my life," he said. "I've always had good people helping me."
DiCiccio graduated from Tempe High in 1976, knowing he would have to pay his way through college. He worked a series of odd jobs: apartment security guard, bouncer, mover, window-washer and in the Bashas' meat department. He saved his money and used it to pay tuition at Arizona State University, where he studied business.
The biggest lesson DiCiccio said he learned during that period was persistence: "When you give up, that's it. The game is over, no matter what the other side is doing. It was a great lesson."
DiCiccio said he officially became a Republican during his freshmen year of college.
"I was the first Republican in our family," he said. "(The) first kid to graduate from high school, first kid to graduate from college and the first Republican. That was a blow to our family."
It was such a blow that DiCiccio said he remembers, after college, being pulled out of a family event in Youngstown by two men he'd never met. The men told DiCiccio they were union representatives and that everyone in the family was a Democrat.
"They said, 'Well, you need to really think twice about being a Republican and you can go back in now,'" he said, laughing. "I think my whole family had a hard time with it at the beginning. Now, I think most of them have moved over to the other side." He interned in Washington, D.C., during the summers. During his senior year at ASU, DiCiccio was an intern for Rhodes, the Arizona congressman, and afterward became Rhodes' last campaign coordinator.
"It was his coming of age and his decision to move into public service," younger brother Ray said. "I think that (while) working for Rhodes, he decided here is where I want to go and what I want to be."
DiCiccio said the concept of legacy is overrated and doubts that his work will be remembered six to eight years after he leaves office.
We're all a generation away of being forgotten anyways," he said. "So, it's what we do that we feel will be the right thing to do for the generation that's here right now."