The Bensalem resident is running in the May 21 primary on a unified Republican ticket with Commissioner chairman Rob Loughery
By Samantha Bambino
When taking into consideration Rep. Gene DiGirolamo’s 25-year tenure in Harrisburg serving District 18 in the state House of Representatives, it’s easy to assume the lifelong Bensalem resident always had his eye on a political career.
But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Throughout his time at Bishop Egan High School, DiGirolamo’s sole ambition was to be a farmer. After graduating in 1968, he tirelessly worked on his grandfather’s 500-acre farm for 26 years, selling vegetables and managing a staff of nearly 100 employees.
By 1994, despite the farm being one of the largest remaining in Lower Bucks County, DiGirolamo knew the growth of infrastructure and traffic in the town would soon force those good old days to come to an end. Little did he know, the trajectory of his life was about to change forever when the opportunity to run for state representative presented itself.
“I was probably the last person you would’ve thought would run for elected office,” he told The Times. “I had no experience in public speaking at all, and that was probably, as I remember back, the toughest part of deciding to run.”
Still, hard work paid off, and in January 1995, DiGirolamo was sworn into office. Since that time, he has prioritized his work to focus on several key areas, especially drug and alcohol rehabilitation. This was in conjunction with raising four children with his wife Donna of 44 years, welcoming five grandchildren, and coaching youth sports for the St. Ephrem’s Catholic Youth Organization.
Now, he wants to lend his decades of experience exclusively to the people of Bucks County. DiGirolamo recently announced he is running for commissioner in the May 21 primary on a unified Republican ticket with Commissioner chairman Rob Loughery. He is seeking to take the spot of longtime Republican Commissioner Charley Martin, who is retiring from his position.
The board is comprised of three commissioners elected to four-year terms, two from the majority party, one from the minority party. They are responsible for the adoption and administration of the county operating budget — $432.6 million in 2019 — and oversight of almost 2,400 full-time employees.
“It was a tough decision for me because I really like my job as state rep. But this just seemed like an opportunity to help out everybody here in Bucks County,” he said. “I started to look at the county’s budget and where most of the funding goes. Three-quarters is geared toward health and human services — exactly the same things I worked on in my time in Harrisburg.”
For the past eight years, DiGirolamo has served as majority chairman of the House Human Services Committee, a position that allowed him to travel across Pennsylvania, shedding light on the opioid crisis and mental illness. These issues hold personal ties for DiGirolamo, whose oldest son battled a heroin addiction.
“I went though, as a parent, the absolute horror of having a child who’s addicted to drugs, and what every family goes through in trying to get them into treatment and having them relapse,” he said, explaining how after a number of years and many attempts, his son is now in long-term recovery. “After experiencing that, I really took an interest in this area of health and human services.”
An accomplishment of DiGirolamo’s was the authoring of legislation that increased funding for rehabilitation centers and established a separate cabinet agency, the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs, to streamline drug and alcohol treatment services in Pennsylvania. This was signed into law as Act 50 in 2010.
“I’ve really worked on trying to make sure people have the opportunity to get health insurance, and, no matter what their addiction or disease, have the opportunity to get into treatment,” he said. “One thing I’ve learned, whether it’s mental health or drug and alcohol addiction, is that treatment works. It’s highly successful if you get the right treatment for the proper length of time.”
If elected to commissioner, he would continue to make accessible rehabilitation a priority. According to DiGirolamo, if an addict doesn’t receive needed help, they can easily enter into a vicious cycle.
“They’re going to be out there committing crimes. They’re committing crimes by just buying the drugs,” he said, adding that the next step is usually county prison. “I think it’s really important, and I know they’ve taken steps to be able to do this, that we make sure while they’re in prison, people are getting treatment. Just because somebody is incarcerated for a month, or two months or six months, and they haven’t taken any drugs, does not mean when they get out, they’re not going to go back to drugs.”
For DiGirolamo, it’s a thrill to have the chance to build upon the work Loughery and Martin have done thus far, not only concerning health and human services, but also the environment. Because of his extensive farming background, DiGirolamo said he understands the importance of preserving open space and maintaining clean water and air. Last session, he was the first House Republican to receive a 100 percent on an environmental scorecard distributed bi-annually by various environmental groups around the state.
“I think Bucks County is a great place to live. I really do. I think our quality of life is really, really spectacular and we never want to just sit back and say, OK we don’t have any more to do, because there’s always things we can work on,” DiGirolamo said. “It’s going to be a tough election. I have no illusion that this is going to be easy. I’m hoping just to focus in on the issues and talk about the vision that me and Rob Loughery have for the future of Bucks County.” ••
Samantha Bambino can be reached at email@example.com