Mario DiGennaro requested a meeting at the deli. Not the big one on the highway that is owned by his buddy. Instead, he munched on a BLT in front of Donarchi Deli on the Key Colony Beach Causeway.
The commissioner loves a good deli sandwich. On most days he can be spotted in front of Marathon Liquor and Deli. He calls all the women “gorgeous,” and all the guys “my friends.”
As soon as DiGennaro sips on his coffee, or “vitamins” as he calls it, his cell phone rings. Over the next hour, he received no less than 12 calls and answered every single one of them.
“This place is a little quieter,” he said while torching a big cigar – another one of his loves. His thick Italian blood keeps his skin a nearly a constant shade of beefy red – exaggerated today because of a recent offshore fishing trip with his granddaughter and the apple of his eye, Jayla.
“My granddaughter caught her first shark yesterday,” he said. “She is a cheerleader and also school president from Poinciana.”
The young lady was not born into politics. Her grandfather was appointed to the commission and won his first term by default when no other candidates failed to qualify for his seat.
But politics suits the affable Italian businessman just fine.
Florida Governor Charlie Crist has been a guest at the DiGennaro home numerous times and often stays for hours on end. They have released turtles together, gone dolphin fishing, and the commissioner seems to have a direct line to Tallahassee.
He recently lobbied the house, senate and governor for a $200 million bond to install the central sewer system.
“Now that we have the authorization, we have to get the allocation,” he said, adding the fight is still on to get the 2010 mandate for installation pushed back to 2015. Then there is the dispensing of the money between the county and the municipalities.
As his sandwich disappears, he tries to steer the conversation to his resume. The past few years have not been entirely smooth sailing. At the beginning of his term he was criticized for tossing a disruptive citizen out of public meeting, supporting former county administrator Tom Willi, and aligning himself with the old school political machine – even though he was a freshman commissioner.
“I am fortunate to be working with four excellent public servants. Even though we don’t always agree, at the end of the day, everyone has the best interests of their county at heart.”
Today Mario DiGennaro is no longer a mystery and his record speaks for itself. The county is back to replenishing its reserves. A new county administrator, Roman Gastesi, has found new ways to save money without cutting services, municipalities throughout the Keys have been united, and a ship has been sunk.
“I am outspoken and a little rough on the edges, but I am used to getting the job done,” he said. “There is definitely a learning curve and over the years, I have learned that building consensus and going forward is the only way to achieve success.”
Earlier this month he formally announced his bid for re-election and after three years on the county dais he is not ready to analyze his accomplishments.
“I don’t put much stock into my legacy. I am doing a job,” he says. “I just want to help these people have a better life.”
A brief bio
Mario DiGennaro grew up in Westchester County, NY, just north of New York City. He served in the US Army from 1964 to 1967 and was stationed in Germany, where he met his wife Margitta. They have two adult daughters, Bianca and Vanessa, one granddaughter, Jayla, and a grandson on the way.
Having dived all over the world, DiGennaro first came to the Florida Keys in 1980 on a diving trip and fell in love with one of the last living reefs in the United States. In 1990 he decided to move with his wife and daughters to the Florida Keys, and Key Colony Beach has been his home ever since.
“Preserving the Florida Keys goes hand in hand with preserving the environment. That is our whole future. If we do not protect our oceans and near-shore waters, we will not have tourists down here. When people ask me if I am green, I say, ‘No, I’m Blue. I love the ocean.’ As steward of the Keys, we must do more than simply being green.”
The commissioner with his granddaughter, Jayla, just before she caught and released a ten-foot shark.
This May, the USS Vandenberg became the second largest artificial reef in the world when it was sunk off the coast of Key West. DiGennaro was given the honors of christening the ship with a bottle of champagne.