From behind his desk in City Hall, Mimi DiPietro, the city councilman who already might have heard his last hurrah, tells me to write my name and address on a piece of paper. I assume he wants to know if I am registered to vote in his district, which is the First. I'm not, but I oblige him just the same. This guarantees that, a few hours later, the 86-year-old councilman will be able to know exactly to whom he has spoken.
The telephone rings. A woman is calling for advice.
"You want my advice?" DiPietro says. "First, give me your name, address and telephone number."
The woman dictates the information slowly. DiPietro writes it down, mispronouncing names and repeating spellings several times. Then he says: "All right, now, honey, go ahead. What can I do for ya?"
I sit by the desk as DiPietro listens to the woman's problems. All the wall space in his office has been covered with framed photographs, proclamations and plaques. There are pictures of DiPietro with presidents and presidential candidates, local pols, the governor, the mayor, reporters, kids and senior citizens. One the photographs, which I reckon to be about 40 years old, shows a dapper but heavier DiPietro with a group of political pals at a banquet table; the late George P. Mahoney sits in the background. All but two of the men in the photograph are deceased. To the photograph DiPietro has taped a recent Sun editorial, headlined: "Mimi DiPietro's Last Hurrah?"
"Hey, pick up that other phone, you wanna hear this?" DiPietro tells me. "Here's a story for ya."
So you think Mimi's out of it? Look at him, jumping on an opportunity to sell a story: Mimi DiPietro, full-time councilman, man of the people, king of constituent service. That's it, boss. That's the Mimi Story.
This time, DiPietro needs voters who know the Mimi Story well and still believe it.
This time, it's not just the downtown pundits who say he's finished after six terms in City Council. In the approaching primary, the first since redistricting, there are younger, more attractive candidates willing and able to work the sidewalks in the August heat. Sure, DiPietro gets out there; yesterday morning, he worked a senior club luncheon at Our Lady of Fatima parish, handing out rubber jar openers bearing his name and the names of his running mates. But even people from DiPietro's own neighborhood grumble about the need for new blood in council.
For younger voters, DiPietro is a turn-off because of the vulgar, stupid statements he's made in the past (he made a few such statements during yesterday's drive through a black section of East Baltimore). Sometimes reporters quoted him, most times they did not; but when they did, it left a lasting impression. Mimi got a deserved rep. His quotability has lost its appeal, his pugilistic charm has worn thin. Still, people call him for help.
"Over there in the corner," he barks at me. "Pick up on that phone and push the button!"
I pick up the extension and tell the caller that, with her permission, I'll be listening to the conversation. She agrees.
L "Go ahead, little girl, what's your problem?" DiPietro asks.
She's a city employee. Two years ago, a contractor came to her workplace, an old building near Druid Hill Park, and started removing asbestos. The woman refused to work during asbestos removal and asked for a transfer. Until the transfer came through, she took unpaid leave. While she was on leave, the city did not pay her health insurance premiums. This led to a bureaucratic mess. The woman wants help. She has a reason for calling DiPietro.
"You helped me get the transfer the last time, Mimi. Don't you remember?"
The councilman doesn't seem to remember -- either a sign of his age or a sign that's he's been taking too many such calls for too many years.
DiPietro tells the woman to stay on the line. He says the words, "Stay on the line," several times. He contacts the city operator, says he wants to speak with a specific person in the personnel office of the Department of Public Works. The connection works, and DiPietro sits back and listens while the two parties talk through the problem. The distressed constituent seems pleased.
"I know something's gonna get done when I talk to you," she tells DiPietro.
"Well, where do you vote?" DiPietro asks. "Central Avenue. Oh, yeah? Are you still on the books there? You are? Well, don't forget to vote for me."