Old war horses relish campaigns--but fall behind younger rivals DiPietro's defeat closes chapter on 25-year career

September 13, 1991|By Sandy Banisky

In the end, Mimi DiPietro heard the bell toll for his 25-year City Council career in the harshly lighted foyer of School 237, just across from his Highlandtown home. A small, tired man in a caramel-colored suit, he perched nervously on the edge of a folding chair and listened as 1st District election judges read the bad news.

Here at home, in the precincts Mr. DiPietro had nurtured for a quarter of a century, the precincts he had worked doggedly since 7 a.m., he was running weakly. Here at home, anything less than a big win portended doom.

To Mr. DiPietro, who's served in the council longer than any other current member, it was a bewildering insult. At 86, he had been asking the voters to elect him one more time, to a term that would keep him in the council until past his 90th birthday.

But here in the foyer of School 237, he began to realize the voters were saying no.

"Oh, Christ," he said quietly. "I run third in my own precinct."

And then, "Maybe they don't want me to run no more."

Very slowly, he got up and walked outside. "I run third," Mr. DiPietro, head down, said again and again, as if trying to make himself understand it. "I run third."

He had been there all day yesterday just as he has been every Election Day for decades, a gritty Baltimore political institution in a double-knit suit, patrolling the pavement at the polls at Claremont and South Eaton, in his 1st District stronghold.

He was looking for votes -- albeit less spryly than he has in the past.

All summer long, there were whispers across East Baltimore tha Mr. DiPietro was too old to keep the job. Mimi had heard the talk. "I lose, I lose," he said the day before the vote. "I'll get a job somewhere."

But he wanted re-election. "One more term," he said on the eve of the primary. "One more term, and that's it."

Last night, he was trying to take it in. "Looks bad," he said. "And I work every day. These guys, Nick D'Adamo [a council incumbent who was leading the ticket], he don't work. Hell. He's lucky if he works a day a week."

And Perry Sfikas, a challenger, was right behind Mr. D'Adamo. "This Greek boy from up on the hill," Mr. DiPietro said of Mr. Sfikas. "I don't know how he got any votes. He don't live around here."

Big victories had always been Mr. DiPietro's joy. In 1983, his vote total beat that of any council candidate in any district. But in the general election four years ago, he ran third, and was insulted by what he saw as an ungrateful electorate. "Look what they did to me," he grumbled. "You work hard for people, and look what happens."

Since 1966, he has held forth on the floor of the Baltimore City Council, never the most progressive of councilmen but certainly one of the most memorable.

This is a politician who knows nothing of political correctness. Women? He calls them girls. Gays? He knows them as queers. Jews? All rich fat cats. African-Americans? Well, take a guess.

When he met Pope John Paul II, he called him "Mr. Pope." When a group of elected officials from New Delhi toured City Hall and Mr. DiPietro was invited to meet the Indians, he raised his hand like a character in a western and said, "How, Chief."

He did not understand why some would take offense. He used uncomplimentary slang to describe himself and his buddies. He did not understand that sexism or racism or homophobia is not considered becoming in an elected official.

Some found his unvarnished style of politics charming. But others deemed him a throwback to an evil era when white political machines ruled the town, and they had no tolerance for a round little man who personified that time.

His booming voice used to echo off the ceiling of the council chambers. It's softer now, and he moves with less authority. He cannot be counted on to recognize old faces.

Still, he rarely missed a day of work.

Yesterday morning, his wife, Frances, awoke him at 5 o'clock. He tucked a hanky in his breast pocket and affixed a City-of-Baltimore tie clasp to his flowered tie. Then, before 7, he crossed the street from his home to the school to work the polls, just as he's done since 1924.

Almost everyone who passed was a neighbor or a relative.

"Hi, girls," he called to two elderly women walking away from the polls. "Thank youse."

"Mimi's my man," Lucy Tana, a DiPietro cousin, shouted, throwing back her head and yelling for all of Highlandtown to hear. "I don't care what anybody says."

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