As the sun set on Election Day, time had finally run out on Mimi

MICHAEL OLESKER

September 15, 1991|By MICHAEL OLESKER

The three of them stood in the gathering darkness outside School No. 237, Claremont and South Eaton, as the last of the votes were being cast for city political offices Thursday.

"Hey, hey," a light-hearted precinct worker cracked. "No electioneering here."

The three guys feigned innocence.

"Electioneering?" one of them said. "We're not electioneering."

"Hell, no," said a second. "We're taking action."

There was a little laughter then, but only for a moment. A few

feet away stood an exhausted Dominic "Mimi" DiPietro, lingering in the front doorway of the school and gazing in at voters, and he was 86 years old and watching his political life come undone.

For a quarter-century around here, nobody could take action on Mimi. Always, he was off the board, the sure winner, beyond any odds the champion vote-getter of them all in East Baltimore.

But now, with the clock ticking on Thursday, he was on his way to finishing fifth in his bid for a seventh straight term in the Baltimore City Council, and it was slowly coming to him that his day was over.

"Come on," he yelled, turning in the courthouse doorway and spotting a woman on the front walk. There were two minutes left until the close of polls.

"It's too late," the woman called back. "Ain't nobody can vote now. It's too late."

L "It ain't too late," said DiPietro. "Come in. Come in here."

He was trying to hold back the night. For years, there was laughter and music around Mimi DiPietro on election evenings like this, but now there was only darkness and a cop at the schoolhouse door saying nobody else could vote now, the polls were closed.

The three guys taking action slipped away. Once, they were Mimi's kind of people, living by the seat of their pants, ad-libbing their way through the days. That's what always made Mimi so unique among politicians: He was a professional street guy who found himself in office but stayed a street guy.

Was he philosophical? Of course not. The council once debated divesting the city of all South African investments. An hour after it ended, Mimi was at Bud Paolino's crab house on East Lombard Street and complaining, "Them guys is only interested in one thing: South America," missing the point by only a continent or two.

Did he have a sense of perspective? Well, sort of. He chaired the jTC committee that built the Christopher Columbus statue on the east side of the Inner Harbor, but he didn't like the original blueprints, which showed Columbus lacking any fingers.

"Big deal," somebody said. "Look at the famous statue of the Venus de Milo. It doesn't even have hands or arms."

"Don't look at me," Mimi quickly declared. "I wasn't on that committee."

Was he a master of elocution? In his way, sure. To the TV stations, he was A Man for All Sound Bites. To print reporters, a treasure chest of fractured bon mots. To Eddie Fenton, the old radio reporter who once aired a critical story, it was Mimi who uttered the immortal words:

"Fenton, you're trying to scruple me."

The easy thing to praise about Mimi DiPietro is the truth: He worked every day of the week to help his constituents, never mind the broken syntax. Nobody else at City Hall was in his league at helping somebody find a job or clean up a street.

Some said he didn't grapple with more complex problems, and they were right. But the business of politics today becomes more and more the province of great pretenders, those who talk the big game and never deliver the goods. They dress like prosperous bankers and use language mainly to protect themselves, and that's the whole show.

Mimi DiPietro never learned how. He was defenseless to say anything but his version of the truth, even if he had it wrong. He was profane and he was crude, but it was simply verbal shorthand by which he meant nothing malignant at all.

At School No. 237 on Thursday, he walked slowly into a hallway to await the counting of the votes. The building is 65 years old. DiPietro is 21 years older. As the slow calling of the numbers sounded through the school, he shook his head: not merely with sadness, but with a fire in his eyes, as if these election officials had to be making a terrible mistake.

"I didn't get hardly nothing here," he said incredulously. "My own precinct, and I did bad."

"What the hell happened?" an old campaign aide wondered aloud.

"I don't know what happened," DiPietro said. "I'm the onliest guy who works all day long. I work every day. These others, they're lucky they work one day a week."

In the East Baltimore evening, he moved from one set of numbers to another in a kind of numb disbelief.

"The voters all said hello to me coming out," he said. "I thought that was good. I didn't think there was no double cross."

No, not a double cross, just a reading of the calendar. When base ball's Casey Stengel was fired for being 75 years old, he said, "I'll never make that mistake again." Mimi DiPietro made the mistake of being 86.

He ran out of time. For a long time around here, he brought hard work and fun and an honest sensitivity for the underdog to City Hall. And that's not a bad record for any politician.

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