Farewell Mimi

August 19, 1994|By Walter S. Orlinsky

I MISSED former City Council member Mimi DiPietro's funeral last week because I was sick; for two days I had been running a fever and I just couldn't get out of bed. In part, I think Mimi's passing actually made me feel even weaker than I was, because it marked the end of an era. In truth, Mimi's electoral loss a few years back was the end, but death is the absolute arbiter of time.

I had to cringe when I read The Evening Sun's editorial lament of Mimi's passing. Oh, it was sweet and nice and very much to the point. It's just that from an institution that for years held Mimi and his kind up to ridicule, it just did not seem right. They who now lament the button-down young council people who would rather have a moment on television than the fixing of potholes, are the same people who year after year sought the button-down types over the pothole masters. The Evening Sun spent more time railing against the old political clubs and clubhouses that spawned the likes of Mimi DiPietro than anyone else.

For Mimi, or former Mayor Clarence "Du" Burns, or former City Council member Joe Curran Sr., representing "their people" was the mother's milk of politics. Their people deserved to have the best of city services and in turn their people were expected to respect the municipal efforts. And indeed, these constituents kept their part of the social contract in return for a fair shake from the government; people kept their houses and neighborhoods clean, and the city picked up the garbage, cleaned the streets and kept them repaired. Cops got respect and in turn gave respect.

For all The Evening Sun's bellyaching about political clubs, political bosses and muldoons, a trip to Mimi's Democratic club on Claremont Avenue was everything that anybody could ask for from a democracy. There, politicians were expected to be able to answer for their actions as an elected official. Questions were sharp and straightforward. In fact, full of the bluntness that was Mimi's stock in trade. Answers that were mushy and self-serving were scorned.

I remember the late Joe Bonvegna recounting with much pride how well-received he was after his first year as a state delegate because he could talk about air-pollution control. He had played an important role in getting Maryland's first clean air laws passed and he was a little afraid that the threats from Bethlehem Steel, General Motors and others about lost jobs might hurt him. Bonvegna stood up and answered the hard questions on Claremont Avenue and was congratulated for how much he had learned about the issue. He often told me that that was what made it possible for him to become a state senator.

You can't have a Mimi today and all are impoverished by it.

Mimi could lead and Mimi could follow. For example, Mimi was not a fan of the South East Community Organization in its formative years. After all, it wasn't a part of the clubhouse culture. They seemed more than a bit radical to him, and Mimi believed they really should have brought their concerns to the clubhouse.

Mimi fought them tooth and nail. He went to their meetings and gave as good as he got. Such exchanges helped Mimi come to see the other side's point of view. Slowly he was won over. Mimi learned to like Barbara Mikulski because she was, like him, a fighter for "her people."

As the boundaries of the old ethnic 1st District changed, Mimi found himself with new constituents. The rich community in the South Baltimore portion of the Harbor Crescent was a source of joy and wonder to him. He would drive through the streets declaring the wonders of representing such uptown types. He delighted that the "bosses," the big shots, were now just voters in his district. In time, many came to love him for his grit and hard work.

Farewell my friend! You were not made for these mean and low times. You were of a time when honest laughter and honest anger could mingle in a more joyous cacophony of life, instead of these times of so-called political correctness and propriety. The likes of Sun columnist Roger Simon (who chided Mimi for making what Mr. Simon called anti-Semitic and racist comments) will never comprehend the easy give and take that made you a "Dago" and proud of it. No offense was meant between real people whose lives were hard but open to its fullness in the equality of hard work and responsibility. You served the people well even if those "meteors" (what Mimi called media folks) never really got to understand you.

Walter S. Orlinsky, a former Baltimore City Council president, writes from Baltimore.

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