'She was a power, a Democrat, and she was loyal'

April 09, 1995|By MICHAEL OLESKER

In the summer of 1992, in a gesture of high political honor and long family friendship, Nancy D'Alesandro invited William Donald Schaefer to sit at her table for a neighborhood spaghetti dinner at St. Leo's Roman Catholic Church in Little Italy. The governor of Maryland accepted. Then Nancy D'Alesandro changed her mind.

Days after the invitation arrived, Schaefer made the colossal political blunder -- to Mrs. D'Alesandro, and to other Democrats -- of endorsing George Bush for president. The earth slipped its axis. The next day, the governor got a letter from Mrs. D'Alesandro. He was informed, in language most vivid, that he was no longer invited to sit at her table. He was no longer invited to the dinner. He was considered a traitor to his party.

"And," Schaefer was remembering last week, the day after Nancy D'Alesandro died, at 86, at the end of a lifetime of political passion, of rallying the troops for her husband the mayor and congressman, and her son the mayor, and her daughter the congresswoman, "she never talked to me again the rest of her life."

To call Mrs. D'Alesandro the first lady of midcentury Baltimore politics is to minimize her life. This woman was an earth force in that era when Italians were still finding their place in the great American game of ethnic politics, and sometimes facing infuriating stereotyping that nobody heard about at the time.

"When Big Tommy was in Congress," John Pica Sr., longtime D'Alesandro family intimate, was remembering last week, "I went with him to Washington. Whenever he had me take a message to the Texas delegation, Lyndon Johnson would say to me, 'Yeah, Tony, OK, Tony. Go back and tell Tony. . .'

"Finally, I tell D'Alesandro, 'Hey, Johnson keeps calling us Tony. Everything's Tony.' D'Alesandro says to me, 'It's 'Tony' 'cause he don't have the guts to call you a bleepin' wop.' "

D'Alesandro swallowed his anger. His wife did not. Years later, when Johnson ran for president, the Democrats held a rally for him here at the 5th Regiment Armory. Nancy was introduced to him. She looked Johnson in the eye and declared, "My husband's name is Thomas John D'Alesandro. It is not Tony.' "

"I was standing right there," Pica remembered. "Johnson's ears started flapping. His eyeglasses got bent out of shape. They had to take him into a lounge and get his composure back. When it came to her family, Nancy didn't pull no punches."

Pica sat at a dining room table in the D'Alesandro family's Albemarle Street home, with a bust of Tommy the Elder in a

corner. There's a rich, yeasty history in this little piece of East Baltimore that comes out of families, and national background, and the long struggle to overcome the various ethnic biases that still trouble the nation.

In this room, the city's Italians began to reach for their percentage of the political game.

On a couple of walls are family portraits, dating back half a century, back to the time when Tommy the Elder was mayor and congressman, back when Tommy the Younger was on his way to City Hall and Nancy D'Alesandro Pelosi, the future California congresswoman, was still a schoolgirl. In every portrait is the mother, handsome, dark-haired, beaming.

"She took care of her house and her family, plus the political work," Pica said. "She told Big Tommy how to run the precincts, who the workers should be. She had this huge ladies group, which was like the CIA. They'd hear all the gossip, and they'd bring the messages. Nancy would tell Tommy, 'You can't trust this one, we had bad dealings. This one's OK, you can trust him.'

"The ladies would work the phones and send out the letters and put together the rallies. In 15 minutes, she could put 20 or 30 of them together.

"When Big Tommy ran state-wide, she had so many women working for her, they had to put 'em all at St. Leo's."

Night after night, the ladies cooked spaghetti and ravioli and held fund-raising dinners. It was a time before politics was played mainly on television, when the campaigns routinely went into the neighborhoods, where there were parades and bull roasts, and then everybody would go back to Albemarle Street and figure out what to do the next day, and the day after that.

The D'Alesandro house has long had the feel of legacy about it. Only recently, old photographs were removed from the walls, shots not only of D'Alesandros in their political prime, but of those named Roosevelt and Truman and Kennedy, all of whom were family political intimates.

"They knew them all," William Donald Schaefer remembered. "Franklin Roosevelt, Bernard Baruch, all the famous men. And Nancy, she was a power. She was a Democrat, through and through, and she was loyal.

"You know, when I was in the council, I'd vote against Tommy on certain issues. But he never held it against me. Now Nancy, if it was up to her, she wouldn't have given me a matchstick."

He smiled a little smile at the memory. Nancy D'Alesandro left the headlines to others. But she was there, and she played the game with muscle, and the world moved a little when she did.

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