Pelosi's road to success started in Baltimore

January 13, 2002|By Michael Olesker

NANCY Pelosi steps into history this week. On Tuesday, she becomes the highest-ranking woman ever in Congress, arriving there from San Francisco via East Baltimore's Little Italy and a political background as rich and colorful as America offers.

She had a father, Tommy D'Alesandro Jr., who was mayor of Baltimore, and she has a brother, Tommy III, who was mayor of Baltimore, and she had a mother, Nancy, who was smarter and tougher than anybody. They lived in the house at Albemarle and Fawn, in a neighborhood that felt like one large, extended family, in an atmosphere of hot political talk and cold mathematical calculations.

"Oh, the warm memories," Pelosi, 61, was saying the other day, from her congressional office in balmy California, where she's preparing to become Democratic whip Tuesday. It's a job that involves shaping the party message and rounding up votes for legislation, and is often a stepping stone to majority leader and House speaker.

"It's freezing here in Baltimore," she was told.

"Oh, good," she said. "I remember winter mornings, going to school at the Institute of Notre Dame on Aisquith Street, and we'd go next door to Mass at the Church of St. James, and on cold mornings the nuns would give us hot chocolate afterward. Real hot chocolate. I can still taste it."

Also in that era, she was developing a taste for politics. Her father, one of 13 children of a laborer from Abruzzo, Italy, was building a career that made him the first Italian-American, and the first Catholic, to become mayor of Baltimore. At 13, he had lied about his age to work for a sawmill for $6.60 a week. At 14, he went door to door selling insurance for the Harry T. Poor Insurance Agency. The job took him all over East Baltimore, where he mixed with all the transplanted Eastern Europeans there, Poles and Greeks and Germans and Slovaks, discovering that they, like D'Alesandro, were reaching for the same thing: the full America.

"That was the message we always heard at home," Pelosi was saying last week. "America is about opportunities. My family always felt they were working on the side of the angels."

From his door-to-door connections in the insurance business, D'Alesandro the elder launched a political career that took him to Annapolis, and to Congress, and to Baltimore's City Hall. His children watched, and they learned.

"My whole growing up was listening in on meetings and seeing people with yellow pads saying, `Here's who has to get out the vote over here.' It was always talk about wards and precincts and voting numbers" - things unseen by most eyes. The first time her father ran for mayor, he arose in the pre-dawn hours of Election Day, took his son Tommy III up to the roof of the house and gazed into the dark.

"We'll know in a few minutes if we have a chance," he said. He was looking, Pelosi recalled, for the headlights of cars, and for precinct workers on their way to get a head start on the competition.

But Pelosi's political instincts come from something else, something her brother Tommy would remember from the Depression era and Nancy recalled from her own childhood later, when people were in trouble and the elder D'Alesandro was working his way through the political vineyards.

"People would come to the door," she said, "and they wanted help. They didn't know where to go for medical help, or food. My father always knew how to refer people. And they'd end up having dinner at our house, because they were hungry. That stays with you.

"When I was a child, I was pretty familiar with referring people to get a bed in a hospital, or a place to live in the projects, or get a family member out of jail, whatever it was." She chuckled at the last memory. "I always try to carry that thought, that people have real needs and don't always know how to take care of them."

As a grown-up, she married, moved west, raised five children and resisted politics, even as her brother was eventually succeeding their father as mayor of Baltimore.

"I didn't think of politics as a life," Pelosi said. "It was something my parents and my brother did."

Note the plural "parents." Her mother was the great organizer in all the campaigns, putting together squadrons of neighborhood women who would work out of the family basement, or nearby St. Leo's, organizing election efforts block by block.

"My mother was a boss," Pelosi said. "She wasn't one of the boys, but she was a boss. Talented, and ahead of her time. But what I learned is that politics is a very insatiable profession. No amount of time is enough. My parents taught us the importance of patriotism, of religion. ... My father had a romance with the city of Baltimore that was beautiful to see.

"And I carried those values, but I needed to raise my family, too. And my parents would say, `Never mind politics. Enjoy your family.' And then, I don't know, you just discover it's in your DNA, in your blood. And you look around and see children in trouble, and health issues, and schools that aren't working, and the economic troubles of families. And you find yourself in politics."

For Marylanders, the only disadvantage to Pelosi's victory as Democratic whip is that she had to defeat Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer. For Baltimoreans, though, it's a victory of the spirit: the girl from Little Italy whose family reached for the full America - and gave the country two mayors and the highest-ranking woman in congressional history.

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