By Lynne Duke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 10, 2006
When she wasn't racing to school at St. Leo's in her blue uniform or buying sweets in Mugavero's Confectionery or playing on front stoops up and down the block, Little Nancy sometimes worked the front desk at the family home at 245 Albemarle St., taking down the requests and sad stories of the folks who arrived to seek help from Big Tommy, her dad.
Or maybe she was riding around with her dad and his bullhorn, as he touted his candidacy from a convertible.
The late Thomas J. D'Alesandro Jr., also known as Old Tommy or Tommy the Elder, was the flamboyant and legendary machine politician, a Roosevelt Democrat, whose only daughter is the woman poised to be the speaker of the House, second in line of succession from the presidency.
She grew up stuffing envelopes for her dad. She grew up watching how the political game was played. She saw how favors were handed out, how chits were called in. She watched her mother balance full-time motherhood with grass-roots organizing, and later followed her example. Albemarle Street was Nancy Pelosi's training ground, the center of a political universe forged from a community as tight-knit as an Italian village.
Critics deride Pelosi, 66, for a presumed lightweight liberalism they attribute to her latter-day home in San Francisco. But her liberalism -- and the keen political instincts and skill at the inside parry of the game -- can be traced more deeply and more precisely back to Albemarle Street, to the political empire that grew there when her father held court through decades of an intensely political life.
In that brick rowhouse on the corner of Albemarle and Fawn streets, politics was a family business that became a local dynasty. Big Tommy served 22 consecutive terms in public office, from state delegate to city councilman to U.S. congressman to Baltimore mayor, followed by a low-level appointment from President John F. Kennedy to something called the Federal Renegotiation Board.
One of Pelosi's five brothers, Thomas J. D'Alesandro III, Young Tommy, served on the Baltimore City Council and became the city's mayor as well.
Theirs was the politics of the New Deal, of the hand up for those who were down.
"It was always about the progressive economic agenda for a fair economy, where many Americans, all Americans, could participate in the economic success of our country," Pelosi said yesterday when asked about the influence of her family's politics on her own.
"What I got from them was about economic fairness," Pelosi said. "That was the difference between Republicans and Democrats all those years ago." She also learned about the power of loyalty, both extending it and enforcing it.
And even though the D'Alesandros could have moved away from the neighborhood's narrow streets and tight rowhouses, they stayed, no matter the patriarch's success.
That is one reason for the degree of pride that folks there express for Pelosi's success -- her family stayed rooted right with the rest of them.
"She wasn't born with a silver spoon, growing up around here," says Marion "Mugs" Mugavero, 84, who ran his confectionery for 59 years. "She grew up like the rest of us."
Except that her father became the go-to guy for Baltimore politics, a man with visitors from high places.
"He was good friends with Harry Truman," recalls Dominic "Fuzzy" Leonardi, 80. "When Truman was running for president, [Big Tommy] went and picked him up and brought him to his house" in a 1936 Plymouth.
"We had a lot of politicians coming down here," Leonardi said, seated on a bench along High Street yesterday as he is most days with his pal, Michael Trombetta, also 80. They listed Spiro Agnew, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan as the pols they remember making a pilgrimage to see Big Tommy.
"They all came down to see him," Trombetta says.
Little Italy, where Pelosi grew up, occupies about a dozen square blocks near Baltimore's Inner Harbor, and was, in its day, the prototypical ethnic enclave in a city that was a patchwork -- and remains so, to an extent -- of Italian, German, Jewish, African American and Irish.
More than a civic duty, politics during her parents' day was about survival for the sons and daughters of Italian immigrants forging their way in a big city. It was about jobs. It was about favors of the political ward bosses. It was about patronage in a society in which the sons and daughters of immigrants often could depend only on themselves.
"There weren't a lot of vertical lines open to those kids, and the ward was where you got jobs. They would get you jobs," says Gilbert Sanders, a Baltimore historian and author of "The Neighborhood: The Story of Baltimore's Little Italy."
"And whole political machines were born out of these jobs. A job driving a car for city hall. A job picking up trash. Jobs were everything."
And Big Tommy "was the king of it," Sanders says. "It's just the way things were. It's not pejorative at all. These kids, you don't think they went off to Yale, do ya?"
John Pente, 96 and a lifelong Little Italy resident, remembers being destitute and with no prospects in 1930.
"It was the time of the Depression," Pente says. "I came out of Calvert Hall [high school] with a diploma under my arm and no job."
So he went to Big Tommy.
"He helped me get a job as a timekeeper" for the workers at a construction site.
And of course, such favors, such help, cemented a bond between patron and politician.
Pente shrugs and describes the ethic this way: "You scratch my back, I'll scratch your back. We all looked out for him."
Big Tommy tried to help people with scholarships, with education, with assimilation.
"You had a lot of foreigners here that needed to get around and get their citizenships and they didn't speak English," Mugavero recalls.
Big-city machine politics, no matter where it was practiced, often was a magnet for criminality. If a person betrayed the boss's loyalty, the consequences sometimes weren't pretty. Corruption often went with the territory.
In 1953, one of D'Alesandro's longtime associates, also a relative by marriage, was caught up in a bribery probe related to off-street parking. But Big Tommy was not known as a politico with dirty hands. Not even when the Teamsters tried to strong-arm the mayor during a city garbage strike in 1956 did he buckle to mob pressure.
Tom J. O'Donnell, 95, was D'Alesandro's press secretary in those days and remembers well how the mayor ran afoul of the Teamsters when he declared one Friday that striking garbage collectors would be fired if they did not return to work on Monday.
That Saturday, he got a visit from a Teamsters official sent by Jimmy Hoffa himself.
"He told the mayor, 'Mr. Jimmy directed me to tell you that he is very unhappy with what you are doing,' " says O'Donnell, reading from a self-published book about his years with D'Alesandro. "And the mayor spoke up and said, 'You go back and tell Mr. Jimmy I'm very unhappy with the garbage piling up on the streets of Baltimore, and I'm not going to stand for it.' " And when Monday came, says O'Donnell, most of the striking workers were back on the job.
This political toughness runs through his daughter, who, as minority leader, has not been reluctant to bare her teeth or throw her elbows to enforce party discipline.
O'Donnell tells the story of D'Alesandro's entry into politics, when he entered the Maryland House of Delegates in 1926, an Italian boy making good for his people.
He wore patent-leather shoes and spats, an Oxford gray suit, a polka-dot bow tie and a derby, for he wanted to dress in the manner he thought would befit the men of high standing he would be joining.
"He said he thought he would encounter men of the stature of Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry and the like, and he was greatly disappointed when they were just ordinary people," O'Donnell said.
Through his political career, the polka-dot bow tie would remain his lucky charm. He told Sandler once that he'd lost an election the one time he did not wear that polka-dot tie.
Out of the political game, he remained a force. The house on Albemarle still received visitors seeking Big Tommy's blessing for political careers.
J. Joseph Curran Jr., the Maryland attorney general and the father-in-law of Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley, was among them.
"Tommy the Elder: I remember when I would want to run for office and they would say, 'Well, why don't you go see Tommy,' and you'd go down to the D'Alesandro house down on Albemarle Street and I said, 'Mr. Mayor, I want you to know I'm thinking about running and I'd appreciate your advice and help.' "
D'Alesandro appointed Curran's father to the City Council. He also attended grade school early in the last century with Curran's mother.
"It was smart politics, because then you have someone you like and who likes your mother and father," he said.
That was in 1968. By then, Pelosi was long gone -- to college, to marriage and family and then a political career of her own -- which started in 1987, the same year her father died.
But these many years since she pitched in as a girl on the fringes of her father's political machine, Little Nancy still bears the family imprint. Big Tommy's political world was her own.
Staff writers Jonathan Weisman and Juliet Eilperin contributed to this story.