Mary Podesta; Staple At Political Dinners

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 12, 2007

Mary Podesta, 88, who cooked pasta, pesto and Mediterranean fare for countless Democratic fundraisers over the past 20 years, died of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease March 9 at Sibley Memorial Hospital.

Mrs. Podesta, known as "Mama Podesta" to a who's who of politicians, lobbyists and office holders, furnished and became a staple at Democratic dinners shortly after she moved to Washington in 1987. Her sons, who had been cooking for the fundraisers they staged, decided to improve their fare and asked if she would cook. Her modest but delicious offering was a hit.

"I know a lot of times I'll be at a function someplace and they go, 'Oh, you're the Pesto Queen,' " she told the Associated Press in 2004. "Oh, God. I never looked for that title!"

Mrs. Podesta's home cooking raised millions of dollars for candidates, but she contributed to the Democrats years earlier by raising two prominent sons -- Tony, founder of the lobbying and public relations firm PodestaMattoon, and John, chief of staff for then-President Bill Clinton and now the founder and chief executive of the Center for American Progress.

"She knows more Democratic senators than most lobbyists," said Tony Podesta, the elder son.

Mrs. Podesta's famous pesto, which was exotic to Washington palates 20 years ago, came from her husband's family, which originated in the Liguria region of northwestern Italy.

"Not only was the food wonderful, but just sitting in the kitchen, holding her hand and talking to her, I felt like I was in my mother's and grandmother's kitchen," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.). "She knew everything that was going on, and she made it very clear what she liked and didn't like."

Mrs. Podesta typically didn't join the movers and shakers at the dinner table or for pre- or post-dinner schmoozing. Those in the know made their way to her, often before paying respects to the honored guest.

"You almost had to see it," Leahy said. "She would have members of Congress, Cabinet officers, people in high public office and a neighbor just dropping by, and she was holding court. She was the center."

She was "an artist in the kitchen," said New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, for whose campaign fundraisers Mrs. Podesta cooked.

"She was gregarious, she was always smiling, and she had a great bundle of pride in her sons and her country," Richardson said. "Her one requirement: Even the candidate, even the most powerful senator or governor could not enter the kitchen without her permission while the event was taking place. The highlight was always after the event, sitting with her and eating."

Born in Chicago to Greek immigrant parents, Mrs. Podesta graduated from high school there and worked in her father's restaurant, where she met her future husband, who was a customer. After they married, she became a full-time homemaker until her sons were in school and worked occasionally as a poll watcher. She then was a department manager at Bankers Life and Casualty Co. in Chicago for almost 30 years. Her husband, John D. Podesta Sr., died in 1980.

In addition to her sons, both of Washington, survivors include a sister, Evelyn Carres of Winchester, Va.; three grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company