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O'Malley finds a confidant in a predecessor

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By all accounts, Thomas J. D'Alesandro III had had his fill of City Hall by 1971. He'd been mayor for a single but tumultuous term, marked by the 1968 riots, racial strife and strikes by city laborers, bus drivers, even symphony musicians.

"It's all over," he told reporters as he left office to resume his private law practice. "I'm all through."But three decades and four mayors later, D'Alesandro is back -- as an informal adviser to Mayor Martin O'Malley, who consults him on some of the stickiest City Hall issues and appointed him to serve as a Housing Authority commissioner, a volunteer post.

O'Malley has had prickly relations with one of his predecessors, William Donald Schaefer. But he and the 73-year-old man still known as "Young Tommy" seem to have forged a rare political friendship, one based on mutual respect rather than quid pro quos. This despite Schaefer's contention that the 39-year-old O'Malley doesn't listen to anyone older than 40.

"He's been a great source of advice and counsel, especially when stuff is hitting the fan," O'Malley said. "Everybody who tries to pour advice into your ear does it with some sort of bias or agenda. He's got no agenda, nothing to gain. He's just happy to contribute. He also has great political instincts."

For his part, D'Alesandro seems to relish his role as elder statesman and is content to play it behind the scenes. Let his kid sister -- Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the newly elected House minority leader -- be the high-profile politician in the family. If D'Alesandro, now retired, can help in a quiet way, he is glad to do it.

"A lot of times, you get the feeling that no matter what the administration is, constructive criticism is not welcome," D'Alesandro said. "They don't mind you shaking hands, but don't give them any advice. That's not the case with O'Malley."

They're an odd couple in many ways: the brash young man known for his Irish rock band, muscle shirts and occasional bursts of profanity, and the courtly grandfather of 10 who favors big-band music and wears a jacket and tie to Orioles games.

While O'Malley is a political maverick who publicly skewers fellow Democrats and considered taking on a Kennedy in September's gubernatorial primary, D'Alesandro, the son of a powerful machine politician, is a party loyalist who believes in hashing out differences behind closed doors.

In temperament, the outspoken and sometimes impatient O'Malley probably has more in common with D'Alesandro's late father, who was mayor from 1947 to 1959. Thomas D'Alesandro Jr. -- "Big Tommy" -- was scrappy and blunt, Baltimore's version of Richard J. Daley of Chicago. Once, when a reporter prefaced a question by saying his "desk" -- The Sun's city desk -- wanted to know something, Big Tommy put his ear to his desk and said, "My desk tells me to tell your desk to go [bleep] itself."

"His father, he'd kick ass from one end of the city to the other," recalled Dan Zaccagnini, who was a special assistant to Young Tommy.

Although more reserved than O'Malley, D'Alesandro is no wallflower. He is an engaging raconteur who, in the right company, spices up old-time Baltimore political tales with salty language. In an interview after leaving office, he described the experience of being mayor as being served plate after plate of poop -- except he didn't say poop.

"Tommy has a great personality, like O'Malley," said Kalman "Buzzy" Hettleman, an administrative assistant to Young Tommy. "Very outgoing, down-to-earth personality. Tommy never blew his fuse publicly the way O'Malley did. But he would in private. And Tommy, in a very good-natured way, could out-expletive anybody."

Many similarities

There are other similarities -- personal and political.

"They're both very gregarious," said Robert C. Embry Jr., who served as the younger D'Alesandro's housing commissioner. "They're both great performers. Both Roman Catholic. Both descended from an ethnic group that was kind of shut out. Both fathers were politicians."

(O'Malley's father has twice run unsuccessfully for Montgomery County state's attorney, and his grandfather was a ward leader on the north side of Pittsburgh.)

Both lawyers elected in their late 30s, D'Alesandro and O'Malley saw their families grow while in office. D'Alesandro's fifth child, Gregory, was born in 1968. O'Malley's fourth, John, arrived Oct. 4.

Both men surrounded themselves with young advisers and aides, giving their administrations an image of vigor and dynamism that in his day D'Alesandro called "razzmatazz."

'Can read each other'

The men did not know each other before O'Malley ran for mayor in 1999. After winning the Democratic primary, O'Malley sought out the former mayor and bounced a few ideas off him about potential appointees. They quickly developed a rapport.

"I was just like a sounding board," D'Alesandro said. "`What do you think of John Doe?' Sometimes there'd be a pause before I answered, and he'd say, `You don't have to answer.'"

Their friendship deepened in January last year when they traveled to Oakland, Calif., to watch the Ravens play the Raiders for the American Football Conference championship. Both had been invited to watch the game with Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown. D'Alesandro had co-managed Brown's presidential campaign efforts in Maryland in 1976, helping to deliver the state for Brown in the Democratic primary.

D'Alesandro and O'Malley flew to California together, stayed in the same hotel, attended Mass together, shared lunch and breakfast for two or three days. In Brown's box on game day, watching the Ravens pummel the Raiders, 16-3, to clinch their first trip to the Super Bowl, they recognized the need for tact -- and devised a system of silent communication.

"We couldn't jump up and down, but we would look at each other and revel in our facial expressions," D'Alesandro said. As a result, he said, "He can read me. We can read each other. We talk with our eyes, sometimes in the company of others."

Acting as mentor

D'Alesandro stays mum about most of the advice he gives O'Malley, and O'Malley doesn't offer many specifics.

When asked, D'Alesandro says they discussed Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris when he was under fire this summer for buying fancy meals and other expensive perks with an off-the-books departmental fund. But D'Alesandro won't divulge his counsel.

"We talked," he said. "Let's just say that."

D'Alesandro did say he advised O'Malley against challenging Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in the Democratic primary for governor, saying he had an obligation to the residents who elected him mayor.

If there is anything the former mayor has consistently preached to the current, it is to watch his mouth. O'Malley has been sharply critical of Townsend and Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy.

"What I always caution him about is not to shoot from the hip, which he has a tendency to do," D'Alesandro said. "You can differ with a person politically, but you should never attack a person. That has been my admonition a lot of times."

O'Malley chuckles as he recalls the latest scolding from D'Alesandro, after the mayor's impromptu radio appearance.

On Oct. 17, O'Malley tuned into WBAL and heard the host and his guest criticizing him for keeping a low profile the day an arson fire killed an East Baltimore family. O'Malley went to the studio, where he confronted the pair on the air. He ended his visit by inviting them to "come outside after the show, and I'll kick your ass."

The next day, D'Alesandro had a word with O'Malley as the mayor was leaving the stage at a Townsend campaign rally.

"He put one hand on my shoulder and said, `I love what you did yesterday with those jerks on the radio,'" O'Malley said. "And wagging a scolding finger in front of my face, he said, `Don't ever do it again.'"

D'Alesandro couldn't be too angry with O'Malley. When he was mayor, his appointments to the school board took a beating in a television news report. Watching at home over dinner, D'Alesandro got up, drove to the station and went on the air to defend himself.

Of course, D'Alesandro did it without threatening to kick anybody's backside.

Even as he chides O'Malley for that kind of outburst, D'Alesandro thinks it works for him.

"The rebel is always much more attractive, and he has that attractiveness," D'Alesandro said. "He attracts people from all political persuasions, all political affiliations. He's somebody who, should he happen to punch the right keys, has a tremendous future ahead of him. Lord knows how far he can go."

People said the same thing about D'Alesandro when he took office. His father had also served in Congress, and Young Tommy admits that he had his eye on the governor's mansion.

So it was a huge surprise when D'Alesandro -- after building new schools and new police headquarters, expanding summer youth programs and pushing for open housing -- decided not to seek a second term.

People said he was burned out, weary of the rough-and-tumble that culminated in April 1968 with three days and four nights of riots after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Six people were killed, 700 were injured and thousands of businesses were damaged or destroyed.

D'Alesandro says personal finances were what really pulled him away from City Hall. After taxes, he said, he cleared $696 every two weeks. It just wasn't enough to support his family.

The man who followed D'Alesandro into the mayor's office acknowledges that his own, less diplomatic style has made Young Tommy the more attractive mentor for O'Malley. Schaefer often writes O'Malley blunt notes about problems he sees around town, such as the broken lights he spotted in Little Italy in October.

"My messages are sometimes real rough because I think his staff lets him down," Schaefer said. "I wouldn't listen to me. Tommy's a different kind of individual. Tommy's a nice man. He would never blast O'Malley the way I would. ... Tommy would say, `You know, there was a light out. Maybe you should get it fixed.' I'd write a letter, `Dear such-and-such: There was a light out. Why the heck didn't you have it fixed?'"

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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