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Baltimore-bred lawmaker lives, breathes politics

THE BALTIMORE SUN

She was a friendly, independent, composed girl, with big brown eyes and coal black hair in corkscrew curls. In a family of six children, she was the youngest child and only girl. She adored her father, hung close with her mother and made her own life in a large and boisterous crowd. Her earliest memories are of breathing the heady air of Baltimore politics. Politics was family.

Nancy D'Alesandro Pelosi grew up watching and listening to the politicians who streamed in and out of 245 Albemarle St., day and night, weekends and holidays. Whoever was in the house at 6 o'clock stayed for dinner. On the eve of every election, the inner circle gathered around the dining room table, yellow pads in hand, to figure out how many votes they could get, precinct by precinct.

No one who knew her family would be surprised that Nancy Pelosi has grown up to be a consummate politician, an ardent Democrat now beginning her sixth term in Congress representing most of the city of San Francisco.

She is, after all, the daughter of the late, legendary Tommy D'Alesandro Jr., who represented Baltimore in Congress for more than a decade in the late '30s and '40s and was the city's mayor for three consecutive terms, from 1947 to 1959. His name was known and respected in Democratic politics all over the country. He broke ground for other Italian-Americans fighting their way up to high posts in local and national government.

"What I learned from my father was everything," Mrs. Pelosi said. "I didn't learn like you learn lessons. I learned by osmosis. I breathed it in. You can't articulate it. Politics is every minute of every day. It is part of you. It's the . . . art of getting bills passed, of getting anything done, even the smallest favors."

Those lessons have served her well. The congresswoman from California has established a reputation as a competent, hard-working, personable representative who takes care of her constituents. Her Democratic colleagues think enough of her to have made her co-chair of the party's national convention in 1992.

Championing causes

Mrs. Pelosi's district includes thousands of Chinese-Americans and gays, and nationally she is best known for her work on issues important to those communities. She championed the cause of linking preferred trade status for China to its human rights record, and she is a leading advocate for gay and lesbian rights and health care for AIDS victims.

"She has the street smarts of the old order and all the savvy of the New Order," said Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md. "She could be a strong vice presidential candidate. I like the ticket of Mikulski and Pelosi, two Institute of Notre Dame girls on the move."

Her brother, Tommy D'Alesandro III, himself a former mayor of Baltimore, says his sister is more like their mother than their father.

"My father was a consummate politician, but underneath he was soft," Mr. D'Alesandro said. "My mother was tough. Nancy is tough. She can hold her own with anybody. Nobody fools her and nobody frightens her. She never backs down."

Her assertiveness, and her criticism of former House Speaker Thomas S. Foley for being too cautious, left bad feelings among some Democrats, but generally the congresswoman enjoys immense popularity.

The San Francisco Chronicle has endorsed Mrs. Pelosi in all of her elections, the most recent of which she won by a margin of 64 percent. One endorsement editorial praised her for offering "vast experience in politics at all levels" and being "an independent voice representing San Francisco's interests."

Not everyone is as complimentary. Elsa Cheung, Mrs. Pelosi's Republican opponent in the most recent election, criticized her stand on trade with China.

"A lot of the Chinese people do not like her position, opposing giving China "most favored nation status," Mrs. Cheung said. "We want to trade with China. Mrs. Pelosi doesn't want this because of a few kids in Tiananmen Square."

Mrs. Pelosi and her husband, Paul, owner and president of a company called Financial Leasing Services, have five grown children -- Nancy, Christine, Jacqueline, Paul Jr. and Alexandra. Three of the children are Georgetown graduates and Paul Jr. is still attending Georgetown Law School.

When Congress is in session, she leads a disciplined and focused life, spending four days in the nation's capital and leaving on Fridays for San Francisco to be with her constituents and family, returning to Washington on Sundays.

"I make use of every minute of that long six-hour plane ride," she said. "I work on my mail and I get tons of reading done. You can never catch up with your reading, background on what you should know. It haunts you. On Monday morning when that alarm goes off at 6 a.m., I think I can't do it. I just can't move."

But move she does, and by early morning she is in her office,

Suite 240 in the Cannon Office Building, ready to take on the problems of the world.

Nancy Pelosi remembers her roots, and she smiles broadly when she talks of her childhood and her political education on Albemarle Street.

The Queen Mother of the family, 85-year-old Nancy D'Alesandro, still lives in Little Italy where some 50 years ago her husband bought two houses and turned them into one. There His Honor established his power base, stayed close to his constituents and raised his family. It was political heaven, a place where important decisions were made and important things happened.

The five D'Alesandro boys all went around the corner to St. Leo's parochial school, but Nancy was a "12-year girl" at the Institute of Notre Dame on Aisquith Street. She was a good student there from the first grade through high school.

Her life's big turn came when she went to Trinity College in Washington and met Paul Pelosi, also from a political family. His brother was a member of the Board of Supervisors in San Francisco, akin to Baltimore's City Council. They were almost immediately compatible.

"He understands politics but he is not particularly political. He's a businessman. He likes sports. He plays golf and tennis. He's normal."

A year after her graduation, in 1963, they were married at a grand wedding in the Cathedral in Baltimore and first moved to New York City, where her husband was with CitiBank. A few years later, they moved to his hometown of San Francisco.

Almost before she unpacked, she formed a Democratic club in her district. "I immediately felt at home and I was happy," she said. "I was surrounded by Democrats. I never even considered running for office when my children were small. I have five children. It would have been impossible, but I was always a hard-working volunteer."

When her youngest daughter, Alexandra, was in high school, Nancy's friend and confidant, Sala Burton, the congresswoman from her district, was dying. She asked Mrs. Pelosi to run to finish her term.

"The governor set an early date for the special election," she recalled. "I only had seven weeks to campaign. We had 100 house parties and we got 4,000 volunteers to go door to door and to man phone banks. I raised a million dollars -- all in seven weeks.

"My father called me every day," she added. "He would ask me over and over, 'Do you have a good organization?' He taught me that organization is the first lesson in the political primer."

Eventually, Mr. D'Alesandro sent his son, Tommy, to California to see "Nancy's situation" firsthand. Young Tommy came back to Baltimore with optimistic news. "Dad, she's got a better organization than we ever had."

"We barely squeaked in," Mrs. Pelosi said. "All my elections since have been easy, but that first one was scary, very close."

Mrs. Pelosi's victory impressed her brother.

"When I ran first for president of the City Council and then for mayor, it was easy for me," he said. "I had the same name. I just walked in my father's footsteps. Nancy went 3,000 miles away, ** where she was a stranger. She made it totally on her own."

Solid future

In addition to being mentioned as a potential vice presidential candidate, Mrs. Pelosi is considered by some a likely candidate for mayor of San Francisco. She claims she has "no interest," but -- as any shrewd politician would -- adds, "it's not entirely beyond the realm of possibility."

"You want to know the absolute truth?" she says. "I don't really like the job of mayor. You have to try to please too many people and you take the blame for everything. I remember one time when my father was mayor. There was a garbage strike and they threw garbage all over our front steps, old orange peels and rotting vegetables. I thought, 'What a mean thing to do to my mother.'

"I prefer legislation. . . . In the House, we have time to study a bill and to think. There is such satisfaction in getting a bill passed for your people. You know you have done something. You have earned their vote and you have earned your right to be where you are."

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