Tommy D'Alesandro III has something he wants to say about the great Baltimore riot of 30 years ago. He wants to clear up misunderstandings about how it affected him, and why he quit as mayor after only one term. And a few other things.
D'Alesandro has been thinking a lot about the riot lately. It was sparked by the murder of Martin Luther King Jr., 30 years ago today.
Baltimore was among the hardest-hit cities in the 1968 violence -- six people died, 700 were hurt and $13.5 million worth of property was destroyed. Many people think the riot tore the political heart out of D'Alesandro, snuffed a promising career.
Not so, says the 68-year-old former mayor. He is proud of his actions, his leadership before, during and after those turbulent days. He is also proud that Baltimore was blessed with two days grace.
Washington had burned almost immediately after word flashed from Memphis that King had been shot. Chicago went up the next day. Rioting erupted in 125 cities across the country.
But Baltimore remained quiet, at least for those two days. Seething, but quiet.
It bothers D'Alesandro that too few people appreciate the importance of that brief hesitation before the storm broke over the city. It was a response, he believes, to the generally progressive and ameliorative policies in place at the time: his polices, and those he inherited from his predecessor, the Republican Mayor Theodore R. McKeldin.
On April 4, a Thursday night, the new young mayor -- D'Alesandro was 38 and had taken office only four months earlier -- met Lou Azrael on the street. The late Baltimore News-Post columnist warned: "Tommy, you are going to have your troubles now."
D'Alesandro knew King; they got on well. The mayor was aware that many Americans looked to King for leadership. But depressed as he was by the tragedy, he wasn't thinking about repercussions until he met Azrael. Then he began to prepare.
He called in Police Commissioner Donald Pomerleau. He invited black leaders to City Hall. Soundings were made on the streets: Informers, police officers, community activists all put out feelers.
Thursday night passed without incident. Friday, images of burning cities flashed across television screens day and night.
"Everything was calm," D'Alesandro recalls. "But I was starting to feel it was too calm."
Saturday afternoon, April 6, word reached City Hall that people were distributing pamphlets along Gay Street, "demanding that businesses close in honor of Dr. King." Similar demands had preceded Washington's riot.
At 5: 30 p.m. the first rock was thrown on Gay Street: The Baltimore riot was on.
A few hours after the outbreak, D'Alesandro went on television and appealed for calm. He didn't get it. By 11 p.m. the police were overwhelmed. By midnight, 500 state police and several thousand National Guardsmen were on the streets.
Sunday morning brought a respite. At 7: 30 a.m. D'Alesandro jumped into a jeep with Guard commander Maj. Gen. George M. Gelston and rode up to Gay Street and North Avenue.
"There must have been thousands and thousands of people out in the street," he said. "They were quiet, but there was a certain belligerence in their demeanor."
Then it began again.
"We couldn't contain it. I called the governor and asked him to call the president."
At 7 p.m. Sunday night, the 82d Airborne Division deployed 5,000 troops into Baltimore. Things began to get better.
"On Tuesday I threw out the first ball to open the Orioles season."
The toll had been severe: Baltimore had not seen so many fires -- 1,032 -- since the big blaze of 1904 leveled downtown. Besides the six dead and 700 injured, there were 4,500 arrests, 1,075 lootings and hundreds of businesses burned out, never to reopen.
A confluence of forces
Gilbert Sandler, an advertising man in 1968 much involved in civic affairs, believes that D'Alesandro "was defeated by history. Not only was D'Alesandro destroyed by the riots and never recovered, the city never recovered."
Sandler, currently director of communications of the Abell Foundation, adds: "No one could have stopped the forces coming into confluence then. Civil rights, the rise of Black Power, the movement out to the suburbs. What came just rolled over him like a truck."
But Walter Sondheim, an adviser to Baltimore's mayors for half a century, believes it was more than that. He suspects the crucible in which D'Alesandro struggled during his years in office drained him of all political ambition.
"I never felt it was the riots, but I think he got tired of the inordinate pressures that were on him. It was not easy for him. He was not just the mayor. He was Big Tommy's son." "Big Tommy," Mayor Thomas J. D'Alesandro Jr., ran Baltimore from 1947 to 1959.
But D'Alesandro says it wasn't the riots that drove him out three years later, nor the subsequent difficulties in governing a city in trauma. Nor was he burnt-out or despondent. He insists on this.
At a recent breakfast interview, he admits he was "disappointed" by the riots, but he says he was cheered by "the fact that no black leaders in Baltimore were behind it, or supported it."
There was good communications between City Hall and the black community.
"I know that everybody seems to think the rioting had an effect on my decision to leave," he says. "But it's not so."
Certainly no one could have been more thoroughly trained to the life he left behind. D'Alesandro is the product of a dynasty of sorts that began in 1939 when Big Tommy went to the U.S. House to represent the city. He returned in 1947 and began three consecutive terms as a colorful mayor of Baltimore.
(Big Tommy's control was legendary. Once a candidate supported by him won an election in Little Italy by 450 or more votes to 1 for his opponent. After the vote, Tommy was heard to say, "We're going to find out who that one is.")
"Young" Tommy began his political career in 1956 with a seat on the Board of Elections Supervisors. He was just out of the Army, four years out of the University of Maryland Law School, before that Loyola College. It was his first real job, political, of course.
D'Alesandro made it onto the City Council in 1962. He won the council presidency a year later. In 1967 he ran for mayor, beat Peter Angelos for the Democratic nomination, then annihilated Republican Arthur Sherwood in the general election.
Tommy D'Alesandro's is a pleasing presence, not an emphatic one. His voice is still packaged in the accents of Little Italy. He is likable and believable. Those factors constitute his personality. It is why so many people remember him, why strangers still hail him on the street. "Good morning, Mr. Mayor!"
Also, he looks good these days, a little red in the face, a little thick around the throat. He goes about in sports coats and light turtlenecks. His white hair glows like a nimbus of distinction. He is manifestly untroubled.
Few fault D'Alesandro's performance during or after the riot. It was a catastrophe, probably unpreventable. Some even see him as the perfect figure for those rancorous times. And many who were at his side support his contention that he was not driven from politics by them.
Kalman R. "Buzzy" Hettleman, one of his inner circle during the first three years of his administration, recalls that now and then Tommy would "contrast what it was like being mayor then with what it had been under his father. It wasn't hard to think back to the good old days, when the mayor exercised control and there (( were no racial divisions."
Hettleman regards D'Alesandro as one of those figures who emerge rarely in politics. Despite a background unreceptive to civil rights, he was able to see that the political landscape had changed, and had the will to change with it: He saw the necessity to bring blacks into government.
D'Alesandro appointed the first black member of the Board of Estimates, George Russell, who became his city solicitor. He hired the first black to run the city schools, Roland Patterson. He appointed the first black fire commissioner, Marion Bascomb.
Joseph Lee Smith was another member of D'Alesandro's staff. A black man, his job was to implement the mayor's social programs, to press his policies at the street level.
"I know he was disappointed by the effect of the riots on what we were trying to do," Smith says. "But I never noticed him being despondent. In the three and a half years that followed, I thought he was very determined and effective in getting the poverty programs in place."
Can't blame the riot
Smith, currently an executive at Bell Atlantic, theorizes that if D'Alesandro were burnt-out, it wasn't the riots that did it.
"Sometimes when you've been steeped in the rough-and-tumble world of politics from early childhood you can get burnt-out early. You can get burnt-out just by being involved in it."
Peter Marudas, D'Alesandro's chief of staff for four years, speculates similarly: "He might have been a young man, but he had been in politics since he was little. He may have already spent a lifetime in it."
But Marudas doesn't pretend to know the reason D'Alesandro withdrew.
Was he depressed during his last years in office?
"No, not depressed. No."
Charles Moylan, a judge on Maryland's Court of Special Appeals, was the state's attorney in 1968. "I saw him about once every two weeks," Moylan recalls. "He was always upbeat."
Jack Eddinger, D'Alesandro's former press secretary, agrees with those who think the riot caused D'Alesandro's withdrawal. "I think the riots were at the heart of it," he said.
But, Eddinger added, he certainly did a lot before he left:
"He built coalitions in the City Council that were able to overcome the Southern orientation of Baltimore. He got a civil rights bill guaranteeing equal access to public accommodations. was a major accomplishment."
He drew exceptional talent to City Hall: people like Robert Embry, a young council member, to run the new housing department; Pierce Linaweaver, a Johns Hopkins professor of environmental engineering, to run public works, and Russell.
D'Alesandro got Baltimoreans to approve an $80 million bond issue to build schools. He devised summer recreation programs -- mobile swimming pools, day camps -- for city youth. He laid the legislative groundwork for the Inner Harbor project.
L But, in the end, said Eddinger, "I think he ran out of gas."
An uncomplicated answer
The breakfast interview was at 8, at Werner's on Redwood Street.
"So why did you leave?"
D'Alesandro leans across his poached eggs. He has an odd look on his face. Is he embarrassed? Pleading for understanding?
"I had no money," he says simply. "I was clearing only $695 every two weeks. I had five children. I couldn't make ends meet."
Was it that uncomplicated? Not exactly. Things never are. There was something else, a minor annoyance that had attended his long apprenticeship in politics that had grown more and more onerous.
"I never liked the social aspect of politics," he says. "I loved government. My father loved it all. He loved the people. He loved everything about it. Not me.
"My father would go into a funeral establishment, visit the party of the deceased he had known. Then he'd visit every other alcove in the funeral home. He'd turn his visit into a political rally.
"I'd go into a funeral home, pay my respects to the one person I knew there, sign the book and leave. Nobody would know I was there."
A prince leaves the stage
Even though D'Alesandro had signaled his intention a year or so before his term ended in 1971, his departure from politics came as a shock: The prince was surrendering his birthright.
"My father was devastated," he recalls. "He thought I was crazy."
D'Alesandro says the idea of abandoning politics didn't occur to him after the riots. In fact, he had ambitions for a better-paying job: the governorship, held by Republican Spiro Agnew.
But circumstances thwarted D'Alesandro. Principal among these was Agnew's outburst in the aftermath of the riots. Agnew had invited about a hundred black leaders to Annapolis, then dressed them down for not having prevented the disturbances. They walked out on him, but Agnew's venom was to Richard Nixon's taste: He chose him to be the GOP's vice presidential candidate that summer.
So Agnew went to Washington, and the Maryland House of Delegates elected its speaker, Democrat Marvin Mandel, to finish Agnew's term. Then Sargent Shriver, John F. Kennedy's brother-in-law, announced his intention to go after the governorship.
D'Alesandro rethought his strategy. "Mandel had the advantage of incumbency. He had a political base in Baltimore. Shriver had all that Kennedy money."
His advancement blocked, and still needing money, D'Alesandro dusted off the law degree.
He did not sign on with one of the city's blue-ribbon partnerships. He didn't become an influence peddler, or do law cum lobbying as might have been expected of a man with his contacts. He did worker's compensation and personal-injury law.
Why not aim for the more remunerative practices? The big suites?
"I think this is reflective of Tommy," says Hettleman. "He would have had difficulty hiring himself out as a political hand as many do today. To me that would have been unthinkable for Tommy."
Hettleman has no problem accepting D'Alesandro's explanation for his action:
"If he says it was money, I believe that was the major factor."
D'Alesandro is retired now, but busy. He serves on various boards of directors. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has drafted him to run the annual Columbus Day parade. The mayor -- who was in college when riots wracked his hometown -- consults him.
"He was extremely helpful to me on local government and politics," Schmoke says.
Not one of D'Alesandro's five children is in politics. But the dynasty, born over 60 years ago in Little Italy, has not run dry. Carrying on is Tommy's sister, Nancy Pelosi, the six-term congresswoman from San Francisco.
Her accomplishments are a source of D'Alesandro pride. He, after all, had his career made for him. "She," he says, "went out and conquered a city unknown to her."
He cherishes another point of pride, going all the way back to his election in 1967, when the city had 555 polling places.
"How many you think I won," he asks. "How many?"
He insists on an answer, even a guess.
Pub Date: 4/04/98