Advertisement
News

Child of politics, all grown up

In the childhood home of Nancy Pelosi, who is poised to become the first woman to lead a party in Congress, there was something called "the favor file." It was a list of working-class Baltimore folks who found jobs or homes or food because Pelosi's father, the legendary political boss known as Tommy the Elder, made it so.

The children in the house at Albemarle and Fawn streets in Little Italy knew all about favors, and how those favors could magically turn into votes. Every week, neighbors laid their problems at the family's doorstep, and "Little Nancy," as she was known in the family, helped keep track of them for her father, Thomas J. D'Alesandro Jr., the former congressman and three-term mayor of Baltimore. On Election Day, she watched him reap the benefits.

Advertisement

Pelosi, who has represented a San Francisco House district since 1987, prepares to achieve an important milestone today when fellow Democrats are expected to elect her as House minority leader.

The moment comes courtesy of Pelosi's own favor file, fattened by decades of party loyalty, service to constituents and lessons learned inside a powerful Baltimore political dynasty.

Advertisement

"I say this braggadociously: I don't know anyone in Baltimore who knew more people and did more favors than my mother and father in their heyday," says Pelosi's eldest brother, Thomas J. D'Alesandro III, or Tommy the Younger, who was Baltimore's mayor from 1967 to 1971.

"That was the atmosphere into which Nancy was born."

Most profiles of Pelosi use the word "osmosis" to describe her political education, and indeed politics casually wafted over Pelosi like steam off the pasta dinners served on the lace-covered dining room table in the family's basement.

But Pelosi, 62, is not just a mirror of her past. She adapted her Baltimore lessons to fit a modern political life. Her favors are savvy: A political action committee she created contributed more money to Democratic candidates in the last election than any other. Her style is camera-ready: She traded her father's fire and brimstone for a broad smile that she flashes as she coolly disarms her critics. Her fights are tactical: She never lost an election in her San Francisco district, espousing liberal causes that sometimes raised eyebrows in her more conventional hometown.

To her brother Tommy, Pelosi's life has been an expression of her father's keen political instincts and her mother's resistance to what she viewed as the parochialism of Baltimore.

Her father could sense every turn and twist in his popularity just by the way his neighbors said hello. Her mother chafed at the idea that the political cross-currents whipping along Little Italy's narrow streets would be the most her daughter would ever know.

"The day Nancy was sworn in was one of the happiest days of my mother's life," says D'Alesandro, 73, recounting the moment in 1987 when Pelosi took her seat in the House. "She was the reincarnation of my mother's ambition."

That ambition always circled back to politics, which was like a religion in the D'Alesandro home. The family even included a son named Franklin Delano Roosevelt D'Alesandro, "Roosie" for short. No wonder: The elder D'Alesandro, who served in Congress through World War II, all but flew from his chair on the occasions when his idol, FDR, would call the house.

Advertisement

Nancy, the youngest of six children, went where the politics were. She handed out ballots on Election Day, stuffed campaign fliers for local Democrats, answered the constantly ringing phone on the first floor of the family's brick house.

She sat in on her mother's pre-Election Day pep talks with city women in the basement, when the younger Tommy D'Alesandro remembers the fired-up campaign workers "coming out of that cellar like wild people." She was ferried to political events, often in a white dress and dainty gloves, wandering at knee level among the powerful.

The only girl, a willowy beauty with wide brown eyes, Nancy enjoyed a special status among the D'Alesandro kids. In the photograph of her father's first swearing-in as mayor in 1947, it is 7-year-old Nancy who stands in the center, beside the Bible.

In the D'Alesandro world there was little but politics, except on Sundays, when the family walked the few blocks to St. Leo's Catholic Church. At 9 a.m., the streets already smelled of sauces simmering for later that night. Sunday dinners were reserved for just family. Most other evenings, strangers filled the living room, which was dominated by a wall-sized painting of the D'Alesandro clan.

"My parents taught us that public service was a noble calling," says Pelosi. "Politics was the only life I knew growing up, and it was always exciting because there was always some campaign or another going on."

As Pelosi grew older, her political exposure became more sophisticated.

Advertisement

In the late 1950s, she took some friends with her to Baltimore's old Emerson Hotel, where then-Sen. John F. Kennedy was being honored for his book, Profiles in Courage.

"We were high school students and John F. Kennedy sat at the table with us and we talked about his book and it was just astounding - we were mesmerized," recalls childhood friend Sally German. Of all the excited 16-year-olds at the table, one stands out in German's memory: "Nancy. She was very composed. She wasn't star-struck, but she admired him a lot."

But as much as Nancy Patricia D'Alesandro was the product of a powerful Baltimore family - news of her birth, her wedding, her first child made the local papers - she also was one to leave the city behind. She was the only child to go to college outside Baltimore, attending Trinity in Washington, D.C., although her father wanted her close to home, as she was in high school at the Institute of Notre Dame.

"I remember her brother telling a story at her mother's funeral," says Gene Raynor, a family friend and former Maryland election board administrator, recalling the 1995 death of the family matriarch, Nancy D'Alesandro. "He said, 'My mother said to my father, 'Nancy's going to Trinity College,' and my father said, 'Over my dead body.' So Nancy said to her husband, 'That could be arranged.'"

During college, the younger Nancy met her husband, Paul Pelosi, a student at Georgetown University. In 1963, they were married by a D'Alesandro cousin, the Rev. Felix Cardegna. The bride walked down the aisle of Baltimore's Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in an embroidered lace mantilla, carrying a bouquet of white glamellias, artificial flowers handmade from gladiolus petals.

Pelosi eventually moved with her husband to his native San Francisco, where he made his fortune as an investor while she stayed home to raise five children. But her Baltimore past was in the California air as Pelosi turned the house into a command post for Democratic politics around the state.

Advertisement

"She modeled our house in San Francisco after the house where she grew up in Baltimore," says Pelosi's youngest daughter, Alexandra, 32, a filmmaker. "Our house was like a VFW hall. She'd be working the issues from there, stuffing mailers, having parties."

Pelosi applied a grass-roots philosophy to big-money races, using her father's enthusiasm for door-knocking and stumping and putting it to work as a prolific fund-raiser in the early 1980s as head of California's Democratic Party.

And always, the old-school advice kept coming from Baltimore. When Pelosi first ran for Congress - a special election in the Bay Area to finish the term of a dying friend, Sala Burton - her father called every day to check on her campaign. He wept at her swearing-in 15 years ago; he died soon after.

Pelosi's style, though, toned down the emotion and bravado of Baltimore, where even her mother was known to mix it up on the streets. Once, according to brother Tommy, the matriarch punched a precinct executive in the nose after he pushed around a "little guy" on one of her husband's campaigns.

Pelosi has distilled her mother's steely will into cool-headed pragmatism - qualities that fueled her rise in Congress to minority whip last year.

"When she meets someone who has done some conniving or tried to carve her up behind her back, she often will treat that person graciously, because she knows there are always an infinite number of ways you can retaliate," says Leo McCarthy, California's former lieutenant governor, who has known Pelosi for a quarter-century.

Advertisement

Her political career has carried her from Little Italy to San Francisco to the halls of Congress. But even now, as she prepares for an important next step, many believe the core of her political being will always be grounded in Baltimore.

"The life she grew up in, she's always going to be a champion for the poor, the disadvantaged, because she saw it firsthand," says Tommy D'Alesandro. "She carried that through her life and she always will. It's not a choice, it's just innate in her."

Sun staff writer Susan Baer contributed to this article.


Advertisement