The D’Alesandro family, a political dynasty with two former Baltimore mayors and the first female speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives to its name, rose from a small house on Albemarle Street in Little Italy.
And while the second mayor in the family, Thomas D’Alesandro III, had been out of office for nearly a half-century at the time of his death Sunday, his sister Nancy Pelosi is speaker of the House of Representatives, third from the presidency and the top-ranking Democrat in Congress.
The large Italian family’s political power derived from a knowledge of how Baltimore worked and an understanding of how to bring the city’s factions together, said Julian L. “Jack” Lapides, a former longtime state senator.
“They stayed in Little Italy,” Lapides said. “They were proud of their roots. They didn’t move outward. They stuck to the neighborhoods, and they thought the neighborhoods were the most important thing of the city. We’ve always been a city of neighborhoods, and they were fabulous at recognizing it.”
The patriarch, Thomas D’Alesandro Jr., was the son of Italian immigrants who brought back a major league baseball franchise, the Orioles, and celebrated the opening of the Harbor Tunnel and Friendship Airport (now Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport) and the groundbreaking of the Jones Falls Expressway as mayor of Baltimore from 1947 to 1959.
“Big Tommy,” as he was known, also served multiple terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. He died in 1987.
Nancy D’Alesandro, the iron-willed matriarch, was a traditional Italian wife from the old country who ran the legal and political office of her husband from their Albemarle Street home. She had six children, and was pregnant for every one of her husband’s campaigns, but she didn’t let that stop her from organizing women in the neighborhood to write letters and make flyers, or hosting ravioli and lasagna parties. She died in 1995.
The family was big enough to be a political club on its own, said Mary Pat Clarke, an outgoing city councilwoman who has been involved in Baltimore politics since the 1970s. And Nancy wielded tremendous influence over her husband and her children, she said.
“She was wonderful, gracious, full of energy," Clarke said. “She was obviously the mother of those children. It wasn’t just the dad’s power. It was the mother’s energy and sense of fairness about people in general — acceptance and embracing all of the people of Baltimore."
Mrs. D’Alesandro was “really the true politician of the family," Thomas D’Alesandro III told The Sun in her obituary.
“A worker, she worked the people,” he said at the time. "I can remember when I was 7 or 8, people lined up around the corner from our house seeking help.”
The children grew up watching their parents organize community groups and master the game of politics, said Theodore G. “Ted” Venetoulis, who served as Baltimore County executive from 1975 to 1979.
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“Tommy [III] and Nancy [Pelosi] grew up in that environment, and they understood the game,” Venetoulis said. “The reason they succeeded was they understood the game. You expanded your base. You brought people in; you didn’t exclude them. You didn’t make enemies if you didn’t have to. They were progressive in their thinking.”
D’Alesandro III, or “Young Tommy,” as he was known, was elected City Council president and later served as mayor from 1967 to 1971. But he did not run for a second term after the 1968 riots in the wake of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, racial strife, and strikes by city laborers, bus drivers and symphony musicians.
Having grown up in politics and watching the city erupt into violence on his watch, Venetoulis said, “he had reached a point where he was just worn out."
But the D’Alesandro family hadn’t yet reached its political peak. Pelosi moved to California, worked her way up to the top ranks of the national Democratic Party, and became the first female speaker in 2006. Her older brother, the rest of the family and their tight-knit neighbors in Little Italy watched with delight.
“It was, perhaps, the proudest thing of his life," Venetoulis said. “His pride burst buttons.”
The D’Alesandros understood that constituent service was at the core of politics — “a pothole wasn’t liberal or conservative, it was to be fixed," Venetoulis said — and that propelled them into “one of the great dynasties of our era, using the expression dynasty in a positive,” he said.
“Probably no other family has had that kind of impact,” he said.