Woman of the House
The Rise of Nancy Pelosi
By Vincent Bzdek
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2008 Vincent Bzdek
All rights reserved.
THE FAMILY VOCATION
There are two lasting bequests we can give our children: One is roots, the other is wings.
—Hodding Carter, Jr., journalist and author, 1907–1972
We were all born and raised in politics.
—Nancy Pelosi, January 5, 2007
The neighborhood—all of it—starts gathering late on a Sunday morning outside the door of St. Leo's. Chatter and shouts ring out in both Italian and English, accompanied by backslapping and belly laughs, as Exeter Street fills with Italian Americans. It's June in late 1940s Baltimore, the days of Baltimore Catechisms and Forty Hours' devotions, when the teachers at parochial schools were actually nuns and the nuns all wore starched black-and-white habits. The party is already two days old, and spirits are high. Longtime resident Tommy D'Alesandro, the brand-new mayor of Baltimore, is there to join the procession with his wife, Annunciata, five boys and his seven-year-old, wide-eyed daughter, Nancy. Neighbors can hardly contain their excitement—one of Little Italy's own is lord and mayor of the whole town. But Tommy's month-old victory is punctuation for the festival, not its reason for being. His win only ratchets up an already exuberant giorno di festivo. As noon draws near, some residents start dancing in the streets to the strains of "The Glory of Italy" as the marching band tunes up. The smell of oregano perfumes the air; a dozen varieties of pasta, fried dough, and Italian sausage are loaded into stands for sale along Exeter and Stiles. Church ladies are selling holy pictures and buttons of St. Anthony to the swelling crowd. The streets of Little Italy are arched with lights. The light poles themselves are draped with bunting and festoons. Red, white, and green flags fly from second-story windows, from wires hanging over the streets, from everywhere. Every door in the neighborhood stands open. Everyone is welcome.
Little Italy is Baltimore, only more so. And Baltimore is the East Coast's Detroit, a gritty, blue-collar, by-the-bootstraps kind of place. The Sage of Baltimore, writer H. L. Mencken, called his beloved city in 1926 an "ancient, solid town" with the "impalpable, indefinable, irresistible quality of charm." Escaping from New York, where Mencken worked, back to Baltimore, where he lived, was like "coming out of a football crowd into quiet communion with a fair one who is also amiable, and has the gift of consolation for hard-beset and despairing men."
Little Italy's corner of the consoling city is 12 square blocks of narrow streets and cramped row houses hard against the inner harbor. The neighborhood isn't big, but its soul is. Since the Great Fire of 1904, it's been considered somewhat sacred ground by its residents. As flames were chewing up most of Baltimore City that Sunday in February, the Italian immigrants gathered in St. Leo's and began praying furiously to St. Anthony. "We thought the end of the world had come," wrote Marie O'Dea in the Baltimore Evening Sun. The flames were steadily moving east during the afternoon, drawing a bead on the blue-collar enclave. Tommy D'Alesandro III, Nancy Pelosi's big brother, remembers a story he was told about that day concerning the city's frustrated, exhausted firemen making a last stand on Jones Falls, the western edge of the neighborhood. Italians standing and kneeling along the eastern bank prayed through the night that the fire might spare their homes.
By three in the morning, most of Baltimore City had fallen to flames. Harold Williams, author of "Baltimore Afire," remembers seeing towers of fire growing taller and taller; "it seemed like they would crash into the church." Embers, bits of paper, even long boards sailed through the air from the burning east bank and fell like torches in Little Italy. But a brigade of residents armed with buckets of water doused every last missile. Over on the fire line, the hoses of the firemen weren't filling properly. They hadn't all night. The canvas tubes were overtaxed and leaking, and the flames were winning.
Suddenly, sometime during the middle of the night, the hoses all filled with tremendous force, for reasons never explained, and the battle was joined. At 6 A.M. the wind shifted, lessened in intensity, and turned south. The fire never made the jump over Jones Falls. Little Italy remained standing, the only neighborhood in the city spared. A miracle, many believed, crediting St. Anthony. A grand celebration of the Feast of St. Anthony was promised on the spot and has been held every year since. It's the reason the crowds have gathered on this June 13 in 1947.
St. Leo's pastor, in the gold vestments reserved for special occasions, emerges from the church with his cross bearer and altar boys. They head the crowd up Exeter to President Street, and the procession is on. Behind him come the silk banners and proud representatives of 25 to 30 Italian societies—religious, fraternal, civic, political—all in suit and tie. A life-size statue of St. Anthony himself is next, borne through the streets on a flower-covered platform that rests on the shoulders of the six guards of honor. Six little flower girls, white-robed and gold-winged, drop blossoms in its path. White silk ribbons stream out from the statue at all angles. Spectators offer up dollar bills along the way, which the guardsmen pin to the ribbons until the strands are encrusted with greenbacks.
The procession is nearly a block long now as the Knights of Columbus, resplendent in red and blue capes and white-plumed Napoleon hats, join the line. Musicians and choirboys are at their heels, playing Italian folk songs. The people of Little Italy sit on their stoops, stand on curbs, lean out windows, and walk along with the parade as it winds down around every crooked corner and past every narrow street in the neighborhood, never going beyond. It is a parade that begins in the neighborhood and ends in the neighborhood, made up of neighbors, in honor of neighbors. Gilbert Sandler, author of a book on Little Italy simply entitled The Neighborhood, said, "Those robes on that statue were the ties that bound them all together."
Little Italy's thousand residents—its D'Alesandros and Apicellas and Bonomolos and Girolamos and Bugliottas and Pollogrinis and Maccioccas and Virgilios—have marched together on St. Anthony's Feast Day for a hundred years. They still do.
"Nancy saw all that, she was a part of it. It was the water she drank," her brother Tommy said. He thinks she developed in Little Italy a sense of compassion and community that was uncommon in other places even in those days. Being Catholic in the 1950s and 1960s meant a strong emphasis on neighborhood solidarity and family. Back then it meant putting obedience above autonomy, the community above the individual. That cohesion, that sense of belonging to one another, could not but help inform Pelosi's beliefs, Sandler believes. It may also be the root of her fierce, sometimes blind loyalty to people that has occasionally tripped her up in a city not quite so forgiving as Baltimore.
"You know how the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton?" Sandler asks. "Well, the battles she's winning right now were won on the streets of Little Italy." It's an intriguing theory: Congress as neighborhood. Pelosi's talent at keeping the Democratic Party in lockstep, at bringing cohesion to a caucus that is known for its lack of it, may come directly from the lessons she learned growing up on the streets of Little Italy. "Drink that up and it becomes part of your blood and sinew and tissue," Sandler said.
"Italians down here are like one big family," said Vince Culotta, whose restaurant, Sabatino's, has been a fixture in Little Italy for decades. The neighborhood has a deeply embedded culture of taking care of its own. When Nancy was growing up in the 1940s and '50s, no one from the neighborhood ever went to a nursing home. Three or four generations often lived together in the same small row house, as did her family, and neighbors and restaurants took care of the sick and old who were living alone. Little Italy had that Catholic communal heritage so many cul-de-sac dwellers long for today.
"Where she came and how she grew up is the key to figuring her out," said Marie Wilson, a friend of Pelosi's and head of the White House Project, an effort to recruit more women to run for office. "It's kind of like a family systems therapist: We ought to have a gene-a-gram on all these people. All that stuff makes you who you are and it helps you understand why you do what you do."
* * *
Italian families first began alighting in Little Italy from Sicily and Abruzzi in the mid-1800s—drawn by jobs at the nearby shipyard—and then stayed for generations.
"When Italians came over, they unloaded boatloads of them," Culotta recounts. They mostly came for a better quality of life at a time when quotas for immigrants were much larger than they are today. Some were sailors, some political refugees, others gold hunters. They arrived by boat in the harbor or by train from New York, settling right on the waterfront or close by the President Street station. "When immigrants get off the boat, they usually don't go too far," said Culotta. Originally, only men came over. After they saved some money, they went home to find a bride and bring her back. Culotta said the abundance of trattoria in Little Italy—23 restaurants are crammed into the space of a few blocks—can be traced back to those first male immigrants. "They all lived by themselves in tiny rooms in rooming houses. They had to eat somewhere."
Nancy's grandfather and grandmother were both born in Italy, she in Campobasso near Naples, he in Abruzzi, a village in the mountains near Rome. After they first came to America, they shuttled back and forth between Italy and Little Italy for several years. Some of their children were born in Baltimore, some in Italy. Annunciata, Nancy's mother, was born in Italy and came to the United States when she was one year old.
"A lot of people came not knowing what was waiting for them," said Tommy the Younger, as he came to be known around Little Italy. When Tommy and Nancy's grandfather came over, he started a little grocery store that sold all kinds of macaroni, rigatoni, and other pasta. He made the pasta in a factory right behind his house.
Baltimore was below the Mason-Dixon Line, so the city was a segregated one, a patchwork of Jewish neighborhoods, black neighborhoods, Polish, Irish, and Italian. By 1900, every home in Little Italy was owned by an Italian family. Houses almost never went up for sale; they were just passed along from one generation to the next. During the riots that raged through Baltimore after Martin Luther King's assassination, Little Italy's able-bodied men took to the roofs with guns to ward off trouble. Again the neighborhood was spared. When seemingly everyone in Baltimore City moved to the suburbs in the 1970s, the families of Little Italy stayed put. They loved their neighborhood fiercely. The residents "have an enormous staying power, which I don't think even they understand," said Sandler. "Here, the people have a mystical commitment to their own streets." And like the immigrants of Boston, New York, and Chicago, as their numbers grew, so did their political influence. Thanks in large part to Nancy's family, Little Italy's civic muscle in Baltimore in the 1940s was far beyond its weight class.
Though a bit frayed around the edges today, the neighborhood still proudly wears its heritage on its sleeve. Its fire hydrants are striped green, white, and red like Italian flags, bocce tournaments are held on the neighborhood court year-round, and the aroma of oregano and tomato sauce still sweetens the air on Sundays. An outdoor film festival draws thousands every summer to watch Italian movies projected onto the side of a building. Cinema Paradiso always closes the festival. "Living here is kinda like being in a movie," one resident told Sandler. People who come to eat in one of the many restaurants are soon caught up in the ethnic spirit of the place. Sandler calls it an Italian village transplanted. And now Little Italy's row houses are becoming fashionable again as the surrounding area gentrifies. "Grandchildren are moving back into the houses their grandparents lived in," Culotta said. And every June, of course, hundreds of former Little Italians come back as residents-for-a-day during the St. Anthony festival.
* * *
In the 1940s, the D'Alesandro family was the beat of Little Italy's heart. Nancy spent a good chunk of her childhood playing on the polished white steps of nearby stoops—both sets of grandparents lived just down the block, Aunt Jessie was in the next block on Albermarle, and Aunt Mary lived around the corner. Everyone knew everyone in Little Italy in the 1940s, and their lives all orbited St. Leo's. The red-brick church was right around the corner from the D'Alesandro family's three-story row house, and the family was a fixture in church every Sunday. Their house served as a kind of community adjunct of the parish, neighbors say.
Perpetually wide-eyed Nancy, her abundant brown hair usually in pigtails, would race to church each Sunday at St. Leo's. Her brothers remember her as a bit reserved during the grade-school years but always kind, always considerate, always beautifully dressed. "Nancy was the apple of my mother and father's eye," said Tommy. There was no question in any of her brothers' minds that Nancy was the favorite. In fact, the devout Annunciata D'Alesandro—known to all as Big Nancy—thought her eager daughter had been hand-picked by God for a special purpose. She had already decided when Nancy was in grade school that her daughter was destined to become a nun. Little Nancy thought she wanted to help people, too, but she decidedly didn't want to become a nun.
"I'm going to be a priest when I grow up," she told her mother repeatedly. For most of her single-digit years, she said the same thing to anyone on the streets of Little Italy who would listen.
"I thought I might want to be a priest because there seemed to be a little more power there, a little more discretion over what was going on in the parish," she said in a recent interview. When Little Nancy was nine or ten, Big Nancy finally decided to break down and tell her daughter she was out of luck, that girls couldn't be priests in the Catholic Church, Pelosi had a reply at the ready.
"Well, then, I'll go into politics instead."
So began a lifelong interest in the arithmetic of power in a man's world. When she first set her sights on a political life, the upper chambers of the country's political bodies weren't much more open to a woman than the church's were. In 1947, no woman had ever served as mayor of Baltimore or governor of Maryland, and only one had ever represented Maryland in Congress. Only 7 of the 435 members of the House at the time and none of the senators were women. Only 40 women had ever served in the House when Pelosi was daydreaming, and only 5 in the Senate. Of the more than 13,000 Americans who have served in Congress to this day, only 249 have been women.
But even in 1947, politics for Nancy was not the foreign country it was for most women. She was raised in a political dynasty. When she was growing up, all things in Little Italy revolved around a holy trinity of faith, family, and the Democratic Party.
"We were all knee-deep in Democrats," said brother Tommy.
It was hard, at times, to distinguish between party and parish in Little Italy. If you were a candidate looking for a crowd, church was often the best place to find one.
"The large events in communities were usually church-sponsored or Democratic Club-sponsored," Maryland's attorney general Joseph Curran told a reporter. "If you went to a bull roast or an oyster roast or a crab feast it had to be at the church or at the Democratic Club.... Nobody had money for television [advertising]; you just had money to buy a $10 ticket to the bull roast so you could see 1,000 people."
The festivals in Little Italy were half-political, half-religious events, and the D'Alesandro family was always in the thick of them.
Pelosi's political style, and the keys to a substantial part of her later success, can be traced directly back to those Little Italy streets. Critics have tried to paint Pelosi as a dyed-in-the-wool Left Coaster from the most liberal city in the country, San Francisco, but her particular strain of liberalism is probably rooted more deeply in the East Coast ward-boss politics her father practiced for more than 22 uninterrupted years on the streets of Little Italy.
"Our whole lives were politics," Pelosi said. "If you entered the house, it was always campaign time, and if you went into the living room, it was always constituent time."
When she was born on March 26, 1940, her father was already a first-term member of the House of Representatives. She visited his office in the Capitol for the first time when she was four, and by her seventh birthday, Big Tommy had been elected mayor of Baltimore. Wearing a white dress and white gloves, Nancy held the Bible when he was sworn in for the first of three four-year terms. The photograph is displayed proudly in her office in the Capitol today. Her first speech: "Dear Daddy, I hope this holy book will guide you to be a good man."
Tommy the Elder, as he became known, served 22 consecutive terms in public office, from state delegate to city councilman to U.S. congressman to mayor, followed by a low-level appointment from President John F. Kennedy to the Federal Renegotiation Board. Another prized family photograph in Pelosi's office shows Nancy, Tommy, and Kennedy in the Oval Office after Tommy's appointment.
Tommy D'Alesandro III served on the Baltimore City Council and became the city's mayor in 1967. Two other brothers, Hector and Joey, worked for years in the courthouse as public servants.
"My parents taught us that public service was a noble calling and that we had a responsibility to help those in need. I viewed them as working on the side of angels," Pelosi has said.
The D'Alesandro family politics was the politics of FDR's New Deal, a politics born of the Depression and dedicated to lifting up the downtrodden. One of Pelosi's brothers is named after the thirty-second president: Franklin Delano Roosevelt D'Alesandro (Roosie for short). (Continues...)
Excerpted from Woman of the House by Vincent Bzdek. Copyright © 2008 Vincent Bzdek. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.