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Madam Speaker: Nancy Pelosi's Life, Times, and Rise to Power

Madam Speaker: Nancy Pelosi's Life, Times, and Rise to Power

by Marc Sandalow

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Unthinkable just a generation ago, Hillary Clinton's run for the presidency and Nancy Pelosi's ascension to Speaker of the House have cast the spotlight on American political women as never before. In the 230 years of this country's history, never has a woman—let alone a mother and a grandmother—risen to such a position of power as Nancy Pelosi did when she assumed her role as the first female Speaker of the House, third in line for the presidency.

In Madam Speaker, Marc Sandalow, an esteemed journalist and political analyst who covered Pelosi for decades, offers a richly nuanced portrait of the woman who made history. He charts Pelosi's political roots, honing in on her father, who spent five terms in Congress and stored hundreds of copies of the Congressional Record under her bed, and goes on to examine how Pelosi, who didn't run for political office until she was 47 years old, juggled her family life and fought hard to forge a place for herself in Washington, ultimately becoming one of the most influential voices in our nation.

Based on hundreds of interviews with Pelosi's colleagues, family, and friends—and the Speaker herself—Sandalow culls together insightful anecdotes and political analysis to chronicle Pelosi's meteoric rise and controversial tenure. Madam Speaker illuminates the inspiring life of a woman who has already made history.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781605299693
Publisher: Harmony/Rodale
Publication date: 04/15/2008
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 320
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

Marc Sandalow spent 21 years on the staff of the San Francisco Chronicle, the last 10 years as the paper's Washington bureau chief. He is currently a political analyst on KPIX-TV and KCBS radio in San Francisco. Sandalow is a coauthor of a book on baseball entitled Ballparks: A Panoramic History, and lives in Bethesda, Maryland.

Read an Excerpt



"I don't know how many other Speakers of the House worked a precinct in an ethnic area when they were 13 years old, seeing human nature in the raw.

You think Tip O'Neill or Newt Gingrich did that?"


"Don't think she's from San Francisco. She's from Baltimore."


ON THE DAY NANCY PELOSI WAS BORN, her father was on the floor of the House of Representatives trolling for votes.

Representative Thomas D'Alesandro was a sharply dressed son of Baltimore's Little Italy and a fierce devotee of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The legislation before the House that day was an FDR-backed measure to provide job training to kids. It was precisely the kind of initiative that D'Alesandro had come to Congress to support.

Word reached D'Alesandro that his wife, Annunciata, known as Nancy, was in labor, and he quickly shifted gears. He sought another congressman with whom he could pair off; D'Alesandro would pledge not to vote in favor of the legislation in return for the partner's pledge not to vote against it. Then, satisfied that his absence wouldn't endanger the bill, he raced off to Baltimore's St. Joseph's Hospital to be with his wife.

They'd been through the drill before. This was Tommy and Nancy D'Alesandro's seventh child. If there were two things D'Alesandro understood, it was deal making and parenting. At age 36, D'Alesandro had been a father for 11 years and an elected official for 14.

On March 26, 1940, House Resolution 436, the National Youth Administration Bill, passed easily. Nancy Patricia D'Alesandro weighed in at 81/2 £ds.

The birth of a baby girl thrilled Nancy and Tommy, who had produced six consecutive boys, and her gender was immediately the storyline for Baltimore newspapers, which first printed baby Nancy's picture when she was just a few hours old.

The Baltimore News-Post showed the future Speaker of the House as a tightly wrapped newborn being held by her mother, who was lying in bed in a hospital gown, surrounded by her father and brothers. "It's a Girl for the D'Alesandros," read the headline.

In the picture, as in the world where she would spend her professional life, Pelosi is surrounded by boys. There is her father, "Big Tommy," and her brothers "Young Tommy," Roosey, Nicky, Hector, and Joey. A sixth D'Alesandro boy had tragically died of pneumonia a few years before.

Word spread quickly that there was now a D'Alesandro girl.

"D'Alesandro Will Find New Boss in First Daughter," declared a headline in another publication.

"We predict that this little lady will soon be a 'Queen' in her own right," the newspaper wrote.1

Becoming queen would have seemed as likely as Speaker in 1940. Politics was the domain of men. A woman had never been elected to the Baltimore city council. There was not a single woman governor in America. One woman served in the Senate. Eight women served in the House. None held a position of prominence.

Decades later her oldest brother, Tommy, recalled affectionately how "the whole community was rooting for a girl."

The boys were not so certain at the time. The proud father said that when he announced to his sons that they finally had a sister, the boys agreed, "We don't want any girls around here."2

BALTIMORE IN 1940 WAS a congested industrial city with an architecturally rich skyline and nearly a million residents. Its deep harbors and position midway along the eastern seaboard had made it a trading destination since the 1700s. World War I had brought industry and thousands of new working- class jobs. Bethlehem Steel Corporation was the city's largest employer, and thousands of workers flocked in from the South.

Pelosi was raised at 245 Albemarle Street, in the heart of Baltimore's Little Italy. The neighborhood was a tightly knit enclave just off Baltimore's brackish waterfront. A short walk from downtown, Little Italy encompassed roughly 10 square blocks at the eastern edge of the city's run- down and at times putrid inner harbor.

Italians had been living in the area for roughly a century, drawn to its cheap housing and proximity to the port. The neighborhood flourished in the late 1840s--at almost exactly the time that California's gold rush led to a boom in Pelosi's adopted home of San Francisco--when a train station was erected there as a stopping point between Philadelphia and Washington, DC.3

By 1900, Italians occupied almost every home in the neighborhood. Families arriving from Genoa and Abruzzi crowded into the two-story brick row houses, many of which lacked running water. The small houses were often home to multiple generations. As families got larger and more relatives came from overseas, those who could afford it found new housing next door or down the street. Those who couldn't crowded into the rooms they had.

Pelosi's mother grew up across the street at 204 Albemarle Street, her father at 235 Albemarle. Her mother's grandparents lived at 206 Albemarle. Aunt Jessie lived at 314 Albemarle. Aunt Mary lived around the corner on Eastern Avenue. Cousins were everywhere. The same could be said of every family.

The enormous pumping station that opened in 1911 at the harbor's edge offered modern sewage treatment for Baltimore as well as jobs and bocce courts for the neighborhood men. Pelosi's grandfather worked there during the Depression, earning between $15 and $16 a month. Men who didn't work at the pumping station found jobs at rail yards and steel mills or worked as bricklayers or stonemasons. It was a working-class neighborhood, virtually devoid of doctors, lawyers, and other professionals.

Residents sat on the stoop to pass the time in the days before television and air-conditioning beckoned them inside. The municipal bathhouse on High Street, which in Pelosi's grandparents' day had offered scalding hot showers for three cents, had been replaced by household plumbing, but laundry was dried on lines that hung from windows. Neighborhood boys were known for the corner they hung out on. Kids bought candy at Mugavero's (Mugs) Confectionery, a block from Pelosi's home.

The center of the community was St. Leo's Church, built in 1880, which towered above the neighborhood's row houses. Its bells could be heard at Pelosi's home on Sunday mornings, when the entire neighborhood walked up its steep front steps for Mass, held in English and Italian. On church days, the scent of tomato sauce simmering in dozens of kitchens filled the narrow streets as women prepared the Sunday dinner. Anyone was welcome into anyone else's home for food. Everyone was family.

War took a heavy toll in Little Italy. Hundreds of young men enlisted to fight the Germans, the Japanese, and even the Italians. The red brick walls outside St. Leo's hold plaques bearing long lists of the names of those who gave their lives and served: four Delorenzos, seven Picarellis, eight Iannatuonos. Six neighborhood boys were killed in World War I, 15 in World War II--a terrible toll for such a tiny slice of Baltimore. The Italians of Baltimore aspired to be American. They were traditionalists, fierce patriots, and very proud of their assimilation.

A block away was St. Leo's School, where Pelosi attended grade school in her blue uniform and where her father and brothers were schooled. When her older brother entered, tuition was 25 cents a week. Elderly men--and even a few women--still throw bocce balls on the courts outside the school and sit on the red, white, and green benches painted the colors of the Italian flag.

The neighborhood oozed politics. Even before Pelosi's father established a dynasty at the corner of Albemarle and Fawn Streets, Congressman Vincent Palmisano lived just across the street. Senators and presidents came by. On the night when Spiro Agnew resigned as vice president half a century later, he dined at Sabatino's, a neighborhood institution he knew well from his days as Baltimore County executive.

Baltimore, like many eastern cities, was defined by its ethnic neighborhoods. There was little diversity or ethnic mixing inside Little Italy. People born in the neighborhood stayed in the neighborhood. The women mostly worked at home. The adventurous ones got jobs working in downtown department stores or textile factories.

Pelosi would be different. She left the neighborhood for high school each day. She left the city to go to college. And she left the East Coast to raise her family on the other side of the country.

PELOSI'S ROOTS IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD ran deep. Her mother was born in Italy but moved when she was an infant to Albemarle Street--just a block from where she would raise her own family. The family returned to Italy for a few years but then moved back to Baltimore. As a result, Annunciata spoke perfect Italian, in contrast to her future husband, who joked that he spoke "Chinese Italian," meaning that he could hold a conversation but really chopped it up.

Annunciata Lombardi was a distinguished graduate of the Institute of Notre Dame, a well-regarded Catholic high school a few miles outside Little Italy, where young Nancy would be schooled a generation later.

Annunciata--Nancy--was an accomplished woman with seemingly boundless potential. She was smart, quick, and confident. She got good grades and had a sharp mind and would develop a quick wit and a keen political sense that would become invaluable to her husband's career. "Big Nancy's" dark hair and big, dark eyes and her impeccable dress made her quite an attraction. Her eldest son, Tommy, described her as "a cross between Elizabeth Taylor and Ava Gardner."

Upon earning her diploma from the Institute of Notre Dame, Pelosi's mother got a job that suited her quick mind: auctioneer, a role practically unheard of for a woman. She was good enough to be asked by her employer to go to New York to earn national certification, a feat that would have been pioneering in the 1920s, let alone today.

Instead, at age 19, she married Tommy D'Alesandro, a 25-year-old dapper politician already serving in the Maryland statehouse. She had known Tommy from the neighborhood since she was a little girl.

The wedding of Annunciata Lombardi and Tommy D'Alesandro was an extravagant affair. On the morning of the wedding, Sunday, September 30, 1928, Tommy sent the 18-piece St. Gabriel's Society band, waving red, white, and green Italian flags, to Nancy's Albemarle Street home to serenade her as she got ready and to trumpet her departure to St. Leo's, where they were to be wed. Nancy made it known that if the band didn't depart, the wedding was off. The groom waved them away.

The festivities lasted more than 12 hours. With Tommy's extensive contacts in Little Italy, Baltimore, and Annapolis, the neighborhood streets were crowded with thousands of celebrants in one of the largest wedding ceremonies the city had ever seen. It was past 11:00 p.m. by the time the groom cut the cake. Years later Tommy confessed that the festivities had interfered with their honeymoon travel plans.

"I got sick," Tommy confessed. "I ate too much."4

THOMAS D'ALESANDRO JR. WAS the fourth of 13 kids, born August 1, 1903. He was the son of Thomas--Tomaso--D'Alesandro, who had come from the mountains of Abruzzi, Italy. His father opened a store at the edge of Little Italy but earned more money swinging a pick at a local quarry. His mother, Mary Annie Foppiano D'Alesandro, was born on Albemarle Street two decades after the Civil War.

D'Alesandro's formal schooling ended at age 13. Just weeks before graduating the eighth grade, D'Alesandro got in a fight with a classmate and, rather than bringing his parents in to face the principal, left school. His first job was selling newspapers on the streets of Baltimore. Like so many of the neighborhood boys who saw where the authority lay, he wanted to become a priest.

He soon got a job collecting insurance fees from neighbors. He earned $5 a week. The insurance industry took D'Alesandro out of the neighborhood. He ventured past Pratt Street and Eastern Avenue and beyond Little Italy's familiar boundaries. At first he collected dues, often as little as a few pennies a week. Eventually he sold policies. He took classes at Calvert Business College and began hanging around Democratic Party headquarters. He was a precinct runner before he was old enough to vote.

He was also an accomplished dancer, an award-winning ballroom-style dancer. He entered competitions and won. Decades later, when his eldest son was campaigning for city council, young Tommy would sometimes knock on a door to have a woman say admiringly, "I danced with your father."5

It was this young, well-spoken, dapper, insurance-selling ballroom dancer who was spotted by Baltimore sheriff Joseph Deegan, a fixture in the Democratic machine. Deegan immediately recognized his political potential and, perhaps, a chance to unseat his rivals.

Deegan took him to the political bosses who played pinochle at the grand Rennert Hotel and told the men, "This is Tommy D'Alesandro, a very popular person in our district. I'd like to make him a candidate for the House of Delegates on our ticket."

Legend has it that the men never looked up from their game.

"Tell him to go out and get 500 signatures" was the response.

That was not difficult for a young man who knew 500 people in Little Italy, not to mention thousands of others from selling insurance door-to-door. D'Alesandro returned with the 500 signatures.

The men at the card table acted unimpressed. "If you've got 500 signatures, you don't need us," they said.

The bosses were right. Between his relatives and friends in Little Italy, his contacts from going door-to-door selling insurance, and friends from his dancing days, D'Alesandro was well known. On election day, D'Alesandro went downtown to watch the numbers come in. He didn't have the money to buy a radio to hear the returns, but the Baltimore Sun displayed results on the side of its building. It was there he learned that he had been elected, at age 22, to represent Little Italy as the youngest member of the Maryland House of Delegates.

D'Alesandro arrived in Annapolis wearing an oxford gray suit, a polka-dot tie, leather slippers, and a derby. He was so green that he hopped off the train, proudly jumped into a taxi, and asked to be driven all the way to the Capitol. The driver started the car, drove him half a block, and stopped.

"I said, 'What's the matter? Do you have a flat tire?' He said, 'No. This is the Capitol.'"6

D'Alesandro was not impressed by the caliber of his peers.

"I went in and looked at [the Maryland statehouse]. I walked upstairs and I looked for Henry Clay, George Washington, and Abraham Lincoln. All I saw was a bunch of drunks," D'Alesandro recalled.7

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