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Roots in faith, family and party guide Pelosi’s move to power


Growing up as the youngest of six children, a girl among five brothers in Baltimore’s Little Italy, Nancy D’Alesandro’s mother encouraged her to pursue a religious vocation. D’Alesandro had her doubts.

“I didn’t think I wanted to be a nun,” the new House minority leader, Nancy Pelosi, recalled. “But I thought I might want to be a priest. There seemed to be a little more power there, a little more discretion over what was going on in the parish.”

Pelosi knows power -- how to get it, how to wield it. Marriage would take her to California, far from the Baltimore where Tommy D’Alesandro, city councilman, congressman and mayor, ran one of the great political machines of the century. It was there, over dinner or greeting a favor-seeking neighbor who knocked at the door of the house on Albemarle Street, that the mayor taught his children American politics.

Today, the eight-term Bay Area Democrat is attacked as a “San Francisco liberal” -- a gay-rights-promoting, abortion-embracing, tax-and-spend left-winger. Republican fundraisers are busily crafting direct-mail appeals to capitalize on the caricature.

They’ve got ammunition. Pelosi, for example, was one of just 37 House members to receive a 100 percent rating last year from the liberal Americans for Democratic Action. No doubt about it: She’s a woman of the left.

But since her House Democratic colleagues chose her as their leader late last year, Pelosi’s pragmatism, not her ideology, has shown through.

Her first move was to name South Carolina’s savvy John Spratt to the newly created position of assistant to the minority leader. Spratt is a deficit hawk, an armed services committee veteran, and the personification of the southern white males thought left behind in Pelosi’s rise to power.

Next, she surprised some insiders by choosing California Democrat Bob Matsui over Congressional Black Caucus favorite William Jefferson to lead party fundraising efforts as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Pelosi knows the value of money in politics; over the last two elections her political action committee doled out more than $2 million to grateful Democratic candidates.

Finally, a day before President Bush announced his $675 billion economic package, Pelosi unveiled a $136 billion plan that draws clear lines between the administration and the House Democrats on the economy.

While the Bush plan includes provisions to eliminate the tax on stock dividends and caps the top tax rate at 35 percent, the Democratic alternative is bread-and-butter stuff: extended unemployment compensation (a more modest version of which the president signed Jan. 8), a tax rebate for “working families,” funds for states and localities to fight terrorism, and billions for transportation. The Pelosi package -- a text-book plan to stimulate the economy during down times -- unites Democrats; it is short on trendy social engineering and long on the promise of jobs and roads, themes that have solidified the Democratic constituency for generations.

In fact, it’s exactly the kind of plan that Tommy D’Alesandro supported when he represented Baltimore in the House his daughter now tends.

Little Italy

Nancy Pelosi, mother of five, grandmother of five, refers to herself as a “conservative Catholic.” It’s an intentionally provocative characterization for someone who is pro-choice on abortion, thinks women should be admitted to the priesthood (“Why not?” she asked), and opposes mandatory celibacy (“I know that [the married priesthood] is in the future, I just don’t how long it will take”).

So what exactly does she mean? “I was raised … in a very strict upbringing in a Catholic home where we respected people, were observant, [and where] the fundamental belief was that God gave us all a free will and we were accountable for that, each of us.”

“Conservative,” then, is about roots and values, not a public figure’s positions on the issues of the day. “In the family I was raised in, love of country, deep love of the Catholic church and love of family were the values.”

Those beliefs were formed and tested in Baltimore’s Little Italy, a 12-block neighborhood just a short walk from the city’s harbor. Italians settled in the small neighborhood in the late 1800s, attracted by jobs at the growing port. By 1900 every home in the area was owned by an Italian family. Like the immigrants of Boston, New York and Chicago, as their numbers grew, so did their political influence.

Tommy D’Alesandro saw the opportunities early. Elected to the state assembly at age 23, D’Alesandro would serve eight years there before moving on to represent his district in Congress. In 1947, his 7-year-old daughter at his side, D’Alesandro was sworn in as Baltimore’s first Italian-American mayor -- a cause for celebration in the tight-knit community.

From the age of 7 until she went off to college, Nancy Pelosi was the mayor’s daughter.

Maryland’s Attorney General Joseph Curran -- former city councilman, state senator and lieutenant governor -- has sought votes in Little Italy for 45 years. The community Pelosi grew up in, he recalled, had two components: St. Leo’s Parish, and the Democratic Party. For Little Italy’s residents, the Holy Trinity consisted of Father, Son and Holy Ghost, but also of faith, family and party, and not always in that order.

It was hard, at times, to distinguish between party and parish, said Curran. “The large events in communities were usually church-sponsored or Democratic Club-sponsored. 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.”

“The D’Alesandros lived right around the corner from St. Leo’s,” said another longtime Maryland politico, Frank DeFillipo. “It’s a tight little community. The festivals were sort of half political, half religious events, and they were always participating in those.” Even the sacraments carried the whiff of politics. One of Pelosi’s brothers, known as Roosie, was christened “Franklin Delano Roosevelt D’Alesandro.”

The Baltimore of “Tommy the Elder” (Pelosi’s brother “Tommy the Younger” would go on to serve a term as mayor in the late 1960s) was a pragmatic operation. Favors could be called in and patronage flowed. Pelosi brothers Hector and Joey, for example, worked at the courthouse. Constituents seeking assistance appeared nightly at the family’s home. The children would watch as their father solved problems, as he used the discretion of his office to help their neighbors, as he lined up votes -- one person at a time -- that would lead to three terms.

But Baltimore also was a city that worked. Tommy the Elder engineered a political coalition that included not only Italians, but Poles, Jews, blacks and the Irish. It was a safe city. People in Little Italy left their doors unlocked. The garbage got picked up. D’Alesandro had the streets paved, built public housing, redesigned the city’s chaotic traffic patterns and brought baseball’s Orioles back to town.

“Tommy the Elder was the real thing, with his thin mustache, pinky ring and silk tie. He was an authentic city ward heeler,” said longtime Maryland political observer Blair Lee.

“The old man was a political master,” Curran told NCR. “He was old school, grew up in the neighborhoods, was active in the community and he knew how to get people to like him.”

Pelosi’s mother, Nancy D’Alesandro, was no political slouch; as a faithful member of the Democratic Women’s Club, she provided political intelligence and community insights that served the mayor well.

The 72-year-old Curran is heir to a Baltimore political dynasty of his own. His father, a city councilman during the D’Alesandro mayoralty, ran the northeast part of town for the party; his daughter Katie is married to the current mayor, Martin O’Malley; and his brother, Robert, currently sits on the city council. Curran’s mother and Pelosi’s mother were in the same grade school class at St. Leo’s.

“When I ran in 1958, you had to have some support beyond your immediate family and I had the backing of the D’Alesandro organization,” he recalled. It was, Curran recalled, an era of retail politics. As a newspaper boy, he’d stuff the paper with campaign flyers. Later, as a candidate, “you went to Mass with everybody, or you went to the Holy Name Society with everybody or you went to the bull roast with everybody. 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.”

In the late 1950s, Pelosi started to put the bull roasts behind her. Upon graduation from the all-girls Institute of Notre Dame, she enrolled at Washington’s Trinity College, a women’s institution. Upon graduation in 1962, she married Georgetown University graduate Paul Pelosi. The couple moved first to New York and then to San Francisco, Paul Pelosi’s hometown.

It was a fast-track family: five children in six years. Pelosi was a full-time mother -- babies and carpools, laundry, homework and getting dinner on the table took priority. Money was not an issue, as her husband’s career as an investor and businessman provided more than adequately for the family’s needs.

Pelosi, however, never lost her interest in Democratic politics. Like her mother and father before her, she enlisted the children, putting them to work stuffing envelopes or leafleting the neighborhood. As the children grew, Pelosi was increasingly active. She allied herself with another political legend, San Francisco Rep. Phil Burton, assisting in his campaigns, in party fundraising and in other partisan activities in the city and state.

In 1976, Pelosi’s Maryland connections merged with her California activism. Asked by then-California Gov. Jerry Brown to manage his Maryland presidential primary effort, she returned home. Brown won the primary.

Her star was rising in Democratic circles. She was elected chair of the California Democratic Party, lost a bid to chair the national party, and upon the death of Sala Burton (who had succeeded her late husband in Congress), was elected to the House.

Naturally enough, as a San Francisco Democrat of the 1980s, Pelosi’s early focus was on funding for AIDS research and treatment. She used her seat on the Appropriations Committee to support that effort. With less success, but considerable fanfare, she led the push to sanction China for its human rights abuses. She is a stalwart environmentalist and, as a member of the House Intelligence Committee, emphasized the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction long before Sept. 11. She is reelected by overwhelming margins.

Pelosi understands that politics is about relationships. Despite her leftward voting record, she has, according to the Almanac of American Politics, “a capacity for keeping all parts of her party happy.”

Part of that capacity comes from her prodigious fundraising efforts. Pelosi, through her political action committee, has contributed more than $2 million to Democratic candidates over the past four years. “Over the last several election cycles, she has become one of the Democratic Party’s most prolific fundraisers, surpassing [Missouri Congressman Richard] Gephardt and virtually all House Republicans when it comes to raising money for and contributing to candidates for Congress,” according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Like the constituents in Tommy D’Alesandro’s living room, members of Con-gress are grateful for the help.

Pelosi’s 2001 election as House Minority Whip demonstrated her popularity with her colleagues and made her the highest ranking woman in Congressional history.

Her subsequent elevation to minority leader puts her in line, if the Democrats do retake control of the closely divided House, for even higher office.

Nancy Pelosi, it is safe to say, will never be a priest. But she could be speaker of the House -- and that’s where the real power is.

Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent. His e-mail address is feuerherd@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, January 24, 2003