Nancy Pelosi: Going Quietly Into the Night? Guess Again…

Nancy Pelosi House Portrait

Nancy Pelosi House Portrait

Imagine Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), on the morning of November 3, 2010. She had just won re-election, for the 11th time, to her seat in San Francisco, and that must have provided some much-needed cheer. But her tenure as Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives was–at least after 3 January 2011 — over. In excess of 60 seats of that house had just been lost by the Democrats, in the mid-term election of the day before, and the balance of power had swung from the Democrats to the Republicans in an upset of monumental proportions. House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) was grooming himself to assume power as the 61st Speaker of the House in January.

What words would Pelosi use to explain her plans for the future, after this resounding defeat? We had to wait at least two more days to find out. On November 3, when she was asked about that, her terse reply was “I’ll get back to you…” On November 4, the next day, she said even less. No surprise there. For an usually loquacious woman, she’s been remarkably quiet over the past few months. Presumably she was gathering her thoughts, just prior to the mid-term elections, in the face of what loomed as a significant defeat for her party.

Predictions abounded, however. They always do. Bad journalism and bad commentary abhor a vacuum, and soon fill it up with the best gesticulations bad journalists and bad commentators can come up with. They have a common thread. She has been to the mountaintop, they said, and will never settle for a lower rung–such as House Minority Leader–on the political ladder now.

Not that it is strictly her decision to make… But that’s the subject of another story.

A good guess might well have been that, being what some would characterize as committed to a cause she viewed as absolutely right, she would stand up and speak words similar to those of the fictional U.S. President Thomas J. Whitmore, in the 1996 science fiction film Independence Day. It is a pivotal point in the story, just before launching a counterattack that destroys the invading alien forces:

“We will not go quietly into the night!
We will not vanish without a fight!
We’re going to live on! We’re going to survive!”

Nancy Pelosi probably knows these words. She likely considered them appropriate, once the dust from the mid-term election settled, as that sentiment was precisely what issued from her mouth:

“I am running,” she said decisively, “for Democratic leader.”

Again, that should not have come as a surprise.

Those who thought she would bow out quietly didn’t understand her family or her personal history. There seems to be an almost genetic quality to the way she views life and deals with its vicissitudes.

Thomas D'Alesandro, Jr.

Thomas D'Alesandro, Jr.

Her family background speaks loudly.

She was  the youngest of six children born to Anunciata (“Nancy”) and Thomas Ludwig John D’Alesandro, Jr. Her father (who passed away in August of the same year she was first elected to the U.S. House), was the 4th of 13 children born to Tommaso D’Alesandro. The elder D’Alesandro had earlier immigrated to the U.S. from Italy (the Province of Chieti, on the Adriatic Sea). In his newly adopted nation, he worked as a laborer at a Baltimore city rock quarry, but the man who received his name yearned for much more.

As a teenager, while attending night high school, Tommy (as he was known) hung around the Third Ward Democratic headquarters, learning politics from such luminaries as Willie Curran. But he was his own man, not one long subordinated to the leadership of another.

Proof of that came at age 22 when he filed for election to the Maryland house of delegates. By so doing he is said to have acted in direct defiance o the Curran political machine,. That initiative, though gutsy, was rewarded; he actually got elected.

He later named his second son Franklin Delano Roosevelt D’Alesandro (who soon was nicknamed Roosey), in case anyone might have wondered how strongly he supported the U.S. President of the day.

But remember: Tommy was his own man, and even FDR would learn to respect that fact. Despite his fierce support for most of FDR’s policies, he broke with the Roosevelt Administration on one very important, and telling, issue. While FDR was initially ambivalent–if not outright disinterested–concerning the fate of European Jews caught in the maelstrom of the holocaust, Tommy strongly supported the Bergson Group, an activist pro-Jewish organization founded by Hillel Kook to publicize and bring attention to the plight of Jewish (and other) holocaust victims. He also lobbied actively against British control of Palestine.

Beginning in 1926, when he first served as a member of the Maryland State House of Delegates, and continuing more or less continuously for the next 43 years, Tommy was actively engaged in the political system of his day. As such he held high political posts of considerable local, state, and national repute. In 1954 it could honestly be said he’d never lost an election. Yet, though he reached for greater heights, in the end his greatest aspirations were denied.

He was elected to the 76th Congress in 1939 (a year before his last child, Nancy, was born), and continued in that seat until 1947 when he resigned to run for Mayor of Baltimore, Maryland (he’d been an elected member of the Baltimore City Council from 1935-1938). He won that mayoral election, and–amazing his close friends–refused to move his home and family from the rough-and-tumble Third Ward to more elegant digs “up-town.” When asked why, his answer was “It’s not where you live, it’s how you live.”

Don’t ever presume that Tommy was not a deep thinker. One does not reach the heights he attained without at least a  modicum of intellectual acumen. And don’t think him nothing more than a political animal. He commenced his first term as mayor of Baltimore by getting into the important work of fixing streets, building schools and parking garages, and fighting delinquency. But Baltimore is… well… Baltimore. One does not, from all indications, become immersed in its politics without becoming contaminated–in one way or another–by its infectious undercurrent of dishonesty, graft, and under-the-table confluence of “business” and political muscle.

He remained as mayor of Baltimore until 1959, when–in the first political defeat of his life–he lost the Democratic primary. The story behind that signature defeat is poignant and complicated, but it began in 1953 when he and his wife, Nancy, on returning from a star-studded European trip to represent the U.S. Conference of Mayors, learned that their 21-year-old son Roosey had been arrested, along with 15 others, for rape and other charges involving two young girls, aged 11 and 13 (the same age as Roosey’s sister, Nancy). Apparently the girls had been taken on an all night joy ride, then were kept in a flat for a week. Though eventually acquitted of rape, Roosey was indicted on perjury charges after that trial, based on testimony he provided on the witness stand, but that charge would later fall by the wayside, too.

Tommy, not to be cowed by personal “issues” like this, announced his candidacy for Governor of Maryland soon after Roosey was indicted for perjury. The election was slated for the next year, in 1954, plenty of time, he reasoned, to extricate himself and the family name from the mess Roosey’s youthful indescretions had caused.

However, it wasn’t long before the second, and then a third, shoe dropped…

Dominic Piracci, whose daughter Margie had married Tommy’s oldest son, (known as Tommy III), had been a good friend of his for years. As a prominent Baltimore building contractor, he’d received lucrative contracts related to the parking garages Tommy started building all over Baltimore just after his first mayoral election. Piracci had been charged with fraud, conspiracy, and conspiracy to obstruct justice, all related to what amounted to the fact that he had received  a lion’s share of the parking garage building business. His trial on these charges was publicized widely, including in TIME. Along the way, it was charged that, while engaged in his alleged criminal enterprises,  he’d funneled funds under-the-table to Tommy. Soon it was claimed that some of those funds had even helped fund Tommy’s on-going gubernatorial bid.

Piracci had taken steps to hide some of the names of those he’d passed monies to, but inasmuch as those monies were paid out  in the form of checks, it wasn’t hard for investigators to find them and–of course–to identify the individuals whose names were on them. It happened that Tommy’s wife, Nancy, had received no less than six of Piracci’s checks, in the aggregate amount of $11,130.78. On the witness stand she testified that $1,500 was a gift to the the newlyweds Tommy III and Margie, and the rest was a loan, partly to help her with debts related to her feed business, the rest for debts incurred in a venture involving a skin softener.

Tommy, seeing his political aspirations crumbling and his family name dragged through the gutter, soon checked into Bon Secours Hospital, suffering from nervous collapse.  His gubernatorial bid was over. Still, he ramained mayor of Baltimore, though he soon faced a tough reelection to that office in 1955. Practically everyone assumed Tommy would not succeed in that reelection bid. In fact, all but one of Baltimore’s Democratic district bosses turned their backs on him. No less than six Democrats filed for the seat in the primary, each assuming he was down for the count.

But the D’Alesandro genes were not the ordinary kind. Though an ordinary man would have packed it in and found another line of work, he stood his ground and fought back. When the primary votes were counted Tommy had carried all of Baltimore’s 28 wards, winning a majority of the vote, and chalking up his 21st consecutive victory at the polls. In the ensuing election he handily won a new term as Baltimore’s mayor.

But the debacle of 1953 had exacted a lasting toll that, in the end, spelled the end of Tommy’s political career. In 1958 he ran for the U.S. Senate, but was unsuccessful. Finally, in 1959, when he sought renomination by the Democratic Party to another term as Baltimore’s mayor, he was defeated in the primary.

As a footnote, Tommy D’Alesandro III (born 24 July 1929, ten years before Nancy was born), was elected President of the Baltimore City Council in in 1962. Five years later he ran for Mayor of Baltimore, won, and served in that post until 1971, when his term expired. He declined to run for reelection.

It should be no surprise that the parallels with his daughter Nancy are striking. They also suggest strongly how she will proceed beyond the mid-term elections of November 2, 2010.

She’s been in politics, one way or another, all her life. She’s been a member of the U.S. House of Representatives since 2 June 1987, when she was elected to serve out the remaining term of California’s 5th Congressional District seat, San Francisco, vacated by the death of  Sala Burton.

Since then Ms. Pelosi has been reelected a total of 11 times. She’s a career politician, a born leader who knows how to work the political machinery around her. She is a fighter, who likely will see the lame-duck session between the November mid-terms and the first Monday in 2011, when newly elected House members will be sworn in, as a first step in her comeback. How she works that session could be very, very interesting.

More to come…

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