Looks like a girl, but she's a flame
So bright, she could burn your eyes.
-Alicia Keys, "Girl on Fire"
Tip-tap-tip-tap-tippity-tap is the elegant sound of Speaker Pelosi's four-inch heels as she cuts a path through the marble-encrusted boys' club on Capitol Hill. When she wields the gavel, women around the country rejoice because she's the first woman yet to do so.
Walk softly and carry a big stick personifies this Madam Speaker, and, like Beyonce, she's got the persuasion to build a nation. As Speaker, her job is an entirely different ball of wax that requires herding all the cats in Congress and gaining their fealty. King Arthur never had a bigger challenge. The Knights of the Round Table, fully clothed in armor and ready for battle, had nothing on Congress. Only a master could stand down the forces that have attempted to divide the country, and that she is. A young-blood would sweat and struggle against a McConnell or Trump, but OGs they know the job, they made the ropes and built the ladders. Folks have come for Pelosi's head, but as an OG, she's been there done that. In the name of justice fair and square, there's no need for a showdown; when she's ready, she'll take you down.
She's a woman, unapologetically. Her presence behind the Speaker's pulpit is an imminent reminder that the old and tired guard, the cobwebbed patriarchy that has been Congress for ages, is a dying one. The Queens have arrived.
Always in full face and hair on fleek, her rep in the marble byways of Congress is the power broker and the boss. Her style is queenly and she emits light inside and outside of the House, always leading with strength, dignity, and a decidedly feminine panache. She holds her ambition close to the vest, but make no mistake about it, Speaker Pelosi gets sh*t done. She's the gloved hand of the Democratic party, the enforcer of a smooth resistance, a one-woman political machine who knows all the shots that need to be called. Leadership-she was born for it. She's got she-power, hurrah, and you can find her at the head of it all.
This queen, born Nancy D'Alesandro, was delivered unto us in Baltimore, on March 26, 1940, an Aries. When she was first introduced to the world, it seemed like destiny had already sent a message. "We predict that this little lady will soon be a 'Queen' in her own right" were the words in the local Baltimore newspaper The Guide about a year after the birth of a girl, Little Nancy DÕAlesandro. The headline read, "Prediction: D'Alesandro Will Find New Boss in First Daughter." It was an unwitting prophecy. Brown-haired with big hazelnut eyes, she was a crowned gift to her parents, Thomas D'Alesandro Jr. and Annunciata D'Alesandro. Finally, their first girl had arrived after five rough-and-tumble sons. Her mother exhaled, her father could weep. Here she was, the second-generation little lady to a big boss of Albemarle Street. Hooray!
But let's back up for a minute. Thomas "Tommaso" D'Alesandro Sr., her grandfather, had come to Baltimore from the majestic mountains and lakes of Abruzzo, Italy, where the aromas of mutton and pork, savory legumes, and handmade spaghetti alla chitarra reigned among charming medieval towns. For more than two hundred years Abruzzi had been producing some of the world's best pasta, and it had been home to Tommaso since he was born in 1903. When Tommaso arrived in the United States, it was in Baltimore's Little Italy that he settled. There was a growing community of Italians, where the smells of garlic, basil, and tomato could be caught among the wooden-clad halls and apartment doors. In the late nineteenth century, waves of Italians had immigrated to the area, which rests east of the Inner Harbor in the Patapsco River. At the time, the neighborhood was an enclave populated by other immigrant communities: the Irish, the Germans, and the Jews. A decade later the neighborhood would emerge and unveil itself as majority Italian American. (Those were the demographics at the time, but Maryland has cooked up more than good pasta, it has birthed Frederick Douglass, Thurgood Marshall, and, hello, Jada Pinkett Smith!)
Baltimore definitely wasn't the pristine landscape of the sun-splashed mountains of Abruzzo but, ultimately, culture is bound to the heart, home is in the spirit, and though the people of Baltimore's Little Italy would always be tied to the traditions and the ways of their ancestral home in the Old World, they were also wedded to the forces of democracy, and the collective American struggle against tyranny had become their struggle.
The closeness of the little row houses, side by side, brick-on-brick, held their families and their neighbors' families together; it was in this network of adults where their children were raised, protected, and disciplined, and each neighbor was accountable to the others. The men threw bocce ball on Saturdays and marched up the hill with their families every Sunday to kneel in prayer during mass at Saint Leo's Catholic Church. The procession was lined with women whose hair was done, baby-adorned and decadent under a soft scarf as they sashayed with gloved hands on the arm of their man. There'd be a fleet of girls in fresh-cut dresses and boys in little tailored suits in tow. (This generation could school your generation how to spell "haute couture," okay?)
Nancy's grandfather opened up a store and met her future grandmother, Maria Petronilla Foppiani, and they married and had thirteen children. (Pause: imagine having thirteen children.) Nancy's father, Thomas Jr., later known as Big Tommy, aka Old Tommy, aka Tommy the Elder despite being the second of his name, was born on Albemarle Street.
The first female Speaker of the House would also grow up at 245 Albemarle Street. Albemarle Street was the foundation, the birth, and the beginning of the dynasty, and later their stomping grounds for battle. One set of grandparents lived at 235 Albemarle and the other at 204; Aunt Jessie was at 314; and Aunt Mary lived just around the corner. Spike Lee would have loved to produce a film about that joint if it had been in Brooklyn. It was a fortress of the D'Alesandro empire, one of the fiercest families on the block, like the Jeffersons or the Waltons.
After getting into a fight at school one day when he was thirteen years old, Big Tommy decided not to go back. He began delivering newspapers to help his family of twelve brothers and sisters. It wasn't a hard-knock life, Jay-Z; leaving school at a young age wasn't uncommon, and many folks did so and had successful lives-but Big Tommy, the future politician, was a soul destined for success via an uncommon route.
Big Tommy had a career sooner than most; he started selling insurance door-to-door. As part of a big family, there was a real need to bring in dinero quickly. He was growing up in Baltimore during the age of progressive politics, where businesses and corporations were getting fat and more industrialized while the lives of workers-the average American citizens-were becoming more impoverished and constricted. He knew their stories; as a young, buckskin insurance guy he talked to everyone. These were the days before the advent of labor laws and the designated eight-hour workday that we actually bemoan today. Generations prior worked as many as ten to fourteen hours a day. The poor worked in unsafe, unsanitary conditions, but the bosses didn't care as long as they were making money. It was before mandatory lunch breaks were a rule of thumb, before sick and holiday leave were a talking point in politics. Nancy's dad witnessed activism in the labor movement, and the rise of progressive politicians who had begun to turn the tide for the working man. Coming from where he did, knowing who and what he knew, he wanted to help. Policy was the change-maker; he wanted in.
He was running around Baltimore collecting insurance dues for a paycheck of $5 per week, which, to be fair, was decent money for someone his age. After years of hard work, he eventually became a broker and opened his own agency. He was handsome and popular . . . and he could dance, which only made him more popular. He entered ballroom dancing competitions and won prizes and became sort of famous around town. He took business classes at Calvary Business School, but he secretly wanted to be a priest. All of this in one Italian waltz made Big Tommy a character with flair, a true peacock. And the political world wanted him.
Democratic Party leaders in the community noticed him-and named him an Election Day precinct runner. Many decades before the development of computers, the runner played a very important role, and actually still does today. Tommy would receive voter lists at designated points during Election Day from each precinct. Those lists verify the names of those who have voted. He would bring those lists to the party chair, who would compare them with lists of those eligible to vote, and then deploy resources to help get people out to the polls-an especially important strategy in areas within the precinct that were underperforming. Big Tommy quickly grasped the significance of counting votes. (I mean, with twelve siblings, he probably was the best at counting!) He witnessed firsthand the way that votes can alter people's lives, and the ways a party apparatus manages an election, all key factors in understanding the intricacies of politics.
All those years going door-to-door came in handy when he decided to run for public office: he called upon all of those neighbors he got to know as a teenager to secure his first election. Leveraging that strong community connection, he went out and raised five thousand signatures himself to qualify and then won. He was elected to Maryland's House of Delegates in 1926 at the young age of twenty-one and served for seven years.
He went on to win twenty-two elections in a row. After his time in the State House, he spent three years on the Baltimore City Council. Then he became a member of the Maryland delegation in the US House of Representatives and served for four consecutive terms. He later served as mayor of Baltimore for twelve years.
Some might see mayor as a step down from the US Congress, but D'Alesandro's interest was in serving his people on the local level. He had been elected to the Baltimore City Council during the height of the Great Depression, so finding a job was the overriding concern of most of his constituents. Then, starting in 1939, when Representative D'Alesandro rode the train from Baltimore to DC, people would talk to him during the whole journey about their concerns and needs. Federal legislators do not have the power that mayors do to hire and fire city officials. Big Tommy knew he could do more to support the day-to-day lives of individual Baltimoreans as mayor than he could in Congress. "I'm a paisan," the mayor would say. "These are my people. This is where I belong."
By the time Little Nancy was born, her father was a notable US Representative from Maryland who had been running and winning elections for sixteen years, and thatÕs why she made headlines. The day she was born, Big Tommy found himself on the House floor in Washington, working to win votes for a Democratic bill. When word arrived that Annunciata was about to give birth, Thomas made sure his vote would not be nullified if he were absent. (Back in the day, childbearing was between a woman and her doctor. Paternity leave? Ha, God forbid! Plus, with all that goes on during labor? No, thanks; the men were to wait outside. It was common for Dad to be at the office until after the drama unfolded.) Then he rushed off to the hospital to meet his new daughter. Nancy would be the only girl in a house steeped in politics and among her five older brothers.
Inside a traditional Italian family of five boys, Little Nancy would offer a new wrinkle. It would be Nancy, and not her brothers, who would become the heir apparent, the extension of her father's lineage who would eventually surpass him and distinguish herself as a leader in politics.
A lot of that energy and expertise would come from her upbringing, sis. The D'Alesandro household, a three-story row house that doubled as their family home and her father's office, was run like a state office. Sound the doorbell. Their doors would open to the public at ten a.m., and each child had their designated time to man the front door. Little Nancy and her brothers would be allotted different jobs and responsibilities. Their little hands stuffed envelopes, answered the phones, and served as Daddy's helpers to the daily flow of constituents. "If you entered the house, it was always campaign time, and if you went into the living room, it was always constituent time," Nancy later said; it was only on Christmas or Easter when you "were not given a placard or a bumper sticker or a brochure to distribute." There was a file full of community favors that the children managed daily-they also kept track of how many votes from every part of the community they had, or needed to secure, to win the next election. This was all lingo that the D'Alesandro kids were rapping right out of the womb. Big Tommy would frequently call out, "Make sure you have the votes!" And those little legs would race to the box and get to countin'. People were always stopping by. Little Nancy grew up understanding politics, not as an elite measure of status or power but as a very personal way to serve the people around her.
Sis, politics in the D'Alesandro household was not some hot-air-balloon artifice, flying way over the heads of average citizens. No one had to wrap their minds around Bitcoins. It was about making sure that the people in the community had jobs and childcare. The immigrant woman whose husband had gotten into trouble with the law and who didn't know where to turn for help? She could find support at the D'Alesandros'. The worker who had lost his job but couldn't afford an attorney? He could go to 245 Albemarle Street for some guidance. The community members needed a public official who cared about them, their businesses, their homes. It sounds like it could be tough coming of age in this family, exposed to the real ways of responsibility, but in actuality the home was often glowing with love due to all the good that took place there. The love for the people. The lather of determination.
Copyright © 2020 by Brenda Jones. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.