Never L o s e Fa i t h
It was a cold day in January 1987 when I said goodbye to Sala. I didn’t know it at the time–or perhaps I simply wasn’t ready to accept it–but my friend was dying.
Sala Burton was a Congresswoman from California whom I had known, along with her late husband, Phillip, for many years. She was one of the women I admired most, as well as a close friend.
Everyone respected Sala and knew not to underestimate her. She looked like Mother Earth; she spoke with a Polish accent; she didn’t drive a car. She gave off an intense warmth–if she liked you. She was passionate about what she believed in, but very dispassionate about her
Sala was like family to me. She loved my children and was especially close to my two oldest daughters, Nancy Corinne and Christine. Nancy Corinne started at Mount Vernon College in Washington shortly after Sala went to Congress, and called us one day to say that she needed
“Why do you think you should have a car in college?” my husband, Paul, and I asked. With five children, providing each one with a car in college was not in the budget. “I need a car for Sala,” Nancy Corinne said. “I have to drive Sala around.”
So we sent our old Jeep Wrangler from San Francisco. It was quite a sight to see Nancy Corinne driving the dignified Sala Burton around Washington in a car with removable windows.
A couple of years later, Sala became ill with cancer. We thought she could win any battle. But this was one she could not.
And so the time came to say goodbye. Anyone who has ever visited a friend who is dying will know how hard it is. What was astonishing to me, however, was her selflessness. Despite my protests, what she wanted most to talk about was me.
A circle of her friends, whom she had summoned, gathered around her bed. Solemnly she announced the sad news: She would not be seeking reelection because she was very ill. She then turned to me and asked me to run for her seat. She wanted me to accept her endorsement
on the spot.
“Sala, please don’t talk this way,” I said. “You’re breaking my heart.”
I still held out hope that she would get better. Finally she convinced me that my agreement was the only answer that would bring her comfort, and so, with great sadness, I promised I would run for Congress.
I often look back on that day in wonder.
We all admired Sala’s strength and grace, but what was striking was the faith she had in me. Sometimes it takes the encouragement of someone who knows us well to propel us forward in ways we never would have dreamed. I was confident in my abilities and accomplishments, but Sala’s faith in me was so unshakable that it made me determined to live up to it.
And so I ran for Congress–and won. I was forty-seven years old, a mother of five, happily married, and never–not even once–thinking or wanting this to happen to me.
In the campaign, I had to face many challenges. Like many women, I was hesitant to talk about myself and my achievements, but I became much more at ease because I believed deeply in everything I said about the issues.
What lifts you up, what helps you to grow, is the excitement of the people around you. When I announced my candidacy in mid-February that year, I walked into the ILWU union hall expecting to see a few friends and reporters; instead, there was a large, enthusiastic crowd. Their support made me determined to win, not just for myself but for all of them.
Twenty years later, as I was sworn in as the first woman Speaker of the House, faith again was very much on my mind. I thought of all the women throughout American history who’d had faith that one day we would achieve equality with men.
As I accepted the gavel from Republican Leader John Boehner, I told my colleagues:
“This is an historic moment–for the Congress, and for the women of this country. It is a moment for which we have waited over two hundred years. Never losing faith, we waited through the many years of struggle to achieve our rights.
“But women weren’t just waiting; they were working. Never losing faith, we worked to redeem the promise of America, that all men and women are created equal. For our daughters and granddaughters, today we have broken the marble ceiling. . . .
“We have made history, now let us make progress.”
D e c l a ra t i o n s o f I n d e p e n d e n c e
I’ll never forget the first time I saw the Capitol. It was on a cold January day in 1947, when I was six years old. The occasion was my father’s swearing-in ceremony for his fifth term in Congress.
My brothers were excited. As our car approached the Capitol, they kept saying, “Nancy, look at the Capitol.” I said I didn’t see any capitals. They insisted, and finally I asked, “Is it a capital A, B, or C?” As we drove closer, my brother Joey turned my head toward the most amazing sight.
I didn’t see the giant letters I expected. Instead, I saw a stunning building with a magnificent white dome. I still think it’s the most beautiful building in the world because of what it represents: the voice of the people.
Whether to view it as the world’s greatest symbol of democracy, to serve in it as a Representative of the people, or to preside over it as the Speaker of the House, any association with the Capitol is exciting.
To this day, I feel a strong connection to my father whenever I’m on the floor of the House, imagining what it must have been like for him to be one of the earliest Italian Americans to serve there. My father, Thomas D’Alesandro Jr., was a U.S. Congressman from Maryland,
first elected in 1938 as a New Deal Democrat loyal to FDR. He later served as the Mayor of Baltimore for twelve years. My mother, Nancy (Annunciata in Italian) Lombardi, so named because she was born on March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation, was my father’s teammate
every step of the way.
Both of my parents were raised in Baltimore’s Little Italy, as was I. My father’s mother was born in Baltimore–his grandparents were from Venice and Genoa. His father was from Abruzzi.
My mother’s father was born in Campobasso and her mother in Sicily. They met in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and raised their family in Baltimore.
It was into this large Italian American family that I was born, the only daughter after six sons. We were devoutly Catholic, deeply patriotic, proud of our Italian American heritage, and staunchly Democratic.
Those views were shared by our neighbors. Diversity in Little Italy was based on what part of Italy your family was from. Every region and food of Italy was represented in our neighborhood–Genovese, Napolitano, Abruzzese, Veneziano, Romano, Piemontese, Toscano, Siciliano, and more.
Growing up in Little Italy impressed upon me the vitality immigrants bring to America. With their courage, optimism, and determination to make the future better for their families, they fulfill the American dream. They made America stronger. That has been true throughout American history, and it is true today.
My father was twenty-five and already a member of the Maryland State Legislature when he noticed a beautiful nineteen-year-old woman leaving St. Leo’s Church one Sunday morning. He followed her down the street and, when she stopped at a corner, went up to her and asked for a date.
My mother’s response was to tell the dapper legislator that she didn’t know who he was and that she would not go out on a date unless her grandmother approved. Hence Daddy’s courtship of Mommy’s grandmother.
Apparently he passed inspection because my mother and he were married in a wedding that was a traffic stopping event in Baltimore. All of the members of the Baltimore Police and Fire Departments were invited.
Daddy’s introduction to government began at the age of eight, when his mother took him to the 1912 Democratic Convention, not far from their home in Little Italy. I can imagine Daddy’s thrill at hearing the roars coming from inside the Fifth Regiment Armory, where William Jennings Bryan nominated the soon-to-be President Woodrow Wilson, who won the nomination on the forty-sixth ballot.
When he was old enough to vote, my father cast his first vote ever for himself in a successful election to the Maryland House of Delegates. He went from there to the Baltimore City Council and then on to Congress before serving as Mayor.
My father was a phenomenal natural politician, handsome, and charismatic. With his piercing blue eyes, pencil thin moustache, and trademark polka-dot bow ties, he cut a dashing figure. He was a talented dancer and a brilliant orator. Although he did not have much formal education, he was clever and determined. He was very knowledgeable in a number of areas, especially public policy.
Except for his earliest years in politics, my mother was his partner. She was smart, and she had a sense of justice that became a driving force in our family’s life. I often think she was born fifty years too soon. The truth is that my father and the times held her back.
Now, my father was a wonderful man with an enormous heart, very charming and smart, very loyal, a public servant in the truest sense. While he was forward-thinking and progressive, and appreciated the growing role women were playing in politics, he was bound by the old traditions when it came to his own family. My father did not even want me to cut my long hair when I was a young teenager.
My mother was a wonderful wife and parent, and she was also an entrepreneur and a visionary. She started law school but had to stop when three of her sons had whooping
cough at the same time. She made astute investments, but Daddy would not sign off on them (which, sadly, would have been necessary at the time). She had a patent on the first device to apply steam to the face, which she called Velvex–Beauty by Vapor. It was her brainchild,
and she had customers throughout the United States, but Daddy wanted her close to home.
Despite her frequent clashes of will with Daddy, she loved her marriage, though I think it’s fair to say she didn’t recommend marrying young. Whenever she heard that a young woman was getting married, she’d say, “I don’t know why she’s rushing into this. She has all this talent, all this spirit and intelligence–why does anyone have to get married so young?”
Of course, she was thinking back over her own life. She had dreams of her own, and part of what makes me so receptive to new possibilities, I suspect, is knowing that she could not pursue hers.
I learned to assert my independence early. I’m not saying I was particularly rebellious, but with all of those older brothers, I did have to find ways to hold my own.
One of our family stories involves my brother Joey and me at our father’s first inauguration as Mayor of Baltimore. We all went to City Hall, and my parents and the three older boys were busy greeting guests. My brothers Hector and Joey and I were ushered into a side room to draw and color until the ceremony began.
We, like all families, had a steadfast rule that the children were never allowed to speak to strangers. When a tall, distinguished gentleman came into the room and said, “Hello, how are you?” I would not utter a word in reply.
“Your father is going to be the Mayor. Isn’t that exciting?”
Still not a word from me, but my brothers were saying,
“It’s all right, we can say hello.” It turned out that the gentleman was Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin, the outgoing Mayor of Baltimore, and we were in his private office.
Joey said to me that he was going to tell Mommy that I was not polite to the Mayor.
“If you do,” I said calmly, “I will tell Mommy that you talked to a stranger.”
I had just turned seven, and Joey was nine. I didn’t squeal on him, and because I’d earned his respect, he didn’t squeal on me.
I had just built my first strategic alliance.