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Native Intelligence
D.C. loses a true political insider
(Published September 9, 2002)

By DIANA WINTHROP

A few weeks ago Madelyn Baldasaro Lane died quietly at her home just short of her 62nd birthday. She succumbed all too early from ovarian cancer, a dreadful disease that kills thousands of women every year.

Her passing leaves a gaping hole in the soul of this city that cannot be replaced. There was no long-winded obituary in the Washington Post. There was neither funeral nor wake where the politically powerful in this city could climb over each other to sing her praises. She did not want a fuss made about her passing. She was the most humble, politically powerful person I have ever known.

Madelyn would be quite angry if she knew I labeled her "powerful." She underestimated her value and her contributions to this city. She thought she was ordinary when in reality she was unique. She hated having her picture taken, though she was gorgeous. Madelyn hated self-importance and in many ways was a paradox in a city that rates political power as an important characteristic. She eschewed people who practiced the "what's in it for me" style of politics.

She came from a second-generation, working-class Italian Catholic family. Madelyn was the daughter of a fruit peddler. She lost her mother at 15 and was an advocate of real family values long before it became a political red herring. She was always civic-minded and very serious, though she lacked formal education beyond high school. She was always the champion of the underdog. She was incredibly compassionate. In Madelyn's case, she had more than enough compassion for the entire city. Her husband, Budd, is the highly respected artist and political activist in Ward 2. Budd always said she was so addicted to caring that sometimes it drove him up a wall, but she was the most genuine person he ever knew.

Madelyn was a nice Catholic girl from Boston who fell in love with a nice Catholic young man who happened to be a college-educated African-American from Dorchester. This was the height of the civil rights era. The Roman Catholic establishment was criticized for not working very hard toward integration. Martin Luther King Jr. was constantly chastising church leaders for not being vocal enough about civil rights. Boston was clearly not in the forefront of change. Madelyn and Budd moved to D.C. in 1960. It was Boston's loss and our gain.

Most people forget what the District was like in 1960. Madelyn could walk around her Dupont Circle neighborhood and point out the various buildings that would not rent to them because Budd was black.

Madelyn went to work for the federal government and, like a lot of women of her generation, she was really the power behind throne. She was far more literate than most. She was a voracious reader who was truly a renaissance person. She was my favorite because she was a serious reader of campaign literature and would analyze candidates' positions on issues. When my husband Larry Gray, an education activist, ran for president of the D.C. school board in 2000, he was bowled over by her working knowledge of his views and his solutions to problems.

Many women of Madelyn's generation were considered political insiders, though they were really there to support male candidates for public office They were not policymakers. They practiced kitchen table politics. They were the backbone of successful campaigns.

Today, women of Madelyn's experience would be considered pricey political strategists and organizers, commanding huge fees for their advice. An old political axiom is that successful politicians are beneficiaries of timing and luck. In Anthony Williams' case, he had both when as a very green candidate for mayor in 1998, he had the support of Budd and Madelyn. Budd was the coordinator in the streets, but Madelyn was the backbone. She ran the campaign from her kitchen table. She had maps of the ward, which included every bus route; streets listed and number of voters on each block mapped out perfectly. She even arm-twisted a catering business in the ward to feed the volunteers wonderful food. She was a one-women political organization.

Her opinion regarding candidates for office was so well-respected that a call from her meant something. On the federal level, she admired Hubert Humphrey and Lyndon Johnson. On the local level, she respected the late John Wilson because she said he was an intelligent, educated man who had compassion. She initially respected Anthony Williams because of his education, but became bitterly disappointed because she said he lacked compassion.

Professional political operatives don't understand what the passing of Madelyn Lane means to their profession. I already miss her terribly, but what I will miss most this fall will be the thought of Madelyn with her red Radio Flyer wagon in tow, walking the streets of her neighborhood delivering campaign literature to her neighbors.

Copyright 2002, The Common Denominator