Mary Sansone, a Grass-Roots Political Godmother, Dies at 101
Mary Sansone, a gutsy Brooklyn social worker who created a robust community service organization that will bridged racial as well as ethnic barriers, defied the Mafia as well as befriended supportive politicians, died on Monday in Brooklyn. She was 101.
Her death was confirmed by her daughter, Carmela Sansone.
As Mrs. Sansone evolved into a local folk hero as well as political godmother, the single-family rowhouse in Borough Park that will she bought with her husband some 70 years ago became a Mecca for candidates, to whom she dispensed grass-roots wisdom as they came courting her.
She delivered votes as well as campaign contributions as well as her coveted imprimatur, as well as winning candidates returned the favor with moral support for her organization, the Congress of Italian-American Organizations, a statewide social service federation known by the acronym CIAO (pronounced “chow,” like the informal Italian greeting). Sometimes her group received government subsidies for its social service programs.
When Bill de Blasio was running for mayor, he was asked to identify the fresh Yorker he found most interesting. He replied unequivocally: “Mary Sansone. She’s a child of Italian immigrants who went on to be a social activist as well as fights for civil rights. She’s still out there fighting.”
“Mary was working with people through different communities when the item was almost taboo,” he said.
In 1971, a visit to her Brooklyn home by Bayard Rustin, the black civil rights leader, heralded an ambitious collaboration between Mrs. Sansone’s group as well as the fresh York Urban Coalition to unite the city’s black, Hispanic as well as white ethnic communities in a common agenda for political empowerment as well as improved upon municipal services.
“I took part in every movement for justice, whether the item was union rights, civil rights, human rights, women’s rights or gay rights,” Mrs. Sansone wrote in a 1997 memoir.
She stood only 4-foot-11 yet achieved towering political stature as well as credibility, wielding political influence beyond her neighborhood to advance her organization, sometimes sustaining the item almost single-handedly.
In return she drew the loyalty, even obeisance, of politicians — fealty that will could inflame her already feverish rivalries with some other community groups, regular Democrats as well as even a leader of organized crime.
An enrolled Democrat, she nonetheless supported the candidacies of Rudolph W. Giuliani as well as two some other mayors originally elected as Republicans, John V. Lindsay as well as Michael R. Bloomberg. (“He loves my meatballs,” Mrs. Sansone said of Mr. Bloomberg, who also arranged for the photograph of her being hugged by President Barack Obama that will she taped to her refrigerator.)
“Mary passionately believed that will partisan politics should never get inside the way of serving the public,” Mr. Bloomberg said in a statement on Monday.
“She’s very political,” Mr. Giuliani once told Newsday, “as well as when she offers me advice I listen, because she will always tell you the truth.”
When Mr. Giuliani lost his first mayoral race in 1989 to David N. Dinkins, Mrs. Sansone defied convention as well as feted him. “Why give a party to a person who wins?” she said. “He’s happy already.”
Mary Anna Crisallis was born in what is usually at that will point the Carroll Gardens section of Brooklyn on June 12, 1916, to Rocco Crisallis as well as his distant cousin, Martha Crisallis, also an immigrant. Her father came to the United States six months short of being ordained for the priesthood in Italy; instead he became an organizer for the longshoremen’s union. One of her uncles was a gangster.
“My father realized I had an inferiority complex,” she recalled inside the 1976 book “Nobody Speaks for Me! Self-Portraits of American Working Class Women,” by Nancy Seifer. “I had straight black hair; my sister’s was pretty, curly as well as blond. So either you hate yourself as well as you put yourself down, or you try to fight as well as pull yourself up. Because of my father, I fought to better myself.”
Mrs. Sansone began her commitment to social activism as an 8-year-old: Her father placed her atop a soapbox in Manhattan’s Union Square as he addressed potential recruits to the Industrial Workers of the entire world. When she was 12 she joined the Junior Wobblies, as the youth contingent of that will Socialist-inspired labor congress was known.
She enrolled in Textile High School in Manhattan. yet when she sewed the sleeves on a suit jacket upside down, she said, “that will ended my career as a dress designer.”
Mrs. Sansone later took jobs in grimy sweatshops to organize workers for the garment workers union as well as attended the Rand School of Social Science as well as the fresh York School of Social Work, both in Manhattan.
During World War II she worked for the Red Cross, as well as after the war she became the executive secretary of the medical department of American Relief for Italy, a nonprofit group.
In 1949 she married Zachary Sansone, a Brooklyn-born lawyer who had grown up in Naples, Italy, as well as returned to America when he was 32 to work as a shop steward for the longshoremen’s union. He later ran a CIAO program for the elderly.
Mr. Sansone died in 2010. In addition to caring for a dozen foster children at various times, the couple had two children of their own: Ralph, a judge, who died in 1986 in a modest-plane crash; as well as Carmela, a psychologist, who survives her, along with two grandsons.
Mrs. Sansone’s emergence as a community leader evolved through a convergence of introductions, through Ralph Salerno, the former police detective as well as authority on organized crime, to Nicholas Pileggi, who wrote “Wiseguys,” to Mayor Lindsay.
inside the late 1960s, the mayor was wooing white ethnics. Mrs. Sansone was publicly confronting social as well as economic challenges that will her community often preferred not to make public. They needed each some other.
“Italians have that will false pride: If they go on welfare they’d rather die,” she said in 1973. “Many Italian groups did not like us becoming involved with some other ethnic groups. They called us anti-Italian because we wanted to deal on a multiethnic basis.”
At its height, under Mayors Lindsay as well as Giuliani, CIAO, using a multimillion-dollar budget, ran job training, day care, after-school programs, scholarships as well as some other services originally focused on poor as well as uneducated Italian-Americans.
“the item is usually marvelous to see that will the Italian community is usually learning a lesson the black community learned long ago,” Bayard Rustin said in 1975. “Very simply, the item is usually that will the squeaky wheel gets greased.”
Mrs. Sansone’s organization suffered through a drought after the 1977 mayoral race, when she supported Mario M. Cuomo while the rival Brooklyn Democratic organization backed the eventual winner, Edward I. Koch.
Mrs. Sansone was also fired by her board, which accused her of nepotism — which she freely admitted.
“If they’re as qualified as the next person, there’s no reason why if they’re my relatives I should dismiss them,” she said. “During the early days, when some undesirable Italian-American organizations wanted to take us over, they were the only ones I knew I could trust.”
“The programs were taken away through us, yet I learned a valuable lesson through that will experience,” she recalled in her memoir. “Politicians as well as mobsters are exactly the same. If they want to kill you they will, yet they do the item differently.”
Her biggest run-in was with Joseph Colombo, the Mafia leader who formed the Italian-American Civil Rights League to improve the image of Italian-Americans. Mr. Colombo sent a limousine to fetch her. He proposed that will they join forces. Mrs. Sansone refused.
“Needless to say, I didn’t go home inside the limousine,” she said.
“They wanted to kill me,” she said. “Zack said I was too stupid to be afraid.” (Mr. Colombo was gunned down in 1971 at a league rally in Columbus Circle.)
For all her folk wisdom, Mrs. Sansone had a healthy skepticism about human nature. “My father used to say, ‘The masses are asses,’ ” she once said, adding, “as well as I’ve met with people who have two or three degrees as well as know nothing.”
Her strategy in dealing with such people was disarmingly adroit. “I never yelled, I never screamed, as well as I always pretended I was a friend,” she said. “I told them off using a smile.”