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When Politics Was Personal

Written by Joe Russo  • March 17, 2016

Editor’s Note:  Joe Russo is a “Nortsider”, a retired teacher, and an aspiring writer. We’ve asked him to share his stories of the past and offer his perspective on the present and future of our neighborhood. His posts will appear each month under the category, “Old Times on the Northside.”

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One of the things I loved about the old Northside was that everyone knew everyone. Even when it came to politics the person running for office was the father or the son of someone very familiar. This was of course before social media. Eye contact and an actual conversation with the person sitting next to you were considered normal. I had lunch a couple weeks ago with Nick Pirro at the Franklin Grill on North Salina Street. It didn’t take long to start talking about the old Northside of the 1950’s and 1960’s. Nick first started out talking about spending time at the Cozy Retreat, everybody’s favorite hangout.

Nick lived on McBride Street just a block up the hill from Our Lady of Pompei School. One of the rights of passage for the Northside was that the older kids in the neighborhood walked the younger kids to school. Nick lived a couple of doors away from Joey DiMento. Joey’s older brother Louie was on the Safety Patrol and had to get to school early. Nick’s Mom informed him that he would have to walk young Joey to school. Nick of course complained and resisted but it was the 1950’s and when Momma told you to do something, you did it.

I wanted to hear about Nick’s early days in politics first as a County Supervisor, then as a Legislator and ultimately as the Onondaga County Executive. When Nick first began thinking about his campaign he sought advice about coming up with a memento he could leave with potential voters. Tarky Lombardi, an early mentor, recommended he put his name on a pot holder and hand them out. Not photos or pamphlets listing positions and accomplishments but a kitchen item. Well this was the northside, a neighborhood where most of the family time was spent in the kitchen. And right there hanging on the wall was a pot holder with Nick Pirro’s name on it. Nothing in the kitchen smelled or tasted better than Momma’s sauce. If you’re looking for positive thoughts being associated with a candidate’s name, then there really is nothing better than a pot of bubbling sauce under a pot holder with your name on it.

Walking through a neighborhood has its joys and its perils. During one of his reelection campaigns Nick came to a two story house with a dark hallway leading to a stairway that went to the second floor. He knocked on the door and gave out a holler to announce his arrival. Suddenly, he sensed something moving in the shadows. It was a dog moving quickly with malintent. Nick wasn’t able to exit quickly enough and close the door. The dog had his pant leg clinched in his teeth. The canine’s owner slowly came outside. And as he watched Nick struggle to shake the dog off his leg the owner dryly said, “don’t worry he doesn’t bite.” He, apparently, was not at all concerned that his dog’s teeth were locked on another man’s pants.

On another occasion Nick stepped up to the front door of a prospective voter, rang the doorbell, and leaned against a post holding up a small roof. As he waited the post moved and the roof tilted downward. Suddenly the door opened and there was the homeowner looking at Nick. Nick nervously held on to the post while waiting for the worst possible outcome. The homeowner, however, said, “Oh, don’t worry about it. It’s been like that for a while.” Together they secured the post and the roof and Nick asked for the man’s vote.

Nick’s ability to maintain relationships in an environment where things often did not go as planned carried over to his day-to-day job first as a county supervisor, then as a legislator. After being elected the first thing Nick did was meet with all the department heads of city agencies. His purpose was to build a relationship before any problems popped up. As any old time Northsider will tell you one never knows where or when problems will happen. But if you remain calm solutions will find you. Sounds like a recipe for success.

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