Even before the convention began, the Order Sons of Italy Grand Lodge of California was on pins and needles. There was going to be a change—a transition of power—and for the first time in recent memory, nobody knew how it was going to turn out.
The delegates from the so-called filial lodges that make up the Grand Lodge of California began arriving early at the Doubletree Hotel in Sacramento, where the convention was to be held. Though the official kick-off was not until Thursday, the hotel started to fill up as early as Monday with delegates, officers, and guests in anticipation of the annual convention. The whispers and campaigning that had up to that point been confined to private conversations began to be discussed in groups for the first time.
The administration of two-term State President Maria Fassio Pignati was winding down, and in the wings, waiting to step up to assume the office, was the next State President. Ordinarily, there would be no question as to who that would be. This time was different.
For as long as many delegates could remember, the State First Vice President was unanimously elected to the top job when the incumbent stepped down at the end of their term. Not this time. This time there were two people who were hoping to occupy the big chair. It was the first contested election for the State Presidency in many years.
First Vice President Lynn Lawrence-Murphy was, of course, one of the candidates. The other was Second Vice President Pauline Richmond. One was from Northern California and the other from Southern California, but when asked how that affected their choice, every delegate said that it didn’t matter at all, and many pointed out that there have been an almost equal number of State Presidents from both north and south.
Few wanted to express their preference out loud. Nobody wanted to be the person who publicly came out against whoever would come in second. “They are both equally qualified, and I love them both,” said one delegate. When asked who she thought would be elected, State President Maria Fassio Pignati responded with a diplomatic yet clearly sincere answer. “I have known both of these women for many, many years. They are both completely qualified and one hundred percent dedicated to the Order. I would be comfortable with either one of them being elected.”
But there were very few who were comfortable going into the election. There was an uneasiness that everyone could feel in the air. There were two candidates that everyone in the room cared deeply about, and one of them was about to be disappointed.
As the time for the election rolled around, the tension began to show on the faces of the delegates and officers assembled. In most elections, both candidates put on a good face and express their confidence that they will be elected. On this election morning, it was clear that even the candidates themselves were thinking more about the possibility of their opponent being disappointed than about their own victory.
Later that afternoon, State President Maria Fassio Pignati announced that it was time to hear the results of the election. The results of other offices were read first. The room fell silent; every head was down. Most in the room were writing, as if to take note of the numbers, though it was clear that they were just nervously scribbling. When the announcement was made, it took a full two beats before anyone reacted. Out of 165 delegates, the election was decided by a difference of only eleven votes.
The two candidates, sitting at the front of the room facing the delegates, paused, and then Lynn Lawrence-Murphy reacted with unfeigned shock as she realized that she had been elected State President of the Grand Lodge of California. Almost immediately, a smile brightened the face of Pauline Richmond, as she turned to her left and congratulated her opponent on her victory.
As the newly-elected State President accepted the applause of the standing delegates, outgoing State President Maria Fassio Pignati led the other officers on the platform as they individually hugged Pauline Richmond. For her part, Richmond seemed more relieved than disappointed. The election was over, and the tension had finally subsided. “We’re a fraternity. We’re all on the same team,” she said.
The rest of the convention was predictable, but it was a welcome predictability. There were more business meetings, and subjects that would be considered boring to outsiders but of immense interest to the delegates were discussed at length. At the end of each day, everyone retired to their rooms and emerged a couple hours later dressed to the nines for dinner, entertainment, and fraternal camaraderie.
Everyone was now free to laugh at the Dean Martin impersonator, enjoy the musical entertainment, and proudly watch one high school student after another come forward to accept one of the many scholarships that were handed out.
At the far end of the head table sat the now Immediate Past President, Maria Fassio Pignati. She seemed a bit out of place that far from the center of things where she had been for the past four years. But when asked how she was feeling, here reply was swift and confident: “I feel relieved, happy, and excited about the future of the Order.”