Even six months after Donald Trump won the White House, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi doesn’t want to talk about election night, preferring to fast-forward to what happened the next day.
That Wednesday morning was hard for Democrats. Many were so disheartened by Trump’s defeat of Hillary Clinton that they stayed up all night crying. Pelosi knew what to expect.
“Usually after an election when you don’t win, it’s very silent. Nobody calls,” Pelosi recalled during an interview in her bright yellow office steps from the House floor.
To her surprise, the phone started ringing. And it didn’t stop.
“We were overwhelmed, inundated by people saying, ‘This is urgent. What can we do to help?’” she said.
“People just showing up,” she continued, pointing to the spontaneous protests in the following weeks at airports, the Supreme Court and town hall meetings. “And the minute they showed up, they saw their power. And they continued to show up.”
The 77-year-old party leader, who had mused privately about retiring if Clinton had won, quickly reverted to the role she first mastered as a stay-at-home mom more than 30 years ago organizing Democrats from the kitchen table of her San Francisco home.
Rather than step aside for a new generation of young leaders, as many have nudged Pelosi to do, the first woman to ever lead a major party in Congress – and hold the speaker’s gavel — returned to work to marshal the opposition to President Trump.
In fact, she sees her current role as minority leader under a Republican president in some ways as more influential than when she served as House speaker under a Democratic president.
“You get a Democratic president and you’re the speaker, nobody cares what you have to say unless you’re disagreeing with the president,” Pelosi said. “You get a Republican president — boom — they care what you think, how you’re going to negotiate this or that.… You’re the voice of the opposition.”
Pelosi is no stranger to the bruising street battles of politics. Despite her image as the wealthy grand dame of the liberal left and a fundraising powerhouse, she is also a brawler who relishes being on the winning side of a good fight.
The Italian daughter of a Baltimore mayor, she is now an irrepressible Californian — “heaven on Earth,” as she calls the Golden State, “the source of all good ideas.”
Helping herself to the bowl of Ghirardelli chocolate squares on her conference table, Pelosi noted that she rose through the ranks in the House and knows the grass roots “down to the last blade.”
Those fighter instincts now sense an opportunity for Democrats to make gains on retaking the House majority they lost in 2010 as Republicans cope with the sagging appeal of Trump’s brand and backlash from an unpopular House vote to gut the Affordable Care Act.
Even traditional Republican strongholds, such as the congressional seat to be filled next month in a suburban Atlanta special election, are suddenly in play.
“Republicans shouldn’t even have to do this,” Pelosi said dismissively, lifting the empty chocolate wrapper with the tip of her pinky finger to demonstrate how easy the Georgia race should be for the GOP. “And now they’re sweating it out.”
But the challenge for Pelosi is whether she will ride this new wave of grass-roots activism back into the speakership, or get swallowed by it, as Republican former Speaker John A. Boehner did when a new generation of tea party conservatives forced him into early retirement in 2015.
Pelosi has been at it longer than most, leading Democrats for nearly 15 years, more than any other House Democrat except legendary Texan Sam Rayburn, who has an office building named after him across from the Capitol.
So far, she seems to be having an easier time holding Democrats in line to fight Trump than her Republican counterparts did confronting then-President Obama.
Last month Democrats leveraged their minority status to cut an unexpectedly good deal with Republicans on spending, brushing off Trump’s insistence on money for a border wall with Mexico and locking out other GOP priorities.
And she held Democrats firmly against the Republican effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act – not a single Democrat joined Republicans in passing the bill last week, which advanced with only a two-vote margin.
Democrats taunted Republicans after the Obamacare vote, singing, “Hey, hey, hey! Goodbye!” an outburst on the House floor that was widely panned as inappropriate. Pelosi, though, set the tone in a speech before the vote, warning ominously that Republicans would “glow in the dark” with their votes “tattooed on [their] foreheads.” Campaigns immediately launched against Republicans in left-leaning districts who supported the bill.
But the same Washington savvy and longevity that has made Pelosi such a threat to Republicans also makes her vulnerable to the highly energized, but largely decentralized, grass-roots resistance movement that emerged in opposition to Trump.
Just as Trump supporters were drawn to an outsider, many of these increasingly progressive Democrats — some backed Sen. Bernie Sanders over Clinton in the primary— are calling for new faces and approaches, frustrated by what they see as entrenched party leaders. Some wanted Democrats to fight harder to stop the healthcare vote, holding up passage of the spending bill as leverage.
“Nancy Pelosi is out of step with Democratic voters, esp. in SF,” tweeted Stephen Jaffe, a Sanders supporter who is launching an uphill primary challenge against Pelosi in her home district. His website proclaims, “We are all socialists.”
And as usual, Pelosi is also the target of familiar attacks from Republicans, who have long used the San Francisco liberal as a symbol of everything they see as wrong with the left. Pelosi’s name and image have popped up in campaign ads for the spring special elections in Kansas, Georgia and Montana, with more planned as Republicans try to retain their majority in 2018.
“She’s still a Democratic bogeyman, so to speak, and I don’t think that’s going away any time soon,” said Jesse Hunt, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Pelosi dismisses such criticism even as she embraces the spirit of the new resistance.
“You’re telling me I’m not liberal? I’m from San Francisco,” she says with a laugh, incredulous. “But I respect it so much — and I actually thrive on it — and I like the idea that they’re relentless, persistent and dissatisfied, because that’s what a democracy is about. It’s not a necessarily orderly kind of predictable thing.”
Supporters warn it’s best not to bet against Pelosi, noting that the last time she was in this role, in 2005 as the minority leader under a Republican president, she engineered the takeover to become House speaker.
“She’s been around politics long enough to know people don’t have to agree with you, but they have to be engaged,” said John Lawrence, her former chief of staff, who spent 40 years on Capitol Hill and now is a visiting professor at the University of California’s annex in Washington.
Many Democrats see today’s political landscape as reminiscent of 2005, when President Bush saw his popularity tumble amid the ongoing conflict in Iraq and his proposal to privatize Social Security.
Democrats hope the recent GOP effort to repeal Obamacare will bring a similar backlash against Republicans.
House Republicans now hold 23 seats in districts that Clinton won in 2016, and 10 more that she narrowly lost, putting those seats within reach for Democratic challengers. Pelosi needs to turn 24 seats and hold on to what Democrats have now to win back the speakership.
Asked whether she is having fun in her new role, Pelosi said, “We all take satisfaction in our work.”
“Is it fun?” she added, mulling over the question. “No, it’s fun to be in the majority. Now you’re talking fun. Now you’re talking a good time.”