House Democrats on Wednesday named Rep. Nancy Pelosi as party whip, their No. 2 post, bringing a Californian into the highest ranks of congressional leadership for the first time in a dozen years and a woman for the first time ever.
Capitalizing on a rare opportunity to vault into the upper echelon of House Democratic leadership, Pelosi defeated Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, 118 to 95, in a vote lawmakers held behind closed doors on Capitol Hill. She will replace the current House minority whip, Rep. David E. Bonior, when he steps aside on Jan. 15 to run for governor of Michigan.
After the votes were counted, a beaming Pelosi emerged from the Democratic caucus in the Cannon House building surrounded by a phalanx of Democrats eager to tout their new whip. There were Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, the minority leader, and Bonior, both 13-term veterans of many partisan wars.
There were jubilant Californians and an array of other party leaders. And there was Hoyer to shake Pelosi’s hand and offer a congratulatory kiss on the cheek. “She’s going to be a giant,” Gephardt proclaimed.
The election thrust Pelosi, a formidable fund-raiser and senior legislator who has represented San Francisco in the House for the last 14 years, into a prominent role on the national political stage. The ascendance of Pelosi, the scion of a prominent Democratic Party family, comes at a delicate moment for her party.
Democrats find themselves compelled to cooperate with President Bush in a new and unpredictable war on terrorism, but they also long to resume political combat with the GOP in their quest to retake the House majority in the 2002 elections. Republicans now control the House by a bare 219-210 margin, with four seats vacant and two held by independents.
By choosing Pelosi for whip, Democrats were guaranteed a burst of favorable coverage about the woman who has set an important political precedent. Several female lawmakers from both major parties--and, for that matter, black and Latino lawmakers--have held mid-level leadership posts in Congress in recent years, but none has ever been a party whip or leader.
Pelosi relished the milestone but acknowledged that attention would rapidly shift to her influence on the party’s legislative record and showing at the ballot.
“We made history,” she told reporters after the vote. “Now, we have to make progress.”
In sketching her immediate priorities, Pelosi did not deviate from the line taken by Gephardt. Focus on the economic worries of workers at a time of growing layoffs, she said, but stand with Bush in the diplomatic and military campaign against terrorism launched after the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Pelosi’s victory over Hoyer was a reminder that the Democratic caucus remains solidly liberal. While she prefers to call herself a “progressive"--and she managed to garner the support of a number of influential Democratic moderates and conservatives--Pelosi’s politics are a shade to the left of Hoyer’s.
The Maryland Democrat, who represents a swing suburban district, had campaigned as a bridge-builder. Pelosi’s challenge now will be to convince a rising number of centrists in her party that a San Francisco Democrat is not necessarily a knee-jerk liberal.
By any measure, though, her victory was a coup for California, which with 52 representatives--32 of them Democrats--has by far the biggest House delegation. The state’s delegation will grow to 53 after the next election to account for growth in the 2000 census. That’s 12% of the entire House.
Mindful that she is the first Californian to hold such a high congressional post since Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Merced) resigned as House majority whip in 1989, Pelosi also pledged to bring the viewpoint of the nation’s most populous state--what she called “an entrepreneurial spirit"--to inside-the-Beltway debates.
“It’s good for the country,” Pelosi said. “California is so huge. What we are experiencing there is important for the rest of the country to know.”
Pelosi’s new job has its origins in the 18th century English Parliament. There, the legislative “whip” was referred to as a figure akin to the “whipper-in” of fox hunts, a person responsible for keeping the hounds in a pack during the chase. Bonior, who has held the Democratic position since 1991, gave Pelosi a black leather whip Wednesday as a symbol of the office.
In modern times, party whips have been responsible for gathering legislative intelligence, counting noses and maintaining party discipline on important floor votes. They are the chief lieutenants to floor leaders. Five former whips in the last half-century have risen to become House speaker, including Republican Newt Gingrich and Democrat Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr.
Pelosi’s ability to keep accurate counts was evident Wednesday. Before the election, in which 210 Democratic representatives and five nonvoting delegates were eligible to cast secret ballots, Pelosi predicted that she would gain at least 120 votes. She fell short by just two.
Pelosi drew on a deep base in California: Thirty of the state’s 32 Democratic representatives publicly endorsed her. She also commanded support from about three quarters of the 45 women in the Democratic caucus.
But she drew backing from many other quarters. Lawmakers have been impressed by her ability to raise millions of dollars in recent years for Democratic causes. Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas), who first befriended Pelosi in 1984 during a national party convention in San Francisco, said: “The way she organized this campaign, the way she does fund-raising, is what we need to win back the majority.”
Hoyer supporters, who included many of the party’s centrists and conservatives, immediately closed ranks behind the victor. “She’s a great leader, projects wonderfully well for the Democratic Party, is such a warm, genuine person,” said Rep. John M. Spratt Jr. (D-S.C.), who backed the Maryland Democrat. “It was a close choice.”
Pelosi, 61, has developed wide contacts in the House and elsewhere in Washington during a political career rooted in her own family’s experience. Her father and brother were mayors of Baltimore, and her father also served in the House. She came to the House in 1987 after winning a special election to fill the San Francisco seat after the death of Rep. Sala Burton.
In the House, Pelosi rose to a senior position on the Appropriations Committee, a perch that enabled her to steer spending toward priorities, such as funding to fight AIDS. She was, until this year, the leading Democrat on the foreign operations spending bill, and is now ranking minority member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. In that position, she is privy to highly sensitive information about the Bush administration’s counter-terrorism campaign through classified briefings from U.S. officials.
On crucial bread-and-butter issues, Pelosi is known as a reliably liberal Democrat. Her record shows her voting to expand rights for managed-care patients and increase the minimum wage, and voting against this year’s Bush budget and tax cuts. She supports abortion rights and gun control. A longtime advocate for human rights in China, Pelosi opposed the landmark bill in 2000 to normalize trade relations with Beijing. But she supported the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993.
Women’s groups, especially those aligned with Pelosi’s politics, were overjoyed at her ascendance.
“Whoo-hoo!” exclaimed Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women. “It’s a breakthrough for women. Her election to this post gives real hope to women who aspire to positions of public leadership.”