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Hard Work, Political Roots Fuel Pelosi’s Rise

Times Staff Writer

When the next Congress convenes in January, two names will be offered in nomination for speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. One will be J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), who will win. The other will be Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), who will lose.

But for one brief moment, for the first time in 213 years of American history, a woman will be seriously offered as a candidate for the most powerful position in Congress, next in line behind the vice president to succeed a fallen president of the United States.

How Nancy Patricia D’Alesandro Pelosi, 62, came to crash this glass ceiling of national political life is a story of family tradition and personal toil.

“I remember her throughout my childhood with a telephone glued to her ear,” said Alexandra, at 32 the youngest of Pelosi’s five children. “In the name of the Democratic Party, she’s been on the phone for 32 years.”

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On Thursday, the 200-plus members of the House’s Democratic Caucus will gather to elect Pelosi as their leader, the first woman on either side of the political aisle in either chamber of Congress to hold that position.

Some say that in picking Pelosi, Democrats are sending the wrong message. She is a committed liberal who opposes President Bush on Iraq and is a consistent, thorny voice in trade debates against human rights violations in China. Detractors say Pelosi is the poster child for San Francisco liberalism and, at a time when Republicans control the White House and Congress, only serves to remind voters of support within the party for such divisive issues as gay marriage, gun control and labor rights.

But Pelosi is also a tireless campaigner -- she stumped in 30 states and 90 congressional districts for this election, and raised about $8 million -- and a pragmatist who believes that the key to winning elections is getting out the vote. Some predict she will be more like liberal but genial House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill (D-Mass.) than like firebrand ideologue Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).

Pelosi signaled her own view of leadership in an exuberant victory announcement Friday. “We will try to find common ground,” she said. “Where we cannot find common ground, we will stand our ground.”

To many who have followed Pelosi’s odyssey, her success brought a feeling of redemption.

“I’ve had 50 years in politics,” said a joyous Roz Wyman, at 72 the doyenne of California Democratic politics. “I drove Helen Gahagan Douglas around in her [1950 Senate] campaign against Richard Nixon. I’ve chaired all of Dianne Feinstein’s campaigns [for San Francisco mayor and U.S. senator]. And I never thought I’d live to see what’s happening. Nancy Pelosi is breaking every ceiling that ever existed.”

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Pelosi’s father, Thomas D’Alesandro Jr., was a legendary political figure in Baltimore’s Little Italy. He served in Congress for five terms. She was the youngest of seven children and the only girl. When she was 7, her father was elected mayor of Baltimore, the first Roman Catholic to hold the post. And he held it for 12 years. Pelosi fills her congressional office with pictures of her father, who died in 1987.

Her childhood was a laboratory of public service. The living room was always filled with bumper stickers, placards and brochures -- except at Christmas or Easter, when the church took priority over politics. “People would come to the door, and they wanted help,” she recalled in a recent interview. “My father always knew how to refer people. And they’d end up having dinner at our house, because they were hungry.”

A mayor’s life is not all heartwarming vignettes. Pelosi recalls that once, during a garbage strike, workers threw garbage all over the front steps -- old orange peels and rotting vegetables. “I thought, ‘What a mean thing to do to my mother,’ ” she said.

Her mother, Nancy, was the real grass-roots organizer. She had wanted to be a lawyer, her granddaughter said, but settled for running the house, the family and the campaigns. Volunteers were often in the basement, organizing elections block by block. “My mother was a boss,” Pelosi said. “She wasn’t one of the boys, but she was a boss.”

Her brother Thomas D’Alesandro III, himself a mayor of Baltimore, put it differently. “My father was a consummate politician, but underneath he was soft,” he said. “My mother was tough. Nancy is tough.”

Her six brothers attended St. Leo’s parochial school, but Nancy was sent to the Institute of Notre Dame. For college, she went 35 miles southwest -- as far away as her parents would allow -- to a women’s school, Trinity College, in Washington. She met Paul F. Pelosi, son of another Catholic political family, when they both took a class at Georgetown University. They married on her graduation in 1963 and moved to New York, where he began a career in banking. But Paul Pelosi wanted to return to his home in California, where his brother served on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. So in 1969, the couple moved west, and Nancy Pelosi began to do volunteer work for the Democratic Party.

From the start, she bonded with local Democrats. “I immediately felt at home,” she said. “I was happy. I was surrounded by Democrats.”

She never considered running for office when her children were small. She had five children -- four daughters and one son -- in six years. “It would have been impossible,” she recalled. “But I was always a hard-working volunteer.”

Her baptism in national politics came in 1976, when Gov. Jerry Brown ran for president. Pelosi, with her connections in Baltimore, helped him pull off a surprise win in Maryland’s Democratic primary. “That’s the episode that took me out of the kitchen and put me into official party responsibilities,” she said.

Within a few years, she became party chairwoman for Northern California, joining forces with the political dynasty of Phillip Burton, who served in Congress for 20 years. When Burton died in 1983, his widow, Sala, won a special election to fill the seat and was twice reelected. When she was dying of cancer in 1987, she urged Pelosi to run for her seat.

It was Pelosi’s closest race. The governor set an early date for the special election. “I only had seven weeks to campaign,” Pelosi has recalled. “We had 100 house parties, and we got 4,000 volunteers to go door to door and to man phone banks. I raised $1 million in seven weeks.”

Her father called every day. She recounted, “He would ask me over and over, ‘Do you have a good organization?’ He taught me that organization is the first lesson in the political primer.”

Finally, Pelosi’s father sent her brother Thomas to check on her. He returned to Baltimore quickly. “Dad,” he told his father, “she’s got a better organization than we ever had.”

In that first election, she won 35% to 31% against Supervisor Harry Britt. She never looked back, routinely winning reelection with roughly 80% of the vote in a district the Political Almanac calls “among the two dozen most Democratic and liberal in the nation.”

She won assignment to the House Intelligence Committee, where she recently pushed for a postmortem on CIA lapses leading up to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and the House Appropriations Committee, where she steers spending toward education and health care.

In January, Pelosi bested Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), an old friend of her family, for minority whip, the No. 2 minority leadership position in the House. Her skill in counting heads stunned Hoyer -- and much of Washington.

“The minute I decided to enter the race, I decided to win,” she said. “I wasn’t going to ask people to support me and do a halfhearted race.”

In the 10 months since assuming that position, she has left a mixed record. Her creation of not one but two political action committees was criticized as an unethical attempt to skirt election spending limits, and she folded one of them. Her support for Rep. Lynn N. Rivers, a Democrat thrown into a redistricted seat in Michigan against a fellow Democrat, veteran Rep. John D. Dingell, also raised eyebrows among those who wondered why she meddled in a primary. (One clue: Dingell had worked hard for Hoyer.) And a New York Times columnist recently rapped her fund-raising activities, saying she helped turn Congress into “a self-lubricating money machine.”

After Democratic losses at the polls on Tuesday, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) announced he would not seek reelection as minority leader. Pelosi found herself competing against Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas) for the top job. The race lasted no more than 48 hours. Frost’s spokesmen were all over the news media, arguing that moderation was better for what ailed the Democrats than liberalism. Pelosi was on the phone, securing her votes. Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.) also threw his hat into the ring Friday, vowing to fight for the post. In a conference call with reporters Saturday, he said, “I’m in this race to win.” But Pelosi has released a list of 111 Democrats who have publicly pledged to support her.

For 32 years, Pelosi crisscrossed the country almost every weekend to be home with her constituents and her husband, a successful businessman who friends say likes to buy her clothes and has been unfailingly supportive. “My dad is the best sport in this,” Alexandra Pelosi said. “They got lucky.”

Of her husband, Pelosi has said, “He understands politics, but he is not particularly political. He’s a businessman. He likes sports. He plays golf and tennis. He’s normal.”

Recently, the Pelosis, who have five grandchildren, bought a condominium on Washington’s harbor in Georgetown, with a dramatic view of the Potomac River. Pelosi has used the venue to entertain supporters, to reward loyalty.

A major chocoholic (a favorite old sweatshirt says, “Hand over the chocolate and nobody will get hurt”), the energetic Pelosi cuts a svelte figure as she races down the halls of Congress, always fashionably dressed and in high heels. Elle magazine has called her “a babe.”

Alexandra Pelosi, who produced a campy documentary for HBO about the 2000 George W. Bush campaign called “Journeys With George,” thinks that this week, when House Democrats crown Nancy Pelosi as their leader, her mother will be getting her political just desserts.

“I often hear male politicians introduce her, and they always say how charming she is,” Alexandra Pelosi said. “They never say how hard-working she is. Well, she’s worked harder than anybody else. She’s earned it.”

In speeches, Pelosi has recalled her first visit to the White House as part of the congressional leadership team that regularly meets with the president. Seated at a table with Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and all the other power brokers of Congress, she suddenly became aware that she was the only woman at the table.

She tried to remember Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and other pioneering women in politics who had made her presence possible. “I could almost hear them say, ‘At least we have a seat at the table,’ ” she recalled. “Of course my first thought was, ‘We want more.’ ”

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