Who defines Pelosi? Just ask Pelosi

Times Staff Writer

When Nancy Pelosi appeared on national television on the morning after voters returned the House to Democratic hands, Leon Rebibo's phone started ringing in Los Angeles.

A pearl wholesaler, Rebibo fielded calls from more than four dozen women of all political stripes who wanted a muted, multicolor strand of South Sea Tahitian pearls, just like the one Pelosi was wearing.

"I'm very disappointed the Democrats won, but I absolutely love her necklace. If my husband hears me, he's going to kill me," Rebibo recalled one Republican woman whispering into the phone.

As Pelosi prepares to be sworn in Jan. 4 as the first female speaker of the House, she has become an object of fascination and curiosity in political circles and beyond. Barbara Walters interviewed her as one of the year's 10 most fascinating people. People magazine has written about her twice in recent weeks. An article in a Palm Springs newspaper ran with the headline: "How To Get the Nancy Pelosi Look." (Answer: an Armani suit.)

Only weeks ago, Republicans were doing their best in the heat of the campaign to paint Pelosi, 66, as a conservative's nightmare -- a San Francisco liberal out of touch with the American mainstream. But more recently, a poll measuring political charisma showed that she had "dramatically improved her standing" with the public, sponsors of the survey said, with voters knowing her better and feeling warmer toward her.

Now Pelosi is planning a series of events to commemorate her swearing-in as the senior official in the House, second in the line of succession. The events in the first week of January will try to plant Pelosi's version of her life story in the national consciousness, showing her as an Italian American and devout Catholic from Baltimore, who married her college sweetheart, raised five children, ran for Congress in middle-age and shattered a Washington gender barrier days before her sixth grandchild was born.

The impending inauguration kicks off the contest over who will define Nancy Pelosi: Republicans who see her as a reckless liberal, or Pelosi herself, who wants to be seen as an American Everywoman, leading her party on a steady course to the center.

"She is trying to dispatch the stereotype put forth by Republicans," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. "The advantage she has is the country didn't know her before. Her challenge will be to take votes cast against Republicans and the war in Iraq and transform them into votes for the Democratic Party in 2008."

Though the details are in flux, plans are to begin the celebration Jan. 2 with a luncheon in Pelosi's hometown of Baltimore, reminding people she is not just a wealthy San Francisco matron but also the daughter of Thomas D'Alesandro Jr., a beloved Maryland congressman and Baltimore mayor.

The next day will include Mass at Trinity College in Washington, a nod to her alma mater and her faith. A tea will follow for female Democratic activists, lawmakers and donors. It will celebrate the 110th Congress, which convenes with the highest number of women in U.S. history.

The day will be capped by a dinner at the Italian Embassy -- Pelosi is also the first Italian American speaker -- where Tony Bennett is slated to sing -- what else? -- "I Left My Heart in San Francisco."

The Jan. 4 gavel-passing will officially install her as speaker, the highest office ever attained by a female elected official in the U.S. She will set out her agenda in a speech to the House, then avail herself for the traditional photo session that gives the 434 other House members and their families a chance to have their picture taken with Pelosi pretending to swear them in.

The day ends with a 3,000-seat black-tie dinner and concert, with scheduled performances by Carole King and Jimmy Buffett, among others. Invited glitterati include Warren Beatty and Annette Bening, said Brian Quintana, a Malibu producer involved in the planning.

On Friday, a "People's House" event is planned at the Capitol, where Pelosi will meet and thank a broader group of well-wishers. The business of Congress will proceed in between, with Pelosi convening the House to launch the much-promoted "First 100 Hours" agenda that includes ethics reforms and a minimum-wage increase.

"Nancy Pelosi wanted a humble swearing-in and to go about the people's business," Quintana said. "Then, calls started coming in from all over the country. She decided we needed to thank the people who helped her get here."

The cost of the events will be covered by campaign donations, except the Friday morning People's House, which is paid for by congressional funds.

Four months ago, Pelosi barely registered on the name recognition scale, which served her well at the time; GOP attempts to demonize her fell flat because few knew who she was.

Now many more do.

"This is a dangerous time in terms of public reception. She has the newsworthiness but not the power," said former Democratic strategist Paul Begala. The introduction thus far has been bumpy. She stumbled when House Democrats rejected her choice of Rep. John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania as majority leader. In pushing Murtha, Pelosi stirred up a divisive flap that muted the big moment when House Democrats formally made her their leader.

Having spent years watching her party outmaneuvered in the message wars, Pelosi is soliciting advice from former Clinton White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry, one of the Democrats' most respected communication strategists.

Plans are also afloat to move the main communications operation from the speaker's office to incoming Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel of Illinois. He would handle party message and rapid response.

Meanwhile, all eyes are on Pelosi.

On Friday, Leon Rebibo's Pearl Source in Los Angeles unveiled "The Nancy Pelosi" -- a replica of her Tahitian pearls. They will sell for $5,999 -- a bargain compared with what Rebibo figures the real thing is worth.

faye.fiore@latimes.com

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