Madam Speaker? Pelosi Likes the Sound
It’s only 9 a.m. and Nancy Pelosi has already had two breakfasts and a bowl of chocolate ice cream. The House minority leader has met with a couple of donors in a hotel dining room, run back up to her room for a live radio interview, down to the dining room again for a sit-down with the local newspapers, and up to her room for a phone strategy session.
She is, as ever, exquisitely dressed, in a stylish pale-green suit that she will wear three times in the next three days. Packing light saves time. Everything must fit into one carry-on and a garment bag, which she lugs herself, clacking across airports in her high heels.
With less than three weeks before an election that will decide control of Congress, the Democrats are within tantalizing reach of a House win that would almost certainly make Pelosi the first female speaker of the House -- second in line to the presidency -- and the first from California.
They need to gain 15 seats to take control, and Pelosi falls asleep at night crunching the numbers. It is her single burning obsession to lead her party to victory, and she devotes nearly every waking minute to it, coaching candidates, raising money and calculating in which districts to spend it.
In three years as minority leader she has raised record amounts of cash and preached party unity that has helped bring 201 unruly Democrats to the brink of power.
Yet Pelosi is not necessarily the public face most Democrats would have chosen to represent a party struggling to look strong in these unsettled times -- a 66-year-old liberal congresswoman from war-protesting San Francisco who looks too demure to stand up for national security and isn’t great on TV.
Republican ad campaigns cast her as a caricature of liberal excess; depicted with eyes bulging and mouth agape, she looks like she’s about to pop a blood vessel or bite somebody.
“Look, if I weren’t effective, I don’t think they would try to take me down. You’re in the arena, you’re in the ring. That’s what happens,” Pelosi says on the way to another fundraiser as she crisscrosses the country, her cellphone affixed to her ear in the car, at breakfast and in the beauty salon, where she recently dropped it into a pedicure bowl.
She has raised more money than any congressional Democrat -- $100 million since she was elected leader nearly four years ago -- half of it in this election cycle alone, tapping her wealthy ideological soul mates and cultivating small donors with direct mail and the Internet.
She brought vases of white lilies to the minority leader’s office, but also a discipline that Democrats had not seen in years, threatening consequences for anyone who strayed from the party line. The result was unity 88% of the time on such votes as energy policy and President Bush’s budget. The famously unified Republicans did only slightly better.
“Prior leadership did not discipline the troops in the way Nancy has,” said Vic Fazio, a former Democratic congressman from West Sacramento, now a Washington lobbyist. “And she brought a lot of new donors to the table.”
Pelosi proved herself in the backrooms and trenches of Washington, not on the Sunday morning talking-heads circuit. She tends to speak in scripted talking points -- one columnist likened her delivery to “a compendium of bumper stickers.” She leans toward mind-numbing alliteration: The only three excuses for breaking from the party line are “conscience, constituents, Constitution.”
Most agree she has improved with practice and occasional guidance from media coaches to slow down and smile. She was more relaxed during a recent appearance on the “Late Show With David Letterman” and drew applause more than once with jabs such as: “Mr. President, ‘stay the course’ is not a strategy, it’s a slogan, and we need more than that.”
Unlike previous party leaders from both sides -- Democrat Richard Gephardt and Republican Newt Gingrich, most notably -- Pelosi isn’t running for president. Her raucous but loyal district has sent her to Washington 10 times, by margins so huge that she doesn’t campaign; she’s never needed national exposure and says she would rather spend her time promoting her party than herself.
“I could stay in Washington all the time and go on Sunday morning shows, but I don’t have time for that. I need to be traveling and raising money and be at home,” she says from the back seat of a black SUV on her way to yet another fundraiser. “At the beginning of all this 23 months ago, we were told we were a permanent minority.... I’m fighting a battle here. I’m not getting my hair done.”
Pelosi learned her political skills from her father, Thomas D’Alesandro Jr., a New Deal congressman and revered mayor of Baltimore. He taught “little Nancy” -- one of six children and the only girl -- how to build a grass-roots campaign, cultivate relationships and call in favors. In the living room of their brick row house there were usually constituents looking for work or a financial assist -- along with the now-famous “favor file” that kept track of every good deed; it was consulted when her father or the party needed help in return.
Her time-management skills were honed on another training ground: the San Francisco home where she and her husband, Paul Pelosi, a wealthy investment banker and her college sweetheart, raised four girls and a boy, born in six years. Nancy Pelosi was the driver, cook, Halloween-costume seamstress and disciplinarian -- putting out fires and making every minute count, not unlike life in Congress.
While the children were small, Pelosi served as California state party chair and learned the art of raising money. People would ask how she managed to do so much with so many kids. “I told them I couldn’t have done it without the children,” Pelosi says now.
Each one had a job addressing envelopes, stuffing, sealing and stamping. Their hard work at the Democratic Party office earned them a bowl of French onion soup across the street at the old Liberty House department store in San Francisco. Not to mention occasional recognition at church, where they belted out: “He’s got the stuffers and the sealers, in his hands ... “
Raising her children taught Pelosi to think strategically, whether putting together a puzzle with her grandchildren at the family’s Napa Valley vacation home (sort by color and edges and consult the picture on the box) or plotting to foil Bush’s plan to privatize Social Security (kick him in the shins and give him nothing to attack).
Acting on advice from marketing gurus after the 2004 presidential election, Pelosi ordered her ranks to assail the Bush privatization plan while offering nothing of their own that the Republicans could counterassault. Week after week impatient Democrats asked, “When can we propose a plan?” and week after week she intoned, “Never.”
When the Bush team visited 60 cities in 60 days to sell Medicare prescription coverage -- the centerpiece of his second term -- Democrats were on the ground too, with a message of higher drug costs and industry perks.
In eight months, support for Bush’s idea among seniors had dropped significantly, marking the beginning of his decline in national public opinion polls.
“We had to make them pay ... for trying to do that to the American people,” she explains, displaying the bite that has made her reputation as a political pit bull.
It is a side of Pelosi that has earned her both admirers and detractors, depending on who happens to be on the receiving end of her wrath. She is known to have a long memory for slights. A bitter and protracted House leadership battle with Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) has left lasting divisions between her backers and his.
“About 75% of the caucus are her rabid supporters, the other 25% not so supportive,” one senior Democrat said, asking to remain anonymous to avoid offending the leadership. “A lot of people just don’t like to be led. And to some degree, people perceive her as being too focused on her enemies and not sufficiently willing to open up a new dialogue and move on.”
Some believe Pelosi is held to a higher standard in maledominated Washington. When the men in the leadership stick to talking points, they are “on message.” When Pelosi does, she is redundant and shrill.
“There is still a double standard,” said Democratic strategist Anita Dunn, who has given Pelosi tips on media presence. “There have been some comb-over jokes about male members of Congress, but by and large people just accept what they look and sound like. That is still not the case with females.”
Though she is probably the second most lampooned woman in U.S. politics -- after Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) -- Pelosi is far from a household name. “I don’t think most people know who I am,” she says.
That could change in one historic moment if Pelosi is pulled from the trenches and plopped into the spotlight.
She sees it as an opportunity to change the culture of Washington.
“I think the fact that I am a woman will raise expectations in terms of more hope in government, and I will not disappoint,” she says.
“The gavel of the speaker of the House is in the hands of special interests, and now it will be in the hands of America’s children. I don’t mean to imply my male colleagues will have any less integrity.... But I don’t know that a man can say that as easily as a woman can.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
1940: Born Nancy D’Alesandro in Baltimore; her father served five terms in Congress ending in 1947, then 12 years as Baltimore mayor
1962: Graduates from Trinity College (now called Trinity University), Washington, D.C.
1977-1981: Northern chair, California Democratic Party
1981-1983: State chair, California Democratic Party
1985-1987: Finance chair, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee
1987-present: Elected by California’s 8th Congressional District, which includes most of San Francisco; served for 10 years (until early 2003) on the intelligence committee
2001: Elected minority whip by House Democrats
Oct. 2002: Leads Democratic faction opposed to authorizing military force in Iraq, bucking the House Democratic leader
Nov. 2002: Elected minority leader by House Democrats
Nov. 2004: Democrats lose House seats as Bush wins reelection
Sources: Almanac of American Politics 2006; office of Nancy Pelosi
Los Angeles Times