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Pelosi’s liberal label is all relative

Times Staff Writer

To much of the country, Nancy Pelosi is the liberal embodiment of a city as crazy as its near-vertical hills. But here at home, the Democratic House leader is seen as something else: sober, centrist and very much a part of the political establishment, for good or bad.

For five years, ever since she entered the congressional leadership, Pelosi has balanced the interests of 200-plus colleagues of varied philosophies with the demands of a district about as far left politically as it is geographically.

Now she is within hailing distance of history; if Democrats win control of the House on Nov. 7, she would be the first woman ever to serve as speaker.

Her success is all the more striking given the persistent through-the-looking-glass quality of San Francisco politics. Where else would Willie Brown be elected as the moderate candidate for mayor? Or dignitaries clamor for a place among the drag queens and genitalia celebrated in the annual Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Parade?

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In 2004, Sen. John F. Kerry won 62% of the presidential vote at home in Massachusetts. Here, he garnered 85%.

“If there’s a stereotype of California as the ‘Left Coast,’ San Francisco is the epicenter,” said pollster Mark DiCamillo.

“Many ‘moderates’ in San Francisco would be burned as witches elsewhere,” agreed Alex Clemens, a local media and campaign consultant.

It is easy to lampoon San Francisco as the world’s largest open-air asylum, as conservatives, in particular, are wont to do. On Nov. 7, the day the nation decides control of Congress, voters here will weigh an initiative making it official city policy to seek the ouster of President Bush and Vice President Cheney. This after the pair ignored a ballot measure two years ago demanding an immediate U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.

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But San Francisco is also a tough political town, more like New York or Boston than any West Coast city. Campaigns, a widely appreciated form of civic theater, are personal and often vicious.

The first time Pelosi, a longtime Democratic activist, ran for Congress, billboards across the city mocked her as “the party girl of the party.” She squeaked to victory -- thanks, in an exquisite footnote, to the crossover support of San Francisco’s Republicans, who found Pelosi less objectionable than her even more liberal opponent.

Since that 1987 race, Pelosi has routinely won reelection with 80% or more of the vote, freeing her to travel the country and pay the dues needed to climb the congressional ladder -- and, she hopes, elect enough Democrats in November to make her third in line to the presidency.

Not that everyone here welcomes the prospect. Even as Republicans across the country vilify Pelosi as the face of the lunatic left, here she faces the enmity of the fire-breathing liberals she supposedly represents. Only in San Francisco would Pelosi be picketed as a right-wing warmonger, as she was at a January town hall meeting overrun by protesters who jeered her refusal to cut off funds for U.S. troops in Iraq. There is “always a group that you don’t go far enough with,” Pelosi said with a shrug a few days later.

Given the intensity of political combat, it is probably no accident that so many of California’s elected leaders -- from Hiram Johnson to Pat Brown to Dianne Feinstein -- emerged from San Francisco’s 47 square miles of volatility. (Sen. Feinstein, a liberal by most standards, is another politician seen by the San Francisco left as too cozy with business and a bit of a prig.)

“Every two blocks has its own special-interest group or political club or advocacy organization,” said Clemens, exaggerating only slightly. “Those who survive tend to have thick skins, quick minds and a halfway decent sense of humor.”

San Francisco, with its seafaring roots in the Gold Rush, has long been a harbor for those of a different ilk: the beatniks of North Beach, the hippies of Haight-Ashbury, the gays and lesbians who transformed the Castro district. But it was not always a Democratic fortress. Just about 30 years ago, a staunchly conservative city supervisor named John Barbagelata came within a whisker of being elected mayor in a brutal election widely viewed as a political watershed. He was defeated by liberal George Moscone, who threw City Hall open to women, gays and other disenfranchised minorities.

That, in turn, hastened the city’s leftward shift, which continued even after Moscone’s November 1978 assassination by Supervisor Dan White, an avenger of the city’s fading old guard. “His mayoralty was the critical break point,” said Richard DeLeon, an author and political scientist at San Francisco State University.

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Pelosi, a Democratic fixture for nearly 40 years, represents everywhere but the southwest corner of the city. Chinatown, Nob Hill, North Beach and other landmarks are all part of her domain. Even as she built a national profile, her staff worked hard on the nuts and bolts of constituent service -- chasing tardy Social Security checks and the like -- helping secure Pelosi’s hold on the district.

Pelosi has compiled a reliably liberal voting record over the years, supporting legal abortion with few restrictions, stiffer gun control, gay rights and a needle-exchange program to prevent the spread of AIDS. She opposed welfare reform and voted against the 1991 Persian Gulf War and the October 2002 resolution authorizing the invasion of Iraq.

But to critics on the left, Pelosi is a sellout who “can talk the talk [but] doesn’t walk the walk,” as her Green Party challenger, Krissy Keefer, states on her campaign website. Among the particulars: Pelosi’s support for trade deals, commercial activity in the Presidio (part of Golden Gate National Recreation Area) and legislation cracking down on rave parties. On the war, Pelosi is faulted for endorsing an immediate pullout from Iraq but not pushing her view as the party’s position -- a move that would have surely jeopardized her leadership job.

“From Ohio, Pelosi looks liberal,” Keefer said in an interview. But San Francisco has “a completely different paradigm and idea about how things should be.”

If that perspective seems loopy to some, Eric Jaye -- a consultant on Pelosi’s first campaign -- offered this: “While you have a certain component of San Francisco that a nation loves to fear, take comfort, America, in the fact those people don’t like Nancy Pelosi either.”

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mark.barabak@latimes.com

For exclusive Web features, including the new Political Muscle blog, go to latimes.com/calpolitics.

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