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PELOSI SHOWS SHE’S THE HEAD OF HER PARTY

Times Staff Writers

Most Americans still don’t know who Nancy Pelosi is, and this was her last chance to script an introduction before Congress convenes today and she becomes the first female speaker of the House.

So on Wednesday, Pelosi kicked off a three-day celebration of her ascension packed with more product placement than an infomercial.

The cannoli at the reception after the morning Mass were from the bakery on the street in Baltimore’s Little Italy where she grew up. The white lilies on the altar were her favorite flower. The chapel belonged to Trinity University, the Roman Catholic women’s college she graduated from in 1962.

Pelosi sat in the front row surrounded by five of her grandchildren. The sixth sounded off midservice and had to be walked around by his mother, reminding everyone that his grandmother ditched Washington seven weeks ago to sit at his crib side.

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“We’ve waited over 200 years for this time,” Pelosi said at an afternoon tea turned power rally. “America’s working women, women working at home, whatever they choose to do, they have a friend in the Capitol of the United States.”

Five hundred women wore Rosie the Riveter buttons with Pelosi’s face superimposed, with pearl earrings, above the slogan: “A woman’s place is in the House ... as Speaker.”

It was her first full day on the national stage, and she used it to tell the country who she is, where she came from and where she plans to go -- the little Italian American girl from a political household who later raised five children before running for the House and making history as the nation’s highest-ranking elected woman in 217 years of government.

Unfurling a roadmap

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The installation of a new speaker is the closest Congress comes to a presidential inauguration. Some critics accused her of putting on a “Nancy Fest,” but supporters said the events were as much political roadmap as biography.

“This is fitting,” said Democratic strategist Donna Brazile. “She’s not just tracing her steps, we’re learning the path she intends to take us on.”

The morning Mass at Trinity University was dedicated to the children of Darfur and Hurricane Katrina, the afternoon tea to the late Texas Gov. Ann Richards and other female political luminaries whom Pelosi says she “stood on the shoulders of” to get where she is. An interfaith Mass this morning is dedicated to the armed forces.

But it wasn’t all selfless tribute.

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Pelosi is the House Democrats’ most prolific fundraiser, and supporters will pay $1,000 a seat and political action committees $15,000 to hear Carole King, Wyclef Jean and Tony “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” Bennett perform at tonight’s celebration concert at the National Building Museum in downtown Washington.

Democrats were in the mood to celebrate, and Pelosi planned to give them plenty of opportunity: a dinner at the Italian Embassy on Wednesday and a party Friday in Baltimore, during which the block she grew up on is to be renamed Via Nancy D’Alesandro Pelosi.

Plenty of California’s top Democrats flew in -- Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, recently defeated gubernatorial candidate Phil Angelides and former California Senate leader John Burton.

Democrats dismissed criticism that it was over the top.

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“We’ve eaten so much crow over the last 12 years I have no problem with popping the champagne, if only to remind us we’ve worked hard but now it’s time for us to work for the American people,” Brazile said.

But when it comes to Pelosi, there isn’t much consensus in Washington. She will have to find common cause not only with Republicans but within her diverse caucus of conservative Blue Dogs and old-style liberals. With a 16-vote majority, she must hold the Democrats together on the contentious issues of war, Medicare overhaul and oil profit rollbacks while battling GOP rivals intent on sinking her in the next two years.

Already, there were signs of what’s to come.

House Republicans grumbled that Pelosi planned to shut them out of the “First 100 Hours” agenda by refusing to allow hearings or amendments (which is what the GOP frequently did to Democrats, but Pelosi promised not to be like them).

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Pelosi protesters

Outside the church, a tiny band of antiabortion protesters chanted, “Speaker Pelosi, Catholics don’t kill children.” And former U.S. Rep. Robert K. Dornan, an Orange County Republican known for his outbursts, sneaked into the invitation-only service and emerged to brand his former House colleague “the most arrogant pro-abortion person in Congress.”

But those were blips on the celebration screen.

An energy seemed to build around her throughout the day. The Mellon Auditorium, where finger sandwiches and petits fours were set out for 500, roared at times with approval for the most powerful woman in Washington, who at one point stood on the stage and flexed her biceps.

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“Know your power,” Pelosi said, recalling advice the late Rep. Lindy Boggs gave her, adding: “And we took it.”

Her personal touch

Every event had personal or political significance that bore her stamp. A famous micromanager, Pelosi approved details down to the music for the Mass, which her eldest daughter had played over the phone before Christmas so her mother could review.

It included an African American spiritual, “Plenty Good Room,” with lyrics that seemed to foreshadow the ethics package Pelosi has made the first order of House business today: “I would not be a sinner ... I would not be a liar ... I would not be a cheater.”

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One of Pelosi’s campaign promises was to take the House gavel away from special interests and pass it to “the hands of America’s children.” And the theme of children was prominent Wednesday.

Banners with images of the young victims of Katrina and Darfur were displayed on the chapel walls. Father Robert F. Drinan, a Jesuit priest and former member of Congress, opened the homily saying, “Congress is 16% women and for the first time ever, the speaker is a mother. Today we are re-pledging our lives to the children.”

Though the events were clearly designed to send a message, the day also had an insular feel. Television coverage focused on President Ford’s burial, and what media interest there was in Pelosi was almost rebuffed by her office. Several events were closed to the press.

The media were held on the sidewalk outside the Trinity chapel, zoom lenses aimed at the steps almost a football field away, only to have Pelosi slip out a side door.

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faye.fiore@latimes.com

tina.daunt@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

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Nancy D’Alesandro Pelosi

Age: 66

Birthplace: Baltimore

Education: Bachelor’s degree, Trinity College (now called Trinity University) in Washington, D.C., 1962

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Religion: Roman Catholic

Residences: A condo at the Watergate complex when in Washington and a house in Pacific Heights when in San Francisco

Political pedigree: Daughter of Tommy D’Alesandro Jr., a renowned ballroom dancer who became a state lawmaker, city councilman, congressman and mayor

Political spadework: Volunteer activist for the Democratic Party, including a stint as chairwoman of the California party

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Political ascent: Elected in 1987 to fill the open seat in California’s 8th Congressional District, elected Democratic whip in 2001, elected Democratic leader in 2002

Political advisor: Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez)

Salary as House speaker: $212,100

Assets: $22.2 million to $91.1 million in 2005

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Google hits: More than 2 million

A favorite suit label: Armani

A favorite band: The Grateful Dead

A favorite TV show: Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” (her husband TiVos it for her)

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A favorite culinary specialty: Chocolate mousse

Husband: Paul, a businessman who has made millions from investments in the stock market and real estate

Children: Five

Grandchildren: Six

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Times research


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