Nancy Pelosi had her ups and downs with California Democrats. Now it’s a love fest
Even before former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made her first appearance at the California Democratic Party convention this weekend, she was an inescapable presence, dangling in cartoon form off the shoulders of the party’s politicians and most dedicated activists.
The official swag bag — a canvas tote illustrating Pelosi’s instantly meme-able furious clapping during President Trump’s State of the Union address — was the most colorful tribute to the San Francisco congresswoman, but it was hardly the only one. Between an ecstatic ovation for her brief Saturday-morning address and the ballroom-size dinner held in her honor that evening, the party’s first in-person gathering since 2019 was an unabashed love letter to one of the state’s most prolific politicians.
For the record:
4:05 p.m. May 28, 2023An earlier version of this story stated that left-leaning Democrats at the California Democratic Party convention this weekend interrupted Gov. Gavin Newsom’s speech with chants for “Medicare for all.” They chanted “CalCare now.”
Pelosi, who at times has been a polarizing figure even within her own party, was an uncontroversial focal point for state Democratic officials wary of weighing in on California’s budding Senate race or fraught questions about Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s health.
But underlying the celebrations was a lingering uncertainty about Pelosi’s plans. The 83-year-old, who stepped down from House Democratic leadership this year, has not announced if she intends to seek another term or retire from the seat she has held for nearly four decades.
Democrats have assiduously sidestepped even a hint of speculation about Pelosi’s decision. Still, the subtext was so unavoidable that Gov. Gavin Newsom said he found himself briefly wondering if the weekend-long homage meant he was out of the loop on the speculation about his lifelong friend and political ally.
“[I thought], ‘Am I missing something? Did she announce something that I didn’t know about?’” Newsom said in an interview.
“I haven’t seen any evidence that she’s stepping back or down or slowing down,” he hastened to add. “Obviously, we’re celebrating her speakership. That’s certainly a worthy cause.”
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Since Pelosi handed the House Democratic leadership to New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries in January, admirers have piled on the accolades. In recent months, she has received awards from LGBTQ+ advocacy group Equality California, the New York Historical Society, the American Hospital Assn. and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, who bestowed her with the Grand Cross of the Order of Isabella the Catholic.
Addressing the convention Saturday morning, Pelosi made clear how much she has enjoyed her post-speakership victory lap.
“Do you know what ‘emerita’ means? It means happiness,” she said to an audience waving signs reading “House of Pelosi.”
Her speech otherwise contained no hints of her future. Instead, she rallied Democrats in a cavernous Los Angeles Convention Center hall for a strong showing in the 2024 elections and took swipes at Republicans in Congress.
“As we speak, extremist Republicans have pushed America to the brink of unprecedented default on America’s full faith and credit,” Pelosi said, alluding to the efforts to raise the debt limit before a tentative deal was struck Saturday.
She was preceded by a glowing video tribute extolling her as a pioneering politician and superlative House speaker, with paeans from party stalwarts such as former Gov. Jerry Brown and former Sen. Barbara Boxer.
Later that evening, Pelosi was honored at a party-sponsored dinner; the press was barred from attending.
Though Pelosi was immersed in politics from childhood as the daughter of Baltimore Mayor and congressman Thomas D’Alesandro Jr., her ascent was rooted in the state Democratic Party. Rising through its ranks, she was party chair from 1981 to 1983, four years before she was first elected to Congress.
“She understands the party. She understands what motivates them,” said Bill Carrick, a veteran Democratic operative. “She has a strong feeling for the party structure and the work they do in terms of the grassroots kind of stuff. She’s got a real insight into all of that, and not a lot of elected [officials] do.”
But her relationship with party activists, particularly the left flank, could be rocky at times. She angered advocates for single-payer healthcare when she called for a public healthcare option instead of a more sweeping state program to provide coverage for all residents.
During her speech at the state party convention in 2019, the audience shouted, “Impeach! Impeach!” with regard to Trump, at a time when Pelosi was wary about pursuing such an option. (The House, under her leadership, made history by impeaching the then-president twice.)
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The left made a show of force at this weekend’s convention, interrupting Newsom’s speech with chants for “CalCare now.” But there was little visible pushback for Pelosi.
“I think that it has been an evolution for many of us to fully appreciate what she has done,” said David Campos, vice chair of the state Democratic Party and a former leader in San Francisco’s progressive politics.
He recalled the initial skepticism when Pelosi defeated Harry Britt, a progressive who would have been the first out gay member of Congress from San Francisco.
“In many respects, I think that she has been so much more progressive than anyone thought. She has actually accomplished more progressive outcomes than just about anyone,” Campos said.
The shifting sentiments among some party activists reflect changing opinions from the broader California electorate.
In 2018, a poll from UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies found that large pluralities of California Democrats wanted someone other than Pelosi to lead their party in the House.
In March of this year, the same polling outfit found that Pelosi was the second-most popular politician in the state, behind Newsom. Three-quarters of California Democrats viewed her favorably.
One factor driving her popularity was her emergence as a foil to Trump, barely concealing her distaste for the “previous occasional occupant of the White House,” as she obliquely referred to him Saturday.
“We’re grateful that she led and fought and had those iconic images that made us all feel a little bit more secure in the last couple of years that were really difficult to get through,” said Jodi Hicks, chief executive of Planned Parenthood of California. “People don’t know what she’s doing next, and certainly if it is that she decides to do something different, they don’t want to miss the opportunity of showing gratitude.”
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