Times Profile: Nancy Pelosi

Times Staff Writer

The day Nancy Plosi made history, the day Democrats made her their leader in the House of Representatives, she stepped from the Cannon Caucus Room flashing a high-beam smile that nearly outshone the television floodlights. Congressional leadership elections are normally staid affairs, perfunctory even, but on this November day the atmosphere was buoyant, almost giddy. Dressed in candy-apple red, surrounded mostly by men in black and gray, Pelosi cut through the marbled solemnity like a firecracker ringing in a churchyard.

Democrats were clearly pleased, and not just because they had elevated the California lawmaker to House minority leader, the highest position a woman has ever held in Congress. After a disappointing 2002 election, Pelosi promised that House leaders--and, by extension, the rest of the party--would be tougher in 2004. “Where we can find our common ground, we shall seek it,” Pelosi told the media scrum outside the cavernous Caucus Room. “Where we cannot find that common ground, we must stand our ground.”

For their part, Republicans were equally thrilled, eager to attack Pelosi as a loopy San Francisco liberal and exploit her city’s reputation as the odd-sock drawer of America. Within days, her face--garish and twisted--showed up in an attack ad slamming the Democrat in a Louisiana House race. (He won anyway.) She surfaced as Miss America, complete with tiara, in a spoof on Rush Limbaugh’s Web site. “Her views are highly out of step with most of the country,” said Steve Schmidt, a spokesman for congressional Republicans--and many in Pelosi’s own party agreed.


But those caricatures, facile as they are, overlook perhaps the chief reason for Nancy Pelosi’s success. Long before she came to San Francisco, before she had even grown up, she was schooled in the back-scratching politics of Baltimore, trained literally at the knee of a master--her father--who taught that elections are about taking care of people and practicality is more important than ideology.

“Does she have the ability to go beyond representing the left wing of her party? The answer is clearly yes,” says Rep. Porter J. Goss, a Florida Republican who has worked closely with Pelosi on sensitive assignments, including the House Ethics Committee and, most recently, a probe into the Sept. 11 attacks. “While it’s true she does represent the left wing of the other party, it’s equally true that if you say that’s all she’s going to do, you would be underestimating her badly.”

At age 62, Nancy Pelosi is living proof that looks can deceive. If she has “a negative in her political career, it’s that she’s too attractive,” says Agar Jaicks, a Democratic activist who has known Pelosi for close to 30 years. Starting as a volunteer, political hostess and party fund-raiser (she didn’t run for office until she was 47), Pelosi has been routinely dismissed, first as a dilettante and then, in Congress, as a legislative lightweight. Her wide brown eyes suggest a perpetual state of wonderment, and, speaking in public, she often falls back on the strained superlatives and canned platitudes that make her sound plastic and superficial.

Her maiden appearance on the Sunday talk-show circuit was so rote that many Democrats cringed. “Does that grin ever go away?” sniped one senior House aide. But there is a cunning that lies just below the artfully arranged surface. San Francisco is a tough political town, far from the liberal monolith that outsiders perceive. It is home to a boisterous, personal and often brutal form of hand-to-hand politicking, which makes it unusual in California and may help explain why so many of the state’s political leaders--from Hiram Johnson to Phillip Burton to Dianne Feinstein and, now, Pelosi--have emerged from its roiling cauldron.

“We’re a tiny city, 47 square miles, but we’re a city of intense national, international and local interests that converge and compete,” says David Lee, an activist in San Francisco’s large Asian American community. “Every conceivable issue--race, sexual orientation, Taiwan versus mainland China, even Palestinians versus Jews--all get played out here. To get through that and to build a consensus among so many competing interests really takes an unusual amount of talent. And that’s why if you can make it politically in San Francisco, you can make it practically anywhere.”

But San Francisco is just a part of Pelosi’s pedigree, and not the most important. She was born and bred in Baltimore, the daughter of a New Deal congressman and revered mayor who ran a political machine from his brick row house and made his five sons and daughter--”Little Nancy”--part of its operation.


“Our whole lives were politics,” Pelosi told an interviewer during her first race for Congress, a special election she squeaked through in 1987. “If you entered the house, it was always campaign time, and if you went into the living room, it was always constituent time.”

Politics was not about philosophy or abstractions. It was about jobs, about having your garbage picked up, a fallen tree cleared or getting your child a scholarship and perhaps a ticket to a better life. It was also about pragmatism, about cutting deals and forming alliances, among the Italians, the Irish, the Jews and the Poles, neighborhood by neighborhood, block by block.

“It was traditional grass-roots politics,” says Peter Marudas, who spent decades in the Maryland trenches. “She didn’t go off to college like a lot of us and get involved in politics around some particular issue. She was weaned on service to people.”

The skills she learned--how to organize a campaign from the street level up, how to count votes, how to build relationships, forge coalitions and cash in favors--would serve Pelosi brilliantly as she climbed the Democratic Party ladder, inside Congress and out.

Her older brother Tommy eventually followed their father into the mayor’s office, serving a single term in the late 1960s. But for Pelosi, Congress was a second career after working 20-odd years as a full-time mom (five children in six years) and Democratic Party volunteer.

Growing up, Pelosi says, she had no idea what she wanted to do. She married her college sweetheart, followed him to San Francisco and while her kids were in class, did her grocery shopping and service to the Democratic Party. “I have never not participated in a campaign,” she said during her first run for Congress, “no matter how little my babies were, if I was wheeling them in a carriage or carrying them in my stomach.”


Her own election was almost happenstance, the result of a hospital-bed endorsement from a dying incumbent. Her rise to a leadership role in Congress was more calculated, something she plotted and pursued for years. Her success will boil down to one thing: Can Democrats regain control of the House after more than eight years in the minority?

There are good reasons to doubt it, starting with the political lines drawn after the last census, which seem to favor Republicans for the rest of the decade. She is surrounded in the Democratic leadership by several potential foes, including an old Maryland chum she leapfrogged in a bitter contest that left wounds still red and raw. Going into the 2004 elections, she faces a president of surpassing popularity and a White House filled with canny campaign strategists.

But those who know Pelosi say if she comes up short, it won’t be for lack of hard work or toughness or political smarts. She may have followed an unconventional route to get to where she is today, but looking back, says Rep. Anna G. Eshoo, a Silicon Valley Democrat and one of Pelosi’s closest friends in Congress, “Nancy’s life was a dress rehearsal for what she’s doing now.”

Baltimore is a drab city of browns and grays, a world away from the pastel prettiness of San Francisco. In winter, in particular, it has the forlorn feeling of a place whose better days have long passed.

Tommy D’Alesandro III, an older brother of Nancy Pelosi, is driving a visitor to her old high school, past a ramshackle housing project in the sagging Johnson Square neighborhood near downtown. At a stoplight, a toothless woman approaches his silver Mercury, begging for change. The driver and passenger sit silently, staring uncomfortably ahead. “It was a great town,” D’Alesandro says wistfully.

It was a thriving city with a bustling shipyard, steel mills, auto plants and factories that churned out soaps and spices, toothpaste and canned tomatoes. It was a stew pot of immigrant neighborhoods, a segregated city until the mid-1950s, and a place with both an inferiority complex and a fierce sense of civic pride. It squats between Washington, D.C., and New York City--like the stupid kid who wound up in the advanced class by mistake, a local newspaperman once wrote--and that makes Baltimore both ordinary and special. “Washington and New York are world cities that belong to everyone,” say Matthew Crenson, a Baltimore native and urban politics professor at the city’s Johns Hopkins University. “But Baltimore belongs only to Baltimorians.”


Back in the 1920s, Pelosi’s father, Tommy D’Alesandro Jr.--or “Tommy the Elder” as he came to be called--was a ballroom dancer of some renown. Although he ended up marrying the pretty girl who lived just a block down Albemarle Street, his services were in demand throughout the city and took him well beyond his Little Italy neighborhood. His clientele, and the contacts he made selling insurance, were vital when he decided to run for Maryland’s General Assembly. The political bosses refused to help, so D’Alesandro collected 5,000 signatures on his own, qualifying for the ballot and winning election despite their snub.

He went on to win 22 straight races, going from the General Assembly to the Baltimore City Council to Congress and, finally, three terms as one of the city’s most popular mayors. Throughout, he operated mostly from his home, a three-story brick row house with white-trim windows and a portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt in the home office. “I’m a paisano,” the mayor once said. “These are my people. This is where I belong.” The family was never wealthy, though D’Alesandro eventually got a car and driver when he became mayor. (Nancy, the baby of the family and the only girl, was chauffeured to school, but she insisted on walking the last block, to spare herself embarrassment.)

Back then, life in Little Italy revolved around three things: family, faith and politics. “We were all christened into the Roman Catholic Church and the Democratic Party,” Pelosi once said.

She grew up at 245 Albemarle St.; one set of grandparents lived at 235 and the other at 204; Aunt Jessie was at 314; and Aunt Mary lived just around the corner, on Eastern Avenue. Everyone pitched in on matters of politics. “Little Nancy” stuffed envelopes (as her own children would), passed out ballots and often made the rounds of public appearances with her father, standing demurely at his side in a white dress and gloves. Her aunts would help Pelosi’s mother, Annunciata, cook big pots of stew or spaghetti sauce for constituents who showed up hungry at dinnertime.

Throughout the day a steady stream of supplicants would stop by the house, seeking jobs, financial aid or other help. Their names were kept in the “favor file,” sheets of yellow legal paper that were stacked and stapled together at the end of the week. The names were then typed onto index cards for use come election time. Few, however, needed such reminding; the transaction was understood. “The organizations serviced the people,” says Marudas, a chief of staff to two Baltimore mayors, “and the people supported them.”

On that foundation of mutual interest, the city’s Democratic machine thrived. It was “a gentle machine,” professor Crenson says. “Nobody got killed, nobody’s knees got smashed.” Each boss operated from one of six council districts--D’Alesandro’s base was the 1st District--and power rested on a series of coalitions, built precinct by precinct, among various ethnic groups and rival interests. (Pelosi ran for the House leadership by emulating her father’s painstaking approach. “ ‘We need 100,000 votes,’ ” she remembers him saying as he worked backward to break down the numbers. “ ‘We need this many from this neighborhood. This many from this neighborhood. How do we get them?’ ”)


While Tommy III--or “Tommy the Younger”--eventually followed his father into the mayor’s office, Nancy struck out on her own, at least as far as her parents allowed, leaving Baltimore to attend Trinity College in nearby Washington, D.C. She met her husband, Paul, while he attended Georgetown University, and the two married in 1963. Six years later, they moved to San Francisco, where Paul Pelosi earned a small fortune as a financier and real estate investor and Nancy built a political career from scratch.

Despite their distance, she has stayed close to Tommy, now 73. The two look alike, both stylish dressers with the same high cheekbones, sharp features and impeccable manners. They talk several times a week, often after one of her TV appearances. “I’m her sounding board and No. 1 critic,” he says. Walking through the old neighborhood, now chockablock with touristy restaurants, he muses that his career followed a well-paved path: “My name’s Tommy D’Alesandro, same as my dad. Nancy went to a new area and did it on her own.” And so he is asked, “Would you say your little sister is the better politician?” He smiles. “No question about it.”

Nancy Pelosi juggled two roles--mom and rabid Democrat--during her first 15 or so years in San Francisco. If forced to pick between the two, however, there is little doubt which she would have chosen. As her four daughters and a son grew older, she would say she wished she could take them out in the rain, shrink them and start over.

She was the doting mother who carpooled in her red Jeep Wagoneer, drove on class field trips to the Old Mint, brought cupcakes to school and hand-stitched her children’s Halloween costumes, including an elaborate angel outfit with a pink dress and silver wings that her youngest daughter, 32-year-old Alexandra, still has.

The skills Pelosi learned while running a bustling household and finding time to rise through the Democratic ranks would find great application in Congress, where seemingly every hour of every day brings some matter that someone deems urgent. “When you raise five children born six years apart, you do most of the work yourself. You can’t attract a good deal of people to help out,” she says, barking out a laugh. “It trains you to anticipate, to be organized and to be flexible.”

As soon as the dinner table was cleared, it was set for breakfast. Each child was responsible for laying out their school uniform and shining their shoes, subject to mom’s inspection. On weekdays there were 10 slices of wheat bread laid out on the kitchen counter, with an assortment of lunch meats, condiments, five bags of pretzels and five apples. “I’m not taking any complaints,” Pelosi would say, and, “Let’s have some cooperation.” On weekends, the five little Pelosis were dressed in matching outfits, which made it easier to spot them if one strayed away. (Despite a fashion-plate image, Pelosi actually hates to shop. Her husband bought most of the children’s clothing, and he continues to buy many of his wife’s outfits.)


Along with being the chief scheduler and events planner, Pelosi was also the main disciplinarian in the household, reigning with the unflappability that comes with overseeing a large family. If there was a mud-clod fight and someone ran inside crying, daughter Christine recalled, Pelosi would shrug as if to suggest, what do you expect? “Throw a punch, take a punch,” she would say, quoting her late father.

Democratic Party politics were a constant in Pelosi’s household. Apart from her work at the headquarters downtown, Pelosi turned her elegant Presidio Terrace home into a party salon, where Democratic luminaries came to speak to volunteers about environmentalism, social justice or economic policy. In 1984, as state party chair, Pelosi helped lure the Democratic National Convention to San Francisco, hosting a series of bashes that helped recruit more than 10,000 volunteers. (Republicans are busy examining the source of Pelosi’s wealth, focusing on her husband’s dealings. The couple is worth upward of $23 million, according to Pelosi’s most recent financial disclosure report, with extensive stock holdings and investments in resort hotels, vineyards and downtown San Francisco real estate. “There’s work to be done understanding all the reasons she is where she’s at,” says one California Republican operative.)

In 1985, Pelosi waged an unsuccessful bid for the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee. The race turned ugly, with Pelosi accusing her opponents in organized labor of running a smear campaign, calling her an “airhead”--a label that followed her for years after. She won’t talk about it now, though a bitterness creeps into her voice at the recollection. “That was a lesson to me,” she says, before abruptly shifting tone and professing that all is forgiven. In 1986, Pelosi headed the national fund-raising committee for Democrats in the U.S. Senate, helping the party win back control of the chamber.

Just a few months later came the event that would change her life.

As San Francisco Congresswoman Sala Burton lay dying, she summoned Pelosi to her hospital bedside in Washington, D.C. Burton and her late husband, Phil, were longtime friends and political compatriots of Pelosi. When Phil Burton suffered a fatal heart attack in 1983, Sala inherited his congressional seat. Now, four years later, she wished Pelosi would succeed her.

Frail and wasted, with just a few days to live, Burton asked Pelosi if she wanted the job, with its 3,000-mile commute. Pelosi expressed hopes Burton would recover (there was no talk of death, though everyone knew it was imminent, says Jaicks, a Burton family friend who was there). Finally Pelosi said yes, she would be honored to follow Sala Burton in Congress.

What followed was a short and exceedingly bitter special election, with 14 candidates vying for the open seat. Overnight, Pelosi went from relative anonymity to being the target of attacks--”a legislator or a dilettante?”--on billboards across the city. She threw herself into the race, eventually prevailing by fewer than 4,000 votes, thanks to support from the city’s beleaguered band of Republicans. The second-place finisher, gay supervisor Harry Britt, actually won more Democratic votes and carried the city’s most liberal neighborhoods.


Despite her enormous financial advantage and strong establishment backing, Pelosi ran that first campaign the way the D’Alesandros always had: from the ground up. “She has an organizer’s instinct,” says Fred Ross Jr., who coordinated Pelosi’s grass-roots operation. “An organizer has to have imagination, has to have a very strategic mind about how to think about a campaign, how to organize a campaign and how to win it. What are the vulnerabilities of the other side? What are the resources you can amass? She understands all of that.”

Pelosi appeared at more than 120 house parties over the course of that 60-day snap election, and when her brother Tommy flew out to inspect the ground troops, he paid what Ross took as the ultimate compliment. “This,” D’Alesandro said, “is how we did it in Baltimore.”

In April of 1990, Dianne Feinstein was at a critical stage in her race for California governor. For weeks she had been on the television airwaves, touting herself as the only candidate in the Democratic primary to support the death penalty--a pointed contrast with her chief rival, John Van de Kamp. Now the question was whether the former San Francisco mayor had the guts to say it to the faces of California’s most ardent (and liberal) party activists.

The night before Feinstein’s appearance at the state Democratic convention, her chief strategist, Bill Carrick, sought Pelosi’s advice. He found her in Feinstein’s hospitality suite, and together they stepped outside and plopped onto a nearby staircase. Carrick handed Pelosi a copy of the speech Feinstein planned to give the next day. One line practically jumped off the page: an unvarnished endorsement of the death penalty as an issue “that cannot be fudged or hedged.” Pelosi opposes capital punishment, yet she turned to Carrick and said, “I think it’s really good.” She warned that Feinstein might get booed. “But that’s not all bad,” Pelosi added.

She was right. Feinstein was booed, lustily. The scene was captured by a film crew, and the dramatic footage appeared in subsequent campaign spots; in a single swoop the unflinching Feinstein managed to shed the goofy-liberal label that attaches itself to virtually every San Francisco politician. She handily beat Van de Kamp in the June primary before losing narrowly to Republican Pete Wilson in the November general election.

Pelosi herself is undeniably to the left of many Americans, not to mention a good number of those in her own party. She supports legalized abortion with few restrictions, favors stiffer gun laws and vigorously promotes gay rights. Her stance springs from “deep in my soul,” Pelosi says with passion. “I will fight discrimination of any form, including against gays and lesbians. If that makes me unacceptable to some people, that is very fundamental to me and everyone should know it from the start.” She has opposed welfare reform, favored needle exchanges and voted against both the Gulf War resolution and the October resolution giving President Bush authority to wage renewed war on Iraq.


She has also been a staunch supporter of human rights, hoisting a protest banner in Tiananmen Square during a 1999 visit to China and bucking presidents of both parties in fighting normalized trade relations with the Communist government. That has alienated many in San Francisco’s Chinatown, where long-standing support of Taiwan has shifted in recent years to an embrace of mainland China.

However, it is her position on social issues and her antiwar votes that became an issue when she ran for the House leadership, first for the No. 2 job of Minority Whip, then for the top Democratic job. Rep. Martin Frost of Texas, who vigorously challenged Pelosi for House leader before dropping out days before the November vote, suggested her elevation would cement Democrats’ minority status for years to come. Democratic Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr. of Tennessee, who jumped into the contest after Frost quit, spoke of “old” versus “new” Democrats in a last-ditch bid to stop Pelosi.

Still, she won in a landslide, 177-29, garnering support not just from fellow liberals, but from party moderates and even many conservative Democrats. They were convinced--enough to stake their own futures--that Pelosi is both willing and smart enough to set aside her personal views, the way she did with Feinstein, to pursue a shared goal: electing Democrats of any and all stripes. “I do not agree with her on every single issue,” says Rep. Mike Ross, a conservative Democrat from small-town Arkansas who backed Pelosi in both her leadership races. But he sees her as “someone with leadership qualities and someone who [can] bring the diversity of the Democratic Party together and unite it.”

That endorsement, however, has its limits. Ross welcomed Pelosi’s fund-raising help during his two election campaigns. But she never appeared alongside him in south Arkansas, and no such invitation is likely. “The people of my district aren’t really interested in some outsider, whether they’re liberal or conservative, trying to tell them how to vote,” Ross says diplomatically.

Pelosi climbed into the house leadership the old-fashioned way: She earned it. She gave scads of money to her colleagues, the functional equivalent of the favors her father dispensed back on Albemarle Street. During the past several elections, Pelosi has emerged as one of the most prodigious fund-raisers in Congress. For the 2002 elections, she raked in close to $8 million for colleagues as well as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. (She also ran afoul of campaign finance laws by operating two separate political action committees. She was forced to close one just a few weeks before the November elections.)

Pelosi’s harshest critics--those on her left--say she practices “checkbook politics,” selling out principles for campaign cash. The San Francisco Bay Guardian, the city’s progressive weekly, has made it a practice never to endorse her. But Pelosi insists her contributions come mostly from “individuals who have been idealistic believers in the Democratic caucus and candidates,” which suggests a lot of dreamy-eyed labor leaders and trial lawyers.


More than cash, however, Pelosi has prospered for the simple reason that her peers like and trust her. In the small, gossipy world that is Capitol Hill, Pelosi is renowned for a graciousness and compassion that are not only rare these days but almost quaint. When she campaigned for the leadership, Pelosi made a point of never approaching members on the House floor, lest they feel trapped. When Rep. Jane Harman of Venice lost her 1998 bid for governor, Pelosi arranged to welcome her back to Washington with an ice cream social. When a colleague’s child committed suicide, Pelosi went to his home and sat with the grieving parents. When Anna Eshoo’s father lay dying, Pelosi repeatedly checked on the Silicon Valley lawmaker, sometimes calling as late as midnight. “She’s a lady,” says Eshoo, “in the most beautiful sense of the word.”

She is also famously energetic, standing out even in a city filled with overdrive personalities. Pelosi is often seen before she is heard--click-click-click-click--as she briskly makes her high-heeled way around Washington. She is constantly in motion, even when she’s not, like a hummingbird suspended midair. Standing at a news conference, waiting her turn to speak, her clenched jaw is working and her hands fidget, twirling a sheaf of papers thrust between her two small fists. When she talks, hands fly, as if to coax the words along. She functions on about four hours of sleep, with no naps (“I’ve never even seen her with her eyes closed,” laughs Judy Lemons, her chief of staff for 15 years) and seems to live on chocolate and grapefruit juice.

Pelosi, in fact, is a famous chocolate fiend; there is a big glass jar of Hershey Kisses on her desk and a secret stash of candy bars in a filing cabinet outside her inner office, which she raids during late-night sessions. The meetings she hosts in her Capitol office--like the parties she throws at her $1-million Georgetown condominium--are culinary treats, with fresh muffins in the mornings, cookies and fruit in the afternoons and takeout on the nights when Congress works late.

There is, of course, a less convivial side. Pelosi has a reputation for vindictiveness, which surfaced after she defeated the more senior Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland in a hard-fought 2001 race for Minority Whip, the party’s No. 2 job in the House. After defeating Hoyer, Pelosi took some gratuitous shots. Now they are together in the leadership--Hoyer won the Whip job after Pelosi moved up--and tensions linger despite a relationship going back decades. Pelosi also faces a potential rival in Robert Menendez of New Jersey, who won the No. 3 post of caucus chairman over Pelosi’s preferred candidate. “Her biggest weakness is she views the world in two camps: ‘those who are for me and those who are against me,’ ” says a House leadership aide. “She’ll have to get over that if she’s going to succeed.”

As a case in point, observers point to Pelosi’s surprising decision to meddle last year in a Michigan primary that pit the longest-serving House member, John D. Dingell, against a less senior member, Lynn Rivers. Pelosi’s $10,000 contribution to Rivers was seen as payback for Dingell’s support of Hoyer and a foolish move, given Dingell’s rank. Dingell won and aides say he and Pelosi have patched things up. But the move caused many to question Pelosi’s judgment. “A stupid fight that didn’t have to happen,” says a second leadership aide.

Pelosi allies countered that she sent an important message about loyalty, friendship and her plans to be tougher than the often wishy-washy Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, the minority leader who relinquished the post she now holds. “She’s not going to shy away from decisions that need to be made, even if they’ll ruffle some feathers,” says one departing leadership staff member who is not a part of the Pelosi camp. “The downside is you have to accept a few clunkers every now and then.”


Pelosi’s father always told her: Keep the friendship in your voice.

When she talks about her goals as Democratic leader, Pelosi states the obvious. Foremost is winning back majority control of the House, though she sees that as a multi-year project. While vowing to go all out in 2004, she explains that “even if you win in the first cycle, you have to sustain that majority” in the 2006 elections. She also talks of serving as a role model, particularly for young women. “People try to instill doubt a woman can do a certain job when she’s ‘the first,’ whether it’s the first woman to head a major corporation or the first woman Army general,” Pelosi says. “I consider this a challenge to remove all doubt in anyone’s mind that women can do any job in America.”

She also has another goal, less partisan but also personal: returning a measure of civility to Washington’s corrosive political atmosphere. “People should know that you can disagree very, very strongly without it becoming a drawing of the line, without it becoming ‘good person, bad person,’ ” Pelosi says. That not only honors the people and their government institutions, she goes on, it also is a tribute to a former mayor of Baltimore and his wife, who taught their children from a very young age that politics was “a noble calling,” not just the family business.