Love her or hate her—and she inspires intense feelings both for and against her political positions—Nancy Pelosi undeniably is one of the most important persons ever to serve in the United States Congress. I discuss her life and times in my book-in-progress, Congressional Lions.
Born Nancy Patricia D’Alesandro in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1940, Pelosi won election to the United States House of Representatives from California and eventually ascended through the leadership ranks to become the first female speaker of the House of Representatives. To date, she is the highest-ranking woman to ever serve in the United States government.
Her accession was not completely unexpected. She came from a political family. Her father, Thomas "Big Tommy" D’Alesandro, Jr., served as a U.S. congressman from Maryland (1939-1947) as well as mayor of Baltimore (1947-1959), and her brother, Thomas L. J. D’Alesandro, III, served as mayor of Baltimore from 1967 until 1971.
She learned the art of campaigning when her father enlisted help from his offspring in performing constituent services. It was not uncommon to find the D’Alesandro children listening to voters’ complaints, answering telephone calls, and running congressional office errands when they were 13 years old. The oldest child, Thomas III, recalled that he and his siblings “dealt with human nature in the raw.”
The lessons were not lost on young Nancy. She enjoyed a front row seat to the daily tribulations of the legislative process, and she watched her father’s operation in action, learning the subtleties of vote counting and courting politicos. From her mother she witnessed the delicate machinations of a shrewd woman playing politics, mostly behind the scenes, in a man’s world.
Nancy married Paul Frank Pelosi in 1963, and the couple eventually moved to California. During the ensuing decades, she assiduously worked on behalf of the Democratic Party. She eventually won election to the House of Representatives in 1987. At the time, few women were in positions of power in Congress. George Miller, a California congressman and long-time Pelosi friend, recalled that the House of Representatives was “essentially a white man’s club” when Nancy Pelosi arrived. “And they really weren’t going to invite her.”
No matter. Annunciata D’Alesandro’s daughter was no shrinking violet. She persevered as she always had: by working harder than anyone else and outmaneuvering her competition. Legend had it that Nancy Pelosi slept only a few hours a night. She devoted her waking hours to caucusing with her supporters and strategizing against her opponents. She seemed to be everywhere at once. She also assumed numerous public personas, acting tough when she had to, and toning it down upon occasion. She understood the uses of soft power, remembering birthdays, writing thank-you notes, attending fundraisers, and pressing the flesh. She developed a nuanced view of acquiring and exercising power, always knowing when to flatter a fragile ego and when to threaten a blustery fool.
The House of Representatives gradually changed during Pelosi’s tenure, albeit not fast enough to suit her most ardent backers. Between 1975 and 2007, the House held 307 votes to select institutional leaders. Of the 141 contested elections, 112 men and 25 women stood for election. The numbers translate into women comprising 18 percent of the leadership pool during a time when the percentage of women serving in the House rose from 4.4 percent in 1975 to 15.4 percent in 2007. In short, women increasingly were making advances in congressional leadership. Nancy Pelosi came along at the right time to take advantage of women’s gains within the halls of power.
As she paid her dues in the House, Pelosi set her sights on ascending into a leadership position. By the early 2000s, her time had come. In 2001, she campaigned for the House Democratic Whip post, the third spot in party leadership. Pelosi’s victory was by no means a foregone conclusion. Her chief rival was Steny Hoyer of Maryland. Hoyer and Pelosi had known each other for years. Hoyer was nine months older than Pelosi, and he had served in the House almost five years longer, but for all practical purposes they were contemporaries with similar views on congressional power. As a member of the Blue Dog faction within the Democratic Party, Hoyer was more politically conservative than his California colleague. He represented the status quo among white Democratic Party faithful. Pelosi relied on women, Hispanic, and African-American constituencies, which made her appear progressive compared with the staid, traditional Hoyer.
Owing to her background as a San Francisco resident, Pelosi often has been characterized as too politically liberal to appreciate the views of average Americans, an out-of-touch elite who cannot adequately represent the interests of House members that lack her privileged background. Hoyer immediately seized on this image and exploited it during the Whip race. His strategy failed. After the votes came in, it was clear that Pelosi had edged out Hoyer, 118 to 95. She never forgot his comment. The two worked closely together as leaders of the Democratic Party, but their personal relationship was described as “frosty.”
After serving as the whip for a year, Pelosi suddenly saw another opportunity to step up in the leadership. Congressman Dick Gephardt of Missouri, the incumbent minority leader, announced that he would leave his post to pursue a presidential bid, leaving a vacancy. Pelosi immediately threw herself into the contest to succeed Gephardt. Martin Frost of Texas and Harold Ford of Tennessee challenged her in the race, although Frost eventually dropped out of the contest. Pelosi decisively triumphed over Ford, 177 to 29.
When the Democrats won a majority in the November 2006 midterm elections, Nancy Pelosi was poised to seize the top prize in the House leadership: The speaker’s gavel. Although she was demonized by many Republicans and right-wing pundits, she won the speakership, defeating Republican Congressman John Boehner of Ohio by a vote of 233 to 202.
Pelosi faced a multitude of pressing national issues during her four-year tenure as speaker. As an early member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, she was a reliably liberal representative, supporting social issues such as a woman’s right to choose whether to carry a fetus to term; lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights; and liberalization of marijuana laws. She consistently supported progressive domestic policies such as increased funding for Medicaid and Medicare, a ban on assault weapons and increased background checks for gun sales, and stringent environmental laws. In foreign policy, Pelosi opposed providing American assistance to authoritarian governments around the world—although she supported the policy that lifted the decades-long embargo against Cuba—and supported the effort to improve America’s multilateral defense initiatives with its allies. Arguably her most significant legislative victory as speaker was passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010, which extended insurance coverage to millions of Americans who previously had not been able to afford adequate health care.
In 2010, Pelosi easily won reelection in her congressional district, but House Democrats lost the majority after Republicans seized 63 seats in the midterm elections. By tradition, each new Congress elects new leaders. Because it was controlled by Republicans, the 112th Congress would never select a Democrat as Speaker. John Boehner, the Republican Ohio congressman who had narrowly lost to Pelosi following the 2006 elections, became the new speaker. Although no longer the top leader in the House, Pelosi still wielded considerable power when she became the House minority leader.
Despite the loss of the speakership, Pelosi understood the rough-and-tumble world of politics, and she was comfortable with the risks and rewards of operating at the highest levels of government. She remained a forceful presence. Whatever else she contributed to the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi proved once and for all that women could compete effectively with men inside the halls of Congress.