Pelosi brings pedigree to high post on Capitol Hill

Nancy Pelosi loves old maps — graphic testimony to the spirit of exploration, faded images of what was known and unknown.

“Maps are about the places and the geography and the Earth, but they’re also about how people saw the world and the courage it took for them to go places,” she says. “What we want to do in politics is blaze trails and not just follow paths.”

Today, the 62-year-old Pelosi will become the Democrats’ leader in the House of Representatives, the first woman to lead either party on Capitol Hill. She is a liberal in a conservative time; her party is still in the shadow of a humbling defeat last November.

Once again, Nancy Pelosi is plotting her own course.

“She’s overcome being a woman in largely a man’s world,” says Charles Pottruck, a friend and campaign donor who is president of the San Francisco-based brokerage firm Charles Schwab. I think you have to recognize that this didn’t happen by accident.

How it happened — how this Roman Catholic girl from Baltimore ended up the most powerful woman in the history of Congress — is a story that no map could set out.

‘You must run’

Rep. Sala Burton was dying of cancer in January 1987 when she summoned Pelosi. “You must — MUST — run for my seat in Congress,” Burton insisted.

Pelosi says she resisted, but finally agreed.

“What people see in Nancy Pelosi now, Sala saw in her then,” says John Burton, Sala’s brother-in-law and president of the state Senate. “Sala,” he says, “was down to skin and bones and I think she really hung on to do that.”

For years, Pelosi had put off politics while she raised her five kids [one of them, Alexandra, put together a recent HBO documentary on the George W. Bush presidential campaign]. She had resisted overtures to run even as she charmed San Francisco’s political powerbrokers, even as she showed a knack for raising campaign cash, helping Democrats wrest control of the U.S. Senate in 1986.

There was always a latent talent for politics. She was, after all, Thomas D’Alesandro Jr.’s daughter — and he represented Baltimore in Congress during and after World War II, and served as its mayor for three terms.

In the family home, the seven D’Alesandro kids staffed the living room desk that was the first stop for all comers.

“Constituents came in for jobs, for favors, for wood, whatever,” says Pelosi’s older brother Thomas D’Alesandro III, himself a former mayor of Baltimore. “She saw human nature in the raw. People come in ranting and raving, they’re down and out. You can’t just holler back at them.”

She learned to keep the friendship in her voice — and the rest came naturally.

“She has one trait that she inherited from my father, and that is the ability to read people,” her brother says. “When some people say yes’ to you, they mean no’ — when they say no’ they mean ‘yes.’ The emphasis is when they say the word, their body language.”

Nancy D’Alesandro married Paul Pelosi, a native of San Francisco, and they moved there to raise their family. She edged into politics — first doing some volunteer work for the Democrats, then informally advising Jerry Brown when he entered the Maryland primary in 1976.

From there she joined the Democratic National Committee, became state party chair, vied unsuccessfully to become national chair — and made her mark as finance chairman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Then came Sala Burton’s deathbed summons. That June, the reluctant candidate won 62 percent of the vote; she has never lost an election.

“I didn’t realize I was going to like it so much, she would later say.”

‘Don’t underestimate her’

“You’re not very smart if you underestimate Nancy Pelosi,” says Rep. Tom DeLay, the conservative Texas Republican, incoming House majority leader and ruthless partisan who has tussled with Pelosi as chief House GOP vote counter. What makes her a worthy opponent is her work ethic. She works 24-7.

In other words, Pelosi’s life has been a dress rehearsal for the big time, and never confuse her civility with softness or naivetDe.

“Her style is one that benefits her a lot,” says DeLay. “She’s not one of those that gets into your face, and some are pretty obnoxious when they’re working on an issue they believe strongly in. She’s one that you can trust. She comes to you very forthrightly.”

Still, perhaps no one in Congress, save DeLay himself, is an easier target for political caricature. To some opponents, she’s the marauding fanatic threatening to sweep into the heartland from the Left Coast’s political hinterland.

Help stop the San Francisco liberal announces the Web site, run by the conservative Citizens for a Sound Economy. Arthur Bruzzone, former chairman of the San Francisco Republicans, says Pelosi represents the arrogance, hypocrisy, and illusions of her supporters — elitists and ‘progressives.’ A snappier take on the same theme — latte liberal — is beginning to circulate outside Washington.

Pelosi has been stung by such jabs, but deflects them with humor.

“I don’t drink coffee. Never in my life had a latte,” Pelosi says, deadpan. “In the absence of chocolate ice cream I had a couple of, what do you call them, chocolate brownie frappacinos.”

Chocolate is a passion. A collection of candies — congratulatory gold-foiled gifts — occupies the coffee table in her corner office high above San Francisco.

She plucks one as she explains that, if she must be labeled, progressive will do.

Still, if Democrats are generally labeled as either centrist or liberal, her signature issues have been the latter: She’s outspoken on funding for HIV/AIDS research, human rights in China and abortion. Strains of social justice — unemployment insurance, workers’ rights, job creation — are among her themes in recent weeks.

But while Pelosi hits familiar liberal notes, she isn’t her father’s New Deal Democrat.

She has voted against organized labor on international trade and alienated some environmentalists who lambast her pet idea to prop up the Presidio, San Francisco’s old Army base and now a national park, with private investment.

She came west to San Francisco in 1969 — the year of the Summer of Love — but remained a stay-at-home mom and devoted Catholic. Last fall she voted against war on Iraq, but she also voted for President Bush’s Department of Homeland Security.

“Again and again,” she says “Democratic policies must be credible. It’s the axiom of a politician looking beyond her own back yard.”

There is a difference between advocating for your district and being the leader of the party, Pelosi says. You make a transition, but you don’t leave your values behind and people respect you because you believe in something.

Already, San Francisco’s old-school leftist establishment judges Pelosi a centrist apostate who should take her palette of pant suits to the burbs.

“There’s a lot to be critical of,” says Tim Redmond, executive editor of the San Francisco Bay Guardian and a longtime observer of local politics. “They plucked Nancy Pelosi out of the fundraising world, basically to be a loyal machine member.”

Pelosi is still a major figure in the fundraising world. She draws comparable amounts from business and labor interests. Her husband is a wildly successful investor and the couple mingles with the West Coast’s entrepreneurial elite — schooled in the world of ward bosses, Pelosi speaks the language of the venture capitalist and the Silicon Valley innovator.

Pelosi says she’d rather do anything than solicit contributions. Still, she zig-zagged the country during the 2002 campaign, by her staff’s estimate raising more than $7 million for candidates in nearly 100 congressional districts.

When she first began angling for a leadership position, Pelosi established political action committees to redistribute donations to fellow Democrats. In October, she dropped one of her two PACs in the face of suggestions that the setup was a way of getting around limits on campaign donations.

Since 1999, no one in Congress has lavished more money on fellow lawmakers than Pelosi’s $2.1 million, according to the watchdog Center for Responsive Politics.

“In a sense you are buying your leadership position,” says Larry Noble, the group’s executive director.

She has many admirers

Talk to those who know her personally — even some Republican adversaries — and the compliments flow: Diplomatic, but not disingenuous. Sweet, but not sickly so. Sharp, but blunt when need be. Gracious. Organized. Polished. Energetic. Radiant.

Admirers extol the personal touch of a society sophisticate. Peppy notes encourage colleagues and flatter supporters, important weddings or baptisms don’t go unnoticed.

“As a politician, she doesn’t have a mask on her face,” says Harry Wu, the human rights activist who was released from a Chinese jail with Pelosi’s support. “You can look into her eyes, you can trust her. You can relate to her.”

“She is probably the most perfect political partner,” gushes Rep. Anna Eshoo, a fellow Bay Area Democrat Pelosi helped get elected in 1992. “I don’t know anyone who can say no’ to her.”

Republicans can — they control both houses of Congress and the White House. And they will.

But, at least for now, most of her colleagues take pains to appear positive. Part of it is that no politic politician would be caught attacking before the battle really begins on Capitol Hill. Some may be building Pelosi up to tear her down. But some of the regard seems genuine.

“Even on the most complex issues, she can pull the threads together quickly,” says Rep. Porter Goss, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee on which Pelosi has been the top Democrat. “There’s not a lot of explaining you need to do.”

Goss recalls the time, five years ago, when he and Pelosi had returned from a trip to North Korea and were addressing the Tokyo press corps. Pelosi had not yet launched her quiet campaign to become Democratic whip, which succeeded in 2001.

After the briefing, Pelosi pulled Goss aside.

“Nancy chewed me out very thoroughly because, as it turned out, the seating arrangements had myself and some equally old men at the center of the optic and women and minorities off to the side. She’s very attentive to detail and image,” Goss says.

She’s a much better politician than I will ever be.

LOAD-DATE: June 17, 2003