Pelosi brings pedigree to new post as Congress’ most powerful woman

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) – Nancy Pelosi loves old maps – graphic testimony

to the spirit of exploration, faded images of what was known and


“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.”

On Monday, 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.

Rep. Sala Burton was dying of cancer in January 1987 when she

summoned Pelosi. You must – MUST – run for my seat in Congress, Burton


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


“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


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


“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 naivete.

“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


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.

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


“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.”