Female to lead House Dems.

by Libby George

Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., was voted minority leader in the U.S. House on Nov. 17, livening up the lame duck congressional session and inciting discourse about the future of the Democratic Party and of women in politics.

Pelosi’s election makes her the first woman to lead a major party, but it is her categorization by many as an “extreme liberal” that has sparked the most discussion.

“What’s exciting about Nancy Pelosi is that she’s likely to be a big voice not just for women, but also for the disenfranchised, anti-poverty legislation and for a whole realm of other things,” said Dara Strolovitch, a University political science professor.

Pelosi has represented a strongly liberal district in San Francisco for 15 years and has led opposition to the George W. Bush administration on issues such as Iraq, trade with China and the structure of the new homeland security department.

She has focused on funding for global AIDS education, treatment and prevention, as well as minimum wage increases and workplace safety.

A liberal leader

some politicians and political analysts argue Pelosi’s liberal record is not the sort of leadership the Democratic Party needs to regain its identity and a majority in the next election.

“The problem with the Democratic Party is not that they are left, center or right – the problem is that they are fragmented,” said Hy Berman, University history professor and political analyst for KARE-11 news.

“Essentially, they are dominated by groups that claim victimhood. In terms of politics, this is a losing proposition because these people don’t vote,” Berman said. He added that in order to regain the majority, Democrats need to appeal to the “blocks of working votes in the suburbs,” which Pelosi, focusing on women and minorities, does not do.

Although Berman said that so far, no Democratic leaders have shown the capability to do this and that the party needs “new leadership,” he did not dismiss Pelosi’s potential.

“People change – perspectives change. She is a very able person. It depends on how she acts as minority leader,” he said.

Minnesota Senate Assistant Majority Leader Ann Rest, D-New Hope, said Pelosi’s leadership is more important than her political ideology.

“She is an unapologetic, forceful person, and she will be in articulating the Democratic caucus,” Rest said. “The Republicans would like to paint her as way to the left Ö but she will be wonderful in representing Democrats whether or not she agrees with them in an ideological sense.”

University political scientist Tim Johnson agreed with Rest.

“It’s not a matter of ideology -it’s a matter of how she will use her political resources and how she will compromise,” Johnson said.

Strolovitch added that Pelosi will help Democrats define issues.

“In light of the fact the Democrats have been criticized for not taking a position, it could be seen as sort of a move to put a stronger face on democratic characterizations,” Strolovitch said.

Bill Amberg, the DFL Party communications director, said Pelosi will be skillful in this role.

“She can make issues clear to citizens. Ö She articulates Democratic values very well,” Amberg said.

Actions and words

pelosi already promised to reach out to moderate and conservative Democrats to regain “centrist voters,” and she has pledged to work with Republicans despite differing views.

“Hopefully, we can find a great deal of common ground with Republicans,” Pelosi said, adding that “where we cannot find that common ground, we must stand our ground.”

Strolovitch said this opposition is good for Democrats and Americans.

“It would serve the parties and the public to offer an alternative view to spark real debate about policy,” Strolovitch said.

In action, Pelosi trounced her categorization as an unrelenting liberal last Wednesday, voting in favor of creating a Department of Homeland Security, one of few Democrats to do so.

Breaking new ground

soundly defeating challenger Rep. Harold Ford of Tennessee 177-29, Pelosi has taken a huge step in furthering women in politics, Strolovitch said.

“Nancy Pelosi is encouraging because she’s actually a progressive feminist woman,” Strolovitch said. “She has been active on feminist policy and progressive policy.”

Pelosi was elected as the first female minority whip in 2001 and has fought for abortion-rights legislation, countering domestic violence and encouraging equal rights.

Johnson said Pelosi’s election was more important on a symbolic level than a substantive level.

“This is not going to be an important move for (Democrats). It is more symbolic and more in terms of having a female vote,” he said, adding that Democrats lost that voting bloc to Republicans in the last election.

Strolovitch said women still have a long way to go to ensure equal rights.

In the 107th Congress, 60 of the 538 seats in the U.S. House belong to women, and 13 of the 50 senators were women, despite the fact women constitute nearly 51 percent of the U.S. population.

“There are major barriers (to women in leadership),” Strolovitch said. “The fact that it’s 2002 and women have been voting for nearly 100 years, and this is the first time this has happened shows there is inequality in the distribution of power.”

Strolovitch and Johnson said unless the Democrats gain majority in the House in 2004 – which they have not held since 1994 – Pelosi’s influence will be limited.

“Without a majority in Congress, it is simply unlikely as a woman, man or seal that she is going to get anything passed,” Strolovitch said. “The more seats the Democrats pick up in 2004 Ö her leadership on women’s issues will filter into Congress more often.”

Libby George covers national politics and welcomes comments at [email protected]