Pelosi combines liberalism with canny political skills

W By David Von Drehle And Hanna Rosin

wASHINGTON – There are two Nancy Pelosis inside the smiling whirlwind that will become Thursday – if all goes as planned – the first woman to lead her party in the House of Representatives.

One is the liberal Democrat from San Francisco. (Remember that phrase: You’re going to hear it a lot from Republicans over the next few years.) For 12 years, Nancy Pelosi has represented that city in the House, and her voting record has rarely disappointed her constituents. She votes in favor of “partial birth” abortion, against welfare reform and against the war in Iraq, and she rarely misses a Gay Pride parade.

The other is the canny political tactician. This Pelosi raises and doles out more money than any other House member on behalf of her fellow Democrats. She whips votes with steel and cunning. She grew up as the only daughter of an old-fashioned urban ward boss and never forgot what her father taught her: That politics is a matter of winning votes, not spinning philosophies.

Which one will dominate as House minority leader?

Republicans are rooting for the first. “Go, Nancy!” laughed GOP lobbyist Ed Rogers, who added: “In no way does she help them become a national party. She’s a liberal, San Francisco Democrat who has a host of positions that are anathema to Southern, middle-of-the-road voters.”

Pelosi promises the other. “This is a stale question,” she said Wednesday, although she knows a lot of people are wondering. “People who ask it don’t understand what leadership is … What’s important is: can you can rally the troops? Do you have the knowledge to make the right judgments? Do you have a plan and the ability to attract enough supporters to make it happen? It isn’t about your voting record.”

In the aftermath of President Bush’s strong showing last week, many Democrats feel like they may need a ward-boss type in leadership, replacing Rep. Dick Gephardt, D-Mo. For the first time in years, said one senior party strategist, “the Republicans outdid us at what we used to be good at: the ground game, grassroots organizing and voter turnout.” And it is a measure of how the party – and the world – has changed that the old-fashioned pol the Democrats are turning to is a woman.”

But not just any woman. Nancy Pelosi, 62, is the daughter of the late Thomas “Big Tommy” D’Alesandro, an old-style Democrat who got Baltimore so well organized after World War II that he won three straight terms as mayor. It is possible that Big Tommy had an ideology. What’s certain is that he had a machine. Pelosi’s childhood home was stacked with bumper stickers and crowded with constituents, who were always welcome to drop by for canolis and a favor. Big Tommy would ask simply, “What’s your story?”

It worked well enough that his son, “Little Tommy,” won his own term as mayor.

This grounding may not be immediately obvious to television viewers who see the rich and beautiful Pelosi flash across their screens. But it has reshaped the views of plenty of political insiders as they have gotten to known Big Tommy’s daughter.

In 1984, for example, when Pelosi made a fruitless bid to head the Democratic National Committee, a leader of the AFL-CIO allegedly called her an “airhead.” Now, outgoing AFL-CIO political director Steve Rosenthal prefers “smart and astute.”

“She’s a technician, a nuts-and-bolts person, smart and astute enough to see that how she represents her district is one thing, and how she leads the Democratic Party in the House is another,” Rosenthal said. He compared Pelosi to the late Speaker of the House, Thomas “Tip” O’Neill, D-Mass., a Boston liberal who managed to work well even with the super-conservative President Ronald Reagan.

Her counterpart on the Republican side is Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas. Both have served as party whip, and both are now graduating to party leader. DeLay normally has nothing good to say about liberals, but he knows a good pol when he sees one. Pelosi, he has said, is a “worthy opponent.”

On a personal level, there’s something about Pelosi’s scrubbed and polished personality that undercuts her association with Haight-Ashbury and the Castro. She is a graduate of the women’s Catholic school Trinity College in Washington, married young and stayed married, had five children in six years and made a sacrament out of ironing.

The third of her children, Jacqueline Kenneally, recalls seeing her mother at a town meeting in San Francisco surrounded by her “shocking” and “wild” constituency – the transgendered group in one corner, the homeless activists in another – and thinking “Oh my god, what’s my mom doing here?”

“If they think she’s some 60s hippie liberal-type they definitely have the wrong person,” Kenneally said.

Daughter Alexandra Pelosi, a filmmaker, holds an indelible picture in her mind: mother with a phone in one hand and the iron in the other, somehow managing to keep family and party in good order. On weekends, she made a family project out of stuffing envelopes for Democratic candidates – one folding, one addressing and Alexandra, as the youngest, licking until her tongue was parched. One day, her mother pointed out she should use a sponge.

The daughters fought over which one got to serve bagels to Linda Ronstadt at fundraisers for California’s then-Gov. Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown.

Her first break in politics came when she linked her California connection to Brown with her childhood expertise in Maryland politics: Pelosi organized Brown’s surprising win in the Maryland presidential primary in 1976.

In the Cliff Notes version of her life, Pelosi begins her story of political life with the story of how Rep. Sala Burton of San Francisco, dying of cancer, made Pelosi promise to run for her seat. By then, as Pelosi tells it, she had raised five children and the youngest was about to finish high school. This touching story may take the threatening edge off a woman’s ambition – but in reality by 1987 Pelosi had already headed the Democratic Party in California, attended national conventions and vied to head the DNC. (An odd twist on current concerns about her liberalism: She justified her campaign for DNC chairman by saying that her rival, Paul G. Kirk Jr., was too liberal and would alienate Southern voters.)

After a tough primary in that 1987 House race, Pelosi has coasted to re-election with up to 80 percent of the vote. At first, she was known for work on issues important to her district: AIDS prevention and treatment, environmental concerns and protection of human rights, particularly in China.

Then she set her sights on a leadership post. And started raising money.

Pelosi’s gift for fundraising boosted her to the top. Her safe seat, in a city of great wealth, has allowed her to steer money from her constituents to hundreds of needy Democrats across the country. According to one study, she raised and distributed more to her colleagues than any other member of Congress this year – more than $1 million.

This largesse secured a lot of loyalty, and does more to explain her prominence than any vote or philosophy. “Nancy was going to be the next leader whenever Gephardt stepped down – it had nothing to do with the results of last week’s election,” one party insider explained.

Pelosi’s donor base starts with her friends and neighbors. Her husband, Paul Pelosi, is a very wealthy investor – he owns pieces of businesses ranging from resort hotels to wine country vineyards to dozens of small and mid-sized California enterprises, according to Pelosi’s required financial disclosure statements. They live in the tony Pacific Heights section of San Francisco when Pelosi is not in her $1 million-plus Georgetown home.

Several members of the Haas family, owners of the Levi-Straus clothing company, gave maximum donations – $5,000 each – to Pelosi’s PAC to the Future this year. The reigning family of the Napa Valley vineyards, the Gallos, also gave several $5,000 checks. Pelosi does fairly well in glitzy Southern California – coaxing money from the likes of Barbra Streisand, Kirk Douglas, studio boss Mike Medavoy, novelist Danielle Steel and diet doc Dean Ornish. But at least as many Pelosi backers, at home and in places like New York and Washington, are largely anonymous, having made their money the old-fashioned way: by inheriting it.

On that solid foundation she piles up donations from labor unions, the trial lawyers and the American Medical Association.

She also works tirelessly, crisscrossing the country to drum up votes and dollars. Pelosi’s aides claim she raised between $7 million and $8 million for the 2002 campaign through appearances in 30 states and 90 congressional districts – many of which are much more conservative than her own.

Just before the election, Pelosi campaigned for Rep. Paul Kanjorski of Pennsylvania, a pro-gun, anti-abortion Democrat. “Do you really want me to come?” she later recalled asking Kanjorski. “Why should we give Republicans something to say?”

But there was, by then, a benefit even for a conservative Democrat in having this very powerful, very canny, woman at his side. Her presence there, she now says, is proof of a “consensus role I’ve played successfully over the years.”

In an interview Wednesday morning, as flowers and congratulatory calls filled her whip’s office in the Capitol, Pelosi said she will not abandon her beliefs in her new role: “I am who I am.” She also questioned the real message Republicans are sending when they harp on where she comes from. “When people say `San Francisco liberal’ are they talking about protecting the environment, educating the American children, building economic success?” she asked rhetorically. “No, they are talking about gay people. Well, I was brought up to believe that all people are God’s children. And the last time I checked that included gay people.”

Yet Pelosi made it clear that she would not go gently into the box the GOP is preparing for her. She emphasizes her credentials as an expert on national security, gained as one of the “Gang of Four” – members of the select committee on intelligence, privy to top-secret intelligence briefings and trusted on issues of national defense.

“People associate her with traditional women’s issues, such as education and health care,” said spokeswoman Cindy Jimenez. “But she was the first person in the House to talk about weapons of mass destruction.”

“Politics,” said Pelosi, “is like a tennis game. You can move to the right or to the left, but you always have to come back to the middle.”

Wednesday, the leader-to-be ran into DeLay and Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. Things are liable to get pretty mean among them – as any kid of Big Tommy’s would surely understand. The GOP mass mailers are no doubt already at work on the first fundraising letters decrying the San Francisco liberal, just as Pelosi’s side has been using DeLay as a fundraising bogeyman for years.

For the moment, though, they weren’t ideologues. They were fellow practitioners of the fine art of politics. And so the two conservative Republicans took turns wrapping the liberal Democrat in big bear hugs.