Giving up the gavel, Pelosi looks to the future

Nancy Pelosi's days as speaker of the House were dwindling in number, but her to-do list was growing: The tax deal President Barack Obama negotiated with Republicans but she was charged with passing? Check. Threats of rebellion within her own Democratic ranks? Quelled. Immigration? Gays in the military? Plenty of time — never mind that clock ticking toward Christmas break and the Jan. 5 start date for the new House that she no longer will lead.

But on one afternoon last week, despite the urgent negotiations and the late-night votes, Pelosi seemed as serene as her surroundings: a pale yellow sitting room that is part of the prime Capitol real estate she commands, for now, with power views of the Washington Monument and a collection of photographs that speak to a long and highly personal view of politics, measured not just by election cycles but generational ones.

There is a picture of her 7-year-old self, white-gloved and holding a Bible as her father, Thomas J. D'Alesandro Jr., is sworn in as Baltimore's mayor in 1947. "And here, 40 years later…" Pelosi begins before letting the image speak for itself: D'Alesandro, in a wheelchair, at her swearing-in as a new congresswoman representing her adopted city of San Francisco.

"There are certain principles that don't change," said Pelosi, 70, who will cede her gavel next month to John A. Boehner, the Ohio Republican whose party won the majority of House seats in November. "These are values about opportunity, about fairness. Does it work? Is it fair? Does it provide opportunity for many more people?"

As she transitions from the speaker's office to the lesser role of House minority leader, Pelosi staunchly remains the face of progressive Democrats, a hero to those increasingly embittered by what they view as Obama's abandonment of their causes and a magnet for the scorn of conservatives who ran against her in the midterms.

"San Francisco liberal" is their epithet. To her ears, it sounds like a compliment.

"That's what I am," she declares, "and proud of it."

But there are those who, in assessing her four years as speaker and her prospects as minority leader, would say that such a label gets the city wrong.

"Baltimore is a better predictor of her behavior than San Francisco," said Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, noting her pragmatic approach toward building enough of a consensus among the factions in her caucus to get bills passed.

"She has demonstrated a discipline and a sort of organizational skill, a capacity to understand her members and their districts and their values and proclivities, and keeping enough of them together to advance an agenda," Mann said.

Pelosi began learning nuts-and-bolts political skills at the knee of her father, who ran a legendarily tight ground operation that got him elected state delegate, city councilman, congressman and mayor.

As a young girl she helped manage his "favor file," which tracked requests made by and granted to constituents who showed up at their Little Italy rowhouse seeking work, housing, medical care or just a meal.

"The way I grew up, in a family that was devoutly Catholic, very Democratic, proud of our Italian-American heritage and fiercely patriotic," she said, "those are really the commitments I have in my life."

She is her father's daughter only up to a point, eschewing the colorfully unprintable words that could pepper his blunt talk. While an equally tough political fighter behind the scenes, her public face is decorous, at times even prim. Beginning to quote the Clinton-era mantra, "It's the economy," she stops short, saying, "I won't even use that word" — the rather tame "stupid."

The family vote-counting skills failed her at least once, and quite clumsily, when as the incoming speaker she openly endorsed her mentor, Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania, over her occasional rival Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland for majority leader. Hoyer won, resoundingly, in what played out as a rebuke to the new speaker from the ranks.

She left Baltimore more than 50 years ago, first for Trinity College in Washington and then after marrying Paul Pelosi, moving to his native San Francisco. She is one of the wealthiest members of Congress, with the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call estimating her net worth at more than $21 million, largely from her husband's real estate and investment portfolio.

It was in San Francisco that she raised five children as a stay-at-home mom before becoming more politically active and ultimately winning a congressional seat — although with the kind of organizational skills honed on Albemarle Street.

Even now, her eyes light up on the subject of Baltimore, her education at the Institute of Notre Dame on Aisquith Street, the summer trips to Ocean City. Pelosi said she talks several times a week with her eldest brother, Thomas J. D'Alesandro III — another former Baltimore mayor, known as "Tommy the Younger" to distinguish him from their father.

"The finest public servant I have ever known," she calls him. Chatting with him late Monday night, she couldn't figure out why he seemed a bit distracted, realizing only after they hung up that she'd interrupted an unnecessarily exciting Ravens game, in which the team again gave up an early lead and nearly lost.

As she happily noted, they always manage to pull it off in the end.

It is something that Pelosi might keep in mind as she enters the next phase in her political career. As minority leader — a position she held before Democrats gained the House majority in 2006 — she no longer will have what she calls "the awesome power to bring legislation to the floor."

There were those in her own caucus who wanted her to step aside after victories by Republicans who had campaigned largely on a "Fire Pelosi" platform. Forty-three colleagues backed second-term Rep. Heath Shuler of North Carolina over Pelosi to lead House Democrats in what they described as a symbolic attempt to put a more moderate face on their party.

Pelosi is unapologetic about the priorities she has pushed through, from an increase in the minimum wage to Wall Street reforms to, most conspicuously, the health care overhaul. As with the extension last week of the Bush-era tax cuts, she often accepted a more moderate bill than she and liberals had wanted as a means of ending up with something rather than nothing.

That was part of her message in dragging the holdouts kicking and screaming to the finish line late Thursday night, when the House voted to approve the extensions. Included in the package was an estate tax measure that she and other Democrats considered a particularly galling handout to the wealthy — a $28 billion gift to 6,000 families, she called it.

But she argued to her caucus that it was simply too risky to block passage, which would only allow the incoming and more conservative Congress to take up the matter next year.

Allowing tax cuts for the middle class to expire would have been "a risk to the economy," she said. "And besides, when next year comes, the Republicans are going to give a tax cut to the rich anyway."

Such comments have won her few fans across the aisle. Her critics have charged that she is an ideologue who as speaker has displayed no interest in working with them.

Pelosi said what motivates her is not a philosophical debate but a desire for results.

"You have to be realistic about what you can accomplish," she said. "I don't even think about it as ideology but as solving problems."

As she writes in a book published two years ago, "Know Your Power," Pelosi takes what she calls an "organize, don't agonize" approach to politics.

Now, she'll turn her attention to restraining the new majority, which is threatening to turn back the Democrats' efforts on health care and subject the Obama administration to exhaustive investigations.

"The Republicans have won the election," she said. "I congratulate them on their victory. I think we have to give them a chance to show the American people what their priorities are. But we will stand our ground."

And maybe, she hopes, her team can pull off a come-from-behind victory of its own.

"I've been minority leader before, and I was effective," Pelosi said, noting that she helped win the House back for the Democrats in 2006. "That's what we intend to do now."

Even after a 23 years in Congress, and a political heritage that stretches back even further, Pelosi says she still finds it thrilling to enter the Capitol.

She tells a favorite story, about the first time she saw the building as her family drove to Washington for one of her father's swearing-in ceremonies.

"We were in the back seat of the car. I was maybe 4 years old," she said. "One of my brothers said, 'Look, here's the Capitol.' I said, 'Where? Is it capital A, capital B?'

"The beautiful, beautiful Capitol," she said. "Every time I come here, every time I leave, it never fails to inspire me."

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