March 26, 1940 • Baltimore, Maryland
Nancy Pelosi is the first woman in American history to lead a political party in Congress. She has served the U.S. House of Representatives since 1987, when voters in San Francisco chose her to represent them in Washington. In 2002 her fellow Democratic Party lawmakers voted to make her House minority leader. She is the first woman ever to hold such a post. Republicans sometimes call Pelosi a "latte liberal" for her politically progressive views on the environment, women's reproductive rights, labor unions, and other issues. Pelosi has been outspoken in her criticism of President George W. Bush (1946–).
Nancy Pelosi began her career in politics at a young age. Her father, Thomas "Tommy" J. D'Alesandro Jr., was a popular local politician from the Little Italy section of Baltimore, Maryland. Just a year before Pelosi was born, her father won election to the same U.S. House of Representatives in which she would serve many years later.
Pelosi was born Nancy Patricia D'Alesandro on March 26, 1940, in Baltimore. She was the last of six children, and the first daughter. The family lived on Albemarle Street in Little Italy. Their neighborhood was a loyal Democratic Party stronghold in Maryland politics. Little Italy was a working class and largely Roman Catholic neighborhood, located near the city's main harbor. The local church, St. Leo's, and the nearby Democratic Party office were the centers of social and economic life for Italian-American families.
Pelosi's father was well-known in Little Italy, and went on to become a Baltimore legend. When she was seven years old, he became the city's first Italian-American mayor. He served three terms, and so Pelosi was known as the mayor's daughter for most of her childhood and teens. She often worked on his campaigns, as did her five brothers. In 1952, when Pelosi was just twelve years old, she was allowed to attend her first Democratic National Convention, where delegates choose their party's presidential candidate.
Pelosi's family were dedicated Democrats, and her parents were strict Roman Catholics as well. For a son or daughter to enter one of the Church's religious orders was considered a great honor for the family. Not surprisingly, her mother hoped that her daughter might do so, but Pelosi was not interested. "I didn't think I wanted to be a nun, but I thought I might want to be a priest because there seemed to be a little more power there," she said years later in an interview with Joe Feuerherd of the National Catholic Reporter.
"Any one of us who decides to put our young people in harm's way carries a responsibility for the consequences."
During the 1950s many devout Roman Catholic families placed restrictions on their children, and Pelosi's early family life was no different. She attended the Institute of Notre Dame High School in Baltimore, a school for young women. When it came time to choose a college, her parents permitted her to travel only as far as Washington, D.C., which was less than fifty miles from Baltimore. She entered Trinity College, a Roman Catholic college for women. It was an entirely new world for her. For someone who had grown up in Little Italy, she compared it to "going to Australia with a backpack," as she joked in a People interview with journalist J. D. Heyman.
Pelosi earned her degree from Trinity in 1962, and then served as a congressional intern for a Maryland senator. She thought about law school, but followed the more traditional path for a young woman of her era, that of marriage. Her husband, Paul Pelosi, was a recent Georgetown University graduate and a native of San Francisco. The couple settled in the New York City area, where Pelosi' new husband worked as a banker. She began raising a family, and was the mother of five by 1969, the same year the family moved across the country to San Francisco.
Pelosi was a homemaker for a number of years. Her youngest daughter, Alexandra, told People that she and her siblings were not an easy crew: "We were like the kids from The Simpsons—she couldn't get anyone to babysit." No matter how busy she was at home, Pelosi always volunteered for the Democratic party during election campaigns. In 1976 she worked for the presidential campaign of California's popular governor, Jerry Brown (1938–). Because of her political connections back in Maryland, she was asked to organize a "Brown for President" campaign there. Brown went on to win an unexpected primary victory in Maryland, thanks to Pelosi. Later that year he lost the Democratic Party's presidential nomination to Georgia's governor, Jimmy Carter (1947–).
The experience boosted Pelosi's reputation as a behind-the-scenes dynamo. In 1977 she became chair for the northern section of the California Democratic Party, and four years later became the chair for the entire state. She later served in a national party post as the finance chair for the 1986 congressional elections. Known for her top skills in recruiting candidates and getting them elected, Pelosi had never considered running for office herself. That changed when one of her longtime political allies was diagnosed with cancer and suggested that Pelosi run for the seat in the coming special election. It was not a local or state office—it was for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Nancy Pelosi's youngest daughter, Alexandra, is a journalist and filmmaker who brought a camcorder with her when she covered the 2000 presidential election for NBC News. Pelosi wanted to document what the campaign looked like from her seat on the bus that carried the press corps. The result was a fascinating behind-the-scenes documentary film, Journeys with George.
Alexandra Pelosi was born in 1969 and grew up in a family that regularly pitched in to help during Democratic political campaigns. She graduated from Loyola Marymount College in Los Angeles in 1991, and went to work for NBC News after attending graduate school at the University of Southern California. She was a producer for Dateline, and then covered Congress for the network. In early 2000 she was named to the campaign press corps team and assigned to the bus that followed Texas Governor George W. Bush around the country in his bid for the Republican nomination.
Pelosi's camcorder captured a side of the candidate that was rarely seen in regular news coverage. He joked with the journalists, though he sometimes criticized their reporting, liked to eat Cheeze Doodles, and played with a Magic 8 Ball. He even asked it to predict the election results, and the answer came back, "Outlook not so good." Bush even suggested the film's title to Pelosi. "My mother used to rip his father's policies on the House floor," Pelosi said in a WWD interview with Rosemary Feitelberg. It gave her and the Texas governor some unusual common ground, she felt. "I covered [Capitol] Hill for six years," she pointed out. "I have an aversion to all that seriousness. I think he does, too. That's the irony."
After the election Pelosi quit her job at NBC and went to work editing the film in her New York City apartment. It aired on the HBO cable network just before her mother was elected House minority leader in the fall of 2002. The White House press office made a few rumbles about it, but quickly backed down from a fight. When Pelosi promoted the film she tried to stay away from talking about her own political views. "I come from a political family," she explained to Feitelberg. "I think you should let people make their own judgements." Other articles noted that she was indeed a liberal-leaning Democrat, much like her mother. But Pelosi insisted that her goal in making the film was to make a kind of home movie. "I do think you shouldn't vote for someone who you wouldn't feel comfortable having
Pelosi won the 1987 special election as well as the next regular election in 1988. San Francisco voters regularly returned her to the seat, often by margins of 80 percent. As a member of Congress representing California's Eighth Congressional District, she served a population known as liberal and progressive, and she spoke for it in Congress. She argued for and won increased government funding for AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, which reduces the body's ability to fight off infection) research. The city had a disproportionately large number of residents who were HIV-positive (diagnosed with Human Immunodeficiency Virus, the virus that causes AIDS). There was a large Asian immigrant community in the city, and Pelosi made no secret of her distaste for a new American foreign policy that sought to forge new economic ties with China, which had been under authoritarian Communist Party rule for decades and was still accused of drastic violations of its citizens' human rights. In 1991, on a visit to the same Tiananmen Square where the Chinese army had killed protesters two years earlier, Pelosi held up a protest sign.
Pelosi's leadership abilities emerged in the mid-1990s, when Republicans gained a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives for the first time in forty years. Many of the new Republican legislators were drastically conservative in their views. For example, some believed that the federal government should promote a healthy economy by reducing the financial penalties that corporations paid for polluting the environment. In response Pelosi began to assume a more public profile in opposing their legislation. In October of 2001 she was elected as minority whip in the House, when a vacancy arose. The whip's job was to make certain that Democrats, who were in the "minority" among the 435 lawmakers in the House of Representatives, would vote with their party on specific pieces of legislation. She also worked to find Republican legislators willing to cross party lines and vote with Democrats on certain issues. Pelosi became the first woman to hold such a post in Congress.
A year later Pelosi won another important first when House minority leader Richard A. Gephardt stepped down from the job. In this job Gephardt had served as the official leader of the Democrats in the House of Representatives. Pelosi ran for the post against fellow law-maker Harold Ford Jr. of Tennessee, but House Democrats chose Pelosi by a vote of 177 to 29. As House minority leader, Pelosi led the 206 Democrats in opposing various policies of the Republican White House and Congress. She was an outspoken critic of President Bush's economic policies, and also voiced concerns about a planned war in Iraq.
On other matters Pelosi emerged as a progressive voice inside a party that had begun to take a more moderate political tone during the 1990s. She is still critical of China because of its human rights record, and supports women's reproductive rights. Her Republican counterparts often refer to her as a "San Francisco Democrat," which is a code word in conservative politics for someone who is ultra-liberal.
In the spring of 2004 the year-old American-led occupation of Iraq had become increasingly deadly on both sides. In May, U.S. military planes attacked a rural gathering that was said to have been a wedding celebration, and forty Iraqi civilians died. In her regular weekly press conference, Pelosi issued harsh words for the president. "Bush is an incompetent leader," the San Francisco Chronicle 's Marc Sandalow quoted her as saying. "In fact, he's not a leader. He's a person who has no judgment, no experience and no knowledge of the subjects that he has to decide upon." She asserted that U.S. soldiers were ill-equipped, despite the several billion dollars in funds that Congress had approved. She noted, for example, that parents of soldiers were sending their sons and daughters Kevlar lining, a bullet-resistant material that the Pentagon had not issued to all personnel.
Pelosi also predicted that Bush would not win election to a second term in November of 2004 because of the war, which she estimated might end up costing U.S. taxpayers as much as $250 billion. A Democratic victory in November could give Pelosi's party a majority in the House once again. In that case, she might become the new Speaker of the House, or the floor leader of the majority party. The position would make her third in the line of presidential succession, after the vice president. Pelosi's name was also mentioned as a possible vice presidential candidate for Democratic Party candidate John Kerry (1943–). Kerry selected North Carolina senator John Edwards (1943–) as his running mate in July of 2004.
Known in Washington for her ready smile and stylish suits, the grandmother of five puts in long hours at work. Staffers claim they can hear their boss coming down the hallways by the rapid "click-click" of her heels. "As the first woman to lead a party in Congress, Ms. Pelosi, elegant and energetic, has the kind of star quality that many say makes them again excited to be Democrats," noted New York Times writer Sheryl Gay Stolberg. Pelosi claims she does take time out to relax, sometimes at a Napa Valley home she shares with her husband. Completing the challenging New York Times crossword puzzle is one of her favorite hobbies.
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Sandalow, Marc. "U.S. Kills 40 Civilians in Village Attack." San Francisco Chronicle (May 20, 2004): p. A1.
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Tresniowski, Alex. "Bush Tracker: George W. Bush Untamed! Filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi Captures the Candid Candidate." People (March 25, 2002): p. 89.