United States House of Representatives Minority Leader
Born Nancy D'Alesandro, March 26, 1940, in Baltimore, MD; daughter of Thomas Jr. (a politician) and Annunciata D'Alesandro; married Paul F. Pelosi (an investment banker), 1963; children: Nancy, Christine, Jacqueline, Paul Jr., Alexandra. Education: Earned degree from Trinity College, 1962.
Home —San Francisco, CA, and Washington, DC. Office —2371 Rayburn HOB, Washington, DC 20515.
Volunteer for Democratic Party in San Francisco, CA, early 1970s; managed a 1976 Maryland primary race for Democrat presidential hopeful Jerry Brown; chaired California Democratic Party, 1981–83; elected by special election to the U.S. House of Representatives from California's Eighth Congressional district, 1987, and re–elected every two years; elected minority whip by House Democrats, October, 2001, and minority leader, November, 2002.
Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi became the House minority leader on November 14, 2002, a momentous day in the annals of American political history. Pelosi was chosen by her Democratic Party colleagues in the U.S. House of Representatives to lead their platform for the coming Congressional term, making her the highest–ranked female elected official in American history. New Statesman columnist
That man was Thomas "Big Tommy" J. D'Alesandro Jr., her father. D'Alesandro represented his Baltimore, Maryland, district in the U.S. House of Representatives for years as one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's "New Deal" Democrats. Pelosi was born in 1940 in Baltimore, the only daughter among six children. When she was seven, her father became Baltimore's new mayor, making him the first Italian American to lead the city and a hero in the strongly Italian neighborhood around Albemarle Street, where the family lived. Pelosi attended local Roman Catholic schools, and while her mother, Annunciata, hoped she might become a Roman Catholic nun, Pelosi had other plans. In an interview with National Catholic Reporter writer Joe Feuerherd, Pelosi said she knew from an early age that convent life was not for her. "But I thought I might want to be a priest," she told Feuerherd. "There seemed to be a little more power there, a little more discretion over what was going on in the parish."
Pelosi's father served as Baltimore mayor for 12 years, and her first experience with politics was gleaned by helping out in his campaigns. When she was 16, she attended a black–tie political event with her father, and was thrilled to find herself seated next to a young Massachusetts senator, John F. Kennedy. Otherwise Pelosi led a strict, sheltered life, and even went to a women–only Roman Catholic institution in Washington, Trinity College. She considered law school, but those plans were put aside after she married a Georgetown University graduate, Paul F. Pelosi, after she earned her degree in 1962. They settled in New York City, where her husband became an investment banker, and began a family that would quickly number five children. In 1969, they packed up and moved to the San Francisco, California, area.
Pelosi was a stay–at–home mother for years. "With five of us, she was a car–pool mom for somebody every day of the week," her son, Paul Jr., recalled in an interview with People magazine's J.D. Heyman. Daughter Alexandra elaborated: "We were like the kids from The Simpsons —she couldn't get anyone to babysit." But Pelosi found herself drawn back into politics, and began volunteering for the local Democratic Party organization in the Bay Area. She worked for a San Francisco–area Congressman, Phil Burton, and in 1976 went back to her hometown at the behest of California Democratic governor Jerry Brown, who was making a run for the White House that year. Pelosi managed Brown's Maryland campaign in the weeks leading up to the state primary, which he won.
Between 1981 and 1983, Pelosi served as chair of the California Democratic Party, and also chaired the host committee for the 1984 Democratic National Convention, held in San Francisco that July. That national nominating convention was notable for the delegates' choice of Geraldine Ferraro as presidential candidate Walter Mondale's running mate—the first time in American history that a major political party offered a female candidate on its ticket. Pelosi's own electoral victory—her first—came three years later, when she ran for Burton's former seat in the House of Representatives. Burton had died in 1983, and his wife, Sala, succeeded him to the seat in a special election that year. When Sala Burton was diagnosed with cancer, she suggested that Pelosi run for her seat in another special election planned.
Pelosi took the advice and won the seat, which represented the Eighth Congressional District of California. Her constituents included voters from the legendary Haight–Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco, once the epicenter of the hippie counter-culture in 1960s, as well as residents of Chinatown; her territory also included the city's famous Golden Gate Park and Fisherman's Wharf. She was re–elected consistently by large margins over the next 12 years, and compiled a solidly liberal voting record in Congress that scored points with her left–leaning constituents back home. Gays and lesbians are thought to comprise about 25 percent of Eighth Congressional District residents, and are ardent Democrats; in the 2000 national election, just 15 percent of voters from the district cast their ballot for Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush. Its demographics also included a large number of affluent households, and it was known as a strong donor base for the Democratic Party fund–raising efforts.
As a one of the 435 elected representatives of Congress's lower house, Pelosi consistently voted in favor of progressive social legislation, of the type often derided by conservative Republicans. She supported environmental–protection measures, increased funding for AIDS research, the legalization of same–sex unions, and the preservation of women's reproductive rights. Outspoken on human–rights matters, she once caused a stir during a 1991 visit to China when she raised a protest banner in Tiananmen Square, the site of political demonstrations two years earlier that were brutally suppressed by the Communist Chinese leadership. Labor unions also gave Pelosi high marks for her voting record on trade issues.
In the House, Pelosi served on the Appropriations Committee and later the House Intelligence committee. In October of 2001, her colleagues elected her minority whip to succeed Rep. David Bonior of Michigan, who gave up the job to make a gubernatorial run in his home state. The job of the "whip"—a term derived from the aristocratic English blood sport of fox hunting, denoting the rider whose job it was to keep the hounds on the scent of the fox—entailed making sure that House Democrats voted along party lines; the whip also sought out Republicans willing to cross party lines on certain issues. The job made her the second–ranking Democrat in House, after House minority leader Richard A. Gephardt, and the first woman ever of either party ever to hold the title. Not long after landing the post, Pelosi found herself at one of the weekly White House breakfast meetings assembled by President Bush, among top Congressional leaders of both parties. "I realized in over 200 years of our history, these meetings have taken place and a woman has never ever sat at that table," Pelosi told WWD writer Joanna Ramey.
Pelosi voted consistently against President Bush's policies in the first two years of the new Republican Administration. She was openly critical of his controversial tax–cut plan, and of the White House's proposed welfare and health–insurance legislation. Pelosi was also racking up points among the Democratic Party leadership as a skilled fund–raiser and tireless cross–country campaigner; in the 2002 election year, she was credited with bringing in some $8 million to Democratic Party coffers. Despite such efforts, her party lost seats in both the House and the Senate—a rarity for the Democrats in mid–term elections during a first–term Republican president, and one that had last occurred in 1902. When Gephardt announced his retirement from the post of House minority leader to devote more time to his 2004 presidential campaign, Pelosi made a bid for the job herself, and began calling on her party colleagues in the House to secure their vote.
Pelosi's rival for the job was a more centrist Democrat, Martin Frost of Texas, but Frost dropped out after Pelosi held a news conference and declared she had 105 commitments from House Democrats to confirm her as minority leader. Political analysts initially considered Pelosi a surprising choice for the post, whose task it is to unite House Democrats along a consistent party line. Her liberal voting record surprised some, but others termed it a sign that the recently trounced party was gearing up for a much more ardent, non–centrist approach to battling a Republican–controlled House, Senate, and White House. Meanwhile, Republicans were delighted with the idea that Pelosi might lead the House Democrats, citing a voting record that made for easy attack; she was even derided with the code term "San Francisco Democrat" by some of the GOP leadership.
Pelosi won the post on November 14, 2002, and was sworn in a few weeks after the 108th Congress was seated the following January. Though she and her Republican counterpart, House majority leader Tom DeLay, are often described as arch–foes, DeLay quietly showed up for her swearing–in ceremony. Despite their public images as the most ideologically opposite representatives of the mainstream American political spectrum, Pelosi and DeLay have forged a mutual respect for one another, and the Texas conservative once even accepted Pelosi's challenge to tour a San Francisco treatment center for AIDS patients in her district.
Pelosi was the first woman to hold the minority leader job in either chamber of Congress, and the rank made her, in effect, the highest–ranking politician of her gender in United States history. The New Statesman 's Stephen cited one example of the legislative backroom dealing that is endemic to the House and Senate, terming this emblematic of "the sheer venality of American politics," but asserted that Pelosi's rise was "a chance to civilize it all." New York Times journalist Sheryl Gay Stolberg described Pelosi as "elegant and energetic," with "the kind of star quality that many say makes them again excited to be Democrats. Young women come to the Capitol to have their picture taken in front of her office."
In her first months on the job, Pelosi immediately went to work with her characteristic vigor, voicing party opposition to the $675–billion economic package proposed by the Bush White House, which contains such perks as an elimination of the tax on stock dividends; the Democrats, by contrast, offered an economic package that included extending unemployment–compensation benefits, tax rebates for working families, and more dollars for public transit. As House minority leader, she condemned Bush's economic record in the first half of his four–year term, asserting that the Republican–sponsored initiatives would, if implemented, bring the federal government "to a new level of recklessness and irresponsibility," the New Statesman 's Stephen quoted her as saying.
Three months into the job, Pelosi's ability to coalesce House Democrats faced its first true challenge: the contentious issue of war with Iraq. Just after the first bombs dropped on the night of March 20, 2003, she spent hours trying to hammer out the language for a resolution that would spell out House support for the troops, while not fully endorsing the president's actions. The following September, Pelosi excoriated the President for his request to Congress to approve an $87 million aid package for military spending and reconstruction in postwar Iraq.
A grandmother of five, Pelosi and her husband divide their time between homes in the Pacific Heights neighborhood of San Francisco and a place in the Washington's Georgetown section. Belying the stereotype of cuisine–focused Italian–Americans, Pelosi stays out of the kitchen. Her daughter, Alexandra—a filmmaker whose documentary about her experiences as a reporter on the 2000 presidential campaign trail, Journeys with George, aired on HBO just before her mother won the House minority leader job—once told her, "'Mom, you're really a pioneer; I'm proud of you,'" Pelosi recalled in an interview with U.S. News & World Report writer Terence Samuel. Pelosi asked her youngest child if it was because of her status as one of the 59 elected women serving in the House, but Alexandra replied that no, she was impressed because her mother does not cook. "Well, now nobody cooks," her daughter admitted, "but you were one of the first ones to stop."
Nation, December 2, 2002, p. 11.
National Catholic Reporter, January 24, 2003, p. 3.
New Statesman, November 25, 2002, p. 35.
New York Times, November 9, 2002, p. A1, p. A16; November 10, 2002, p. 30; November 17, 2002, p. 3; April 1, 2003, p. B13; September 25, 2003.
People, December 2, 2002, pp. 217–18.
Time, May 13, 2002, p. 50.
U.S. News & World Report, June 17, 2002, p. 18.
WWD, February 5, 2002, p. 6.
— Carol Brennan