Richard Reeves

The Lady of the House

SAN FRANCISCO -- Nancy Pelosi was a Democratic Party activist practically from the moment she was born, the daughter of a Maryland congressman. But at 47, the mother of five children had never run for public office -- and did not think she ever would. She had promised herself she would never even think about it until her youngest finished high school.

In 1987, a congressional seat opened in the 5th District of California with the death of 61-year-old Sala Burton, who had succeeded her husband, Phil, in Congress. Mrs. Burton told friends she thought Pelosi, an energetic fundraiser and former chair of the party, should get the so-called "Burton seat." Pelosi's youngest, Alexandra, was beginning her senior year in high school, and her mother said she would not run if the daughter needed her.

"Go," said the teenager. "Get a life!"

The seat was and is (the district number has changed to 8) a safe Democratic seat. Pelosi, though, was a decided underdog in a 13-person field. She was derided as a "party girl" because of her many party positions over the years and because her big house in Pacific Heights was open around-the-clock for fundraising parties. A million dollars later, much of it from her husband, Paul, a presence in the city's business and real estate worlds, she won the Democratic primary by 1 percent of the vote.

"I'm Nancy Pelosi and I'm here to fight AIDS," were her first words representing San Francisco on the floor of Congress. That marked her for years as a hyperliberal San Francisco Democrat. Marginal.

But the mark was way off the mark. Pelosi is certainly a liberal, but she is also pragmatic, tough and, most of all, indefatigable. Those who thought she was just a rich lady from crazytown soon learned otherwise. She was a D'Alesandro from Baltimore. Her father had been a member of Congress and became mayor of Baltimore by organizing Italian-American voters door-to-door in the neighborhoods called Little Italy. One of her brothers also served as mayor.

In Baltimore she was a princess. When she was born in 1940, it was front page news: "It's a Girl for the D'Alesandros." Before she was 10 years old she was handling the notes and letters from residents who would leave them on Mayor D'Alesandro's doorstep.

She moved to San Francisco, her husband's hometown, and was there for six years before her name appeared in the papers. Said the San Francisco Chronicle: "Nancy Pelosi, neighborhood leader and sister-in-law of Supervisor Ronald Pelosi, was appointed yesterday to the San Francisco Library Commission."

Two years after that, in 1977, she was elected the chair of the Northern California Democratic Party.

Thirty years later, the Economist, the British magazine, called her: "Arguably the most powerful woman in American history." Last Sunday, The Washington Post added: "Why did health care reform pass? Nancy Pelosi was in charge."

Pelosi's greatest political triumph before becoming the first woman Speaker of the House came in 1976, when her friend, Gov. Jerry Brown, was running one of the wilder of American presidential campaigns. She practically dragged him to Maryland, moved him into the family house on Albemarle Street in Baltimore, where the D'Alesandros called in enough chits for him to defeat Jimmy Carter there -- beginning a winning streak of seven straight primaries.

She did all that without a great deal of publicity and was actually not very well-known by the general public when she first ran. In her campaign speeches then she talked a good deal about being a mother. Some of the lessons of motherhood may be relevant to running the House of Representatives, a job that could fairly be compared to herding cats. When her children, the five of them were born within six years, asked her each year what she wanted for Mother's Day, they always got the same answer: "Good behavior."

She wants and got the same thing from the 253 "children" in the House.

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