WASHINGTON — ASKED about the clubby male atmosphere so many of her female predecessors in Congress have complained about, Rep. Nancy Pelosi chooses a characteristically peacemaking tack. ``I can't really say that [it is a men's club], having just been named to the Appropriations Committee,'' the California Democrat says. ``There are good opportunities for women in the House of Representatives,'' she says, with the added qualifier, ``Could there be more? Yes.''
The art of politics comes naturally to Mrs. Pelosi, say those who have watched her grow from little sister of a powerful Baltimore Democratic family, to wealthy housewife, mom, Democratic Party fund-raiser, and third-term congresswoman representing San Francisco's liberal amalgam of environmentalists, gays, and Asian and Latin immigrants. She has not evolved into a politician so much as she's knitted all her roles into one, they say.
``She's never lost some of the best qualities of being a woman in the political process,'' says one woman veteran of California State Democratic Party politics who has worked with Pelosi. ``She has remained a very feminine, lovely, well-dressed mother of five ... she remains attractive in the best sense of the word without that hard-edged persona [women sometimes adopt to deal in an arena dominated by men].''
In rough-and-tumble politics still prone to sexist attitudes, her very feminine persona may be the reason she is sometimes underestimated by those who don't know her, says one Democratic congressional staffer, whose comments are echoed by California and Washington political observers alike.
But, pointing to her record, he says there can be little doubt about her political prowess: She was California Democratic Party chair in the early 1980s; she chaired the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Finance Committee in 1986 when the Senate was won back by Democrats; as a junior member of Congress she precociously took the lead in the House's bill to offer protective immigration status to Chinese students in the US after the Tiananmen Square massacre; and she won a coveted seat on the Appropriations Committee.
While Pelosi considers herself a feminist and feels strongly that Congress would act differently (voting pro-choice on abortion and antiwar) with more women members, this is not a preoccupation.
``I consider myself a feminist ... but as far as politics is concerned, my involvement predates all of that. I was born and raised in politics and my interest stems from my interest in the issues associated with the Democratic Party,'' says Pelosi.
``I didn't come here to change the behavior of somebody who has been here 30 years ... I don't think that people [in Congress] exclude women from anything. We have to get used to the fact that in a body of this kind, you have to fight for everything and that's sort of something that takes some getting used to, maybe for women more than men,'' she observes.
Democrats and Republicans alike speak highly of Pelosi's unabrasive, if persistent, politicking. But that demeanor can be tough to maintain.
She says women are often surprised at how ``thick-skinned'' they have to be, because when a politician enters public life ``you come under immediate attack.''
She explains her quiet strength this way: ``I learned how to be a peacemaker by learning how to fight. In a way that's not destructive to know how to fight a battle ... [a battle] is a billion details that add up to a success, so you have to be thorough and organized.''
Last month during congressional debates over the Gulf war, Pelosi used a little bit of both fighting spirit and organized maneuvering to bring a constituent concern to light. Having had two opportunities to stand and oppose the use of force in the Gulf, Pelosi says she went against the advice of some of her colleagues to use her third chance to speak against the war to discuss the potential for an environmental disaster. At that time, the issue of the potential of an oil spill sabotage in the Gulf had not yet been raised and it appeared to some to be an obscure detail against the greater issue of loss of life.
``Everyone said, `What are you talking about?''' she explains. But her prescient courage to buck her colleagues is most telling today as oily brown Gulf waters lap on shore.