Pelosi shatters a marble ceiling
Vote Thursday expected to confirm Democrat as first woman to lead a party in Congress.
WASHINGTON AND SAN FRANCISCO
Sure, there's the image of pearls, parties, and the best-cut suits on Capitol Hill. But it's another dimension of Nancy Pelosi that helps explain why she's closing in on the highest rank ever attained by a woman in the US Congress: meticulous preparation and work - most of it at the end of a phone.Skip to next paragraph
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If House Democrats vote as expected today, the eight-term California lawmaker will become the first woman to lead a party in Congress. She would replace Rep. Richard Gephardt, who stepped down as minority leader last week.
Nearly 13,000 people have served in the Congress since the founding of the Republic. But only 216 have been women - and of those, none has been the leader of a political party. This is "definitely smashing the glass ceiling," says former GOP Rep. Margaret Heckler, who cofounded the women's caucus in Congress 26 years ago.
Even though her vote seemed secure today, Ms. Pelosi, the daughter of one of the most effective machine politicians in Baltimore's history, wasn't taking anything for granted. In the final days and hours leading up to the election, "Team Pelosi" continued to sound out members to ensure the commitments held. They met around baskets of fruit and chocolate squares (a Pelosi favorite) in the San Francisco Demo-crat's office to go over the count, yet again. "The caucus really wants someone with talent, energy, drive, toughness - and one thing more than anything else, our caucus wants a winner," says Rep. Adam Schiff of California, a moderate Democrat who helped her count votes.
Knowing where the votes are - and why - is an art that Pelosi been cultivating all her life. Friends say that the art of politics is "in her genes." An old-school liberal, she also has an innate sense of how to work the political system. She is at once shrewd, relentless, practical, and (even foes admit) very likable. She listens. She doesn't hold a grudge.
Growing up in a one of the most powerful political families in Baltimore, she learned basic political skills watching her mother and volunteers organize city blocks in the basement. Her father, Thomas D'Alesandro, served as a US congressman from 1939 to 1947, and then 12 years as mayor. Her brother, Thomas D'Alesandro III, would also go on to be mayor of Baltimore. Pelosi says she hasn't missed a Democratic national convention since she was 12 years old.
"Old Baltimore politics was machine politics, far more organizational than ideological," says Eric Uslaner, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, College Park. "Her father was a powerful leader. What she would have learned is how to get out the votes."
After moving to San Francisco with her husband, Paul, Pelosi raised five children, but never stopped cultivating political contacts and became a formidable fundraiser. (A famously supportive husband, he often picks out her clothes, friends say.)
She attracted national party attention when she helped former California Gov. Jerry Brown win an upset in the 1976 presidential primary in Maryland. Those ties helped her secure the Democratic nomination for a San Francisco House seat, then a victory in 1987. "She's going to be a great leader.... She helped other people get elected before she got elected," says Rosalind Wyman, a Democratic activist in California.
Republicans say they're delighted that Democrats are on the verge of choosing a "San Francisco Democrat" to lead their party. "If it looked like she faced a real challenge, we'd go door to door to help her," quips a House GOP aide.