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Nancy Pelosi puts her stamp on the House

Nancy Pelosi is a master tactician and the most powerful speaker in a half century. Behind her personal brand of power politics – and whether she will still be speaker after the midterm elections.

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The family moved to San Francisco in 1969 at the start of the Silicon Valley high-tech boom. For Nancy, the first step back into politics was an appointment to the San Francisco Library Commission, which needed resources. "One day they said to me: 'If only one of us knew Leo McCarthy,' who was then speaker of the [state] Assembly, and I said: 'I know Leo' ... and, of course, it took me right back to politics."

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From the start, Pelosi built her own political career on finding resources to support others. With all five children in school, Pelosi began volunteering for Mr. McCarthy and raising funds for local candidates out of her San Francisco home near the Presidio. She told the kids: "Proper preparation prevents poor performance," a motto that covered her approach to fundraising and political organizing.

In 1976, Pelosi wrote a memo to California Gov. Jerry Brown (D), a former classmate of her husband's, urging him to get into the Maryland presidential primary. She volunteered her help and family connections. He accepted. In a surprise move, Mr. Brown won Maryland and in return backed Pelosi to chair the Northern California Democratic Party and, later, the state party.

What impressed the Democratic political establishment was her energy, organizational and fundraising skills, and network of personal connections. She set up the first permanent party headquarters and moved a paper-and-pencil operation into the computer era. In 1984, she helped bring the Democratic National Convention to San Francisco. Perhaps most important, she developed a reputation for delivering what she promised.

"When I first met Nancy Pelosi, she was just a worker bee in the Democratic Party, doing fundraising, but she always supported the farmworkers and you could trust her," says Dolores Huerta, a cofounder with César Chávez of the United Farm Workers of America.

In an era of hard-talking party bosses, it was easy to dismiss the charming Pacific Heights mother of five as a lightweight. "Everyone underestimates her from Day 1," says Roz Wyman, a close friend who chaired the 1984 Convention. "Nancy is quite remarkable, and it's only now, since the health-care vote came up, that people realize what she does."

For Pelosi, fundraising wasn't just a process, loathed by most politicians, of getting cash to candidates. It was also a path to vital political information: what donors care about, what motivates them, and how to convert those motivations into a check for Democrats. Over time her California contacts helped fund campaigns across the nation.

But when Pelosi attempted a run for chairman of the Democratic National Committee in 1984-85, she was dismissed by some in the East Coast old guard as "an airhead" – a rich San Francisco liberal who could give parties, but what else? After setting up an office in Washington to campaign for the job, Pelosi dropped out a day before the vote, convinced that she couldn't win. But the experience marked her. "I always said that if I hadn't run for chair of the DNC I might not have realized how rough the intramural game can be on the Democratic side," she says.