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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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Undaunted, she helped Democrats take back the Senate in 1986, as chair of the Finance Committee of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. The effort earned her not just favors but an encyclopedic grasp of key outside players in politics and what their needs were, which would become an essential resource as speaker. "People talk about her enormous fundraising prowess, but it's because she understood the value of relationships," says Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood and a former Pelosi deputy chief of staff. "She has built loyal relationships across this country, and people would walk across hot coals for her."

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At the age of 47, Pelosi had raised five children, moved in the top echelons of party politics, and turned receptions in her San Francisco home into an ATM for Democrats. What she had not done was be elected to public office. That was about to change.

For California Democrats aiming for a career in politics, there were plenty of crusades to join: Berkeley's free-speech movement, early environmentalism, civil rights, peace, gay rights. But contrary to her image as a San Francisco liberal, Pelosi was never an issue activist. Unlike Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) of California, a friend, Pelosi never subscribed to a movement beyond the Democratic Party.

"Her passion was always the Democratic Party as opposed to these issues one at a time, because she believed that the Democratic Party embraced these issues," says Senator Boxer.

Over time Pelosi mastered a diversity of relationships unusual even in politics, from traditional trade union bosses to the ethnic and gay communities that were transforming her adopted city. Her unlikely relationship with US Rep. Phillip Burton (D) of California was decisive in launching her own political career. A fiery liberal and master of the inside game, Mr. Burton came within one vote of being House majority leader in 1976.

Although he pilloried the rich, Burton valued Pelosi for her political street sense and ability to get things done. At first glance, the two had little in common. They moved in rigidly separate social circles. Burton was loud, crude, and drank heavily – a wild man, critics said. Pelosi was none of those things. Yet both shared an attention to detail and an uncommonly fine tactical sense. At his death, Burton was succeeded in California's Eighth District by his wife, Sala, who during her last illness urged Pelosi to run to take her place.

"I never planned ... to go from the kitchen to the Congress," recalls Pelosi. Sala, she says, "almost demanded that I promise her that I would run for Congress if she did not."

Running on the theme "A voice that will be heard," Pelosi spent more than $1 million on the 1987 special election to fill Burton's seat – more than all the other candidates combined.

In a body of 435 members, most House freshmen take years to be heard. But with her network of favors both to the California delegation and Democrats nationwide, Pelosi was not the average apprentice. She used her network to begin to conquer the House Democratic caucus, one relationship at a time.

She landed a seat on the powerful House Appropriations Committee. In Washington, she began to host a weekly dinner group for liberal Democrats. At home in San Francisco, she expanded fundraisers to help both Democratic incumbents and challengers. The loss of control of the House in the 1994 elections stunned Democrats, none of whom had experienced life in the minority, and gave Pelosi a shot at leadership.

"I only decided to run when we lost the House. We lost it and then we lost again, and then we lost it again," she says. "Around 2000 I said: 'You know what? I know how to win. I can do this.' "