Pelosi shatters a marble ceiling

Vote Thursday expected to confirm Democrat as first woman to lead a party in Congress.

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.

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.

Art of the vote count

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.

Even many Democrats worry that she could move the party too far to the left to win national elections. Supporters say that concern overlooks her strengths. "What people don't understand is that she comes from a deep political background through family and through the political trenches," says Michael Yaki, a San Francisco lawyer who directed Pelosi's district office from 1989 to 1996. "When she talks to Democrats from Georgia or Mississippi or New York, she understands what it means to be a politician."

Some observers say the San Francisco connection can also be a political strength. It's one of the richest fundraising venues in the country and a laboratory for dealing with highly complex politics. This milieu does not forge national politicians who are naively idealistic and impotent. Quite the contrary.

"People who survive in San Francisco have to deal with incredible diversity and controversy. They have to understand how the political machinery works," says Richard DeLeon, a political scientist at San Francisco State University.

Pelosi often talks of how, during her first campaign for the House, her father sent out her brother (then the mayor of Baltimore) to make sure her campaign was in good shape. He reported back after one day, "her organization is better than ours."

Her stamp in Congress

Her signature issues in Congress have reflected her concerns in the district, including more money for women's health, AIDS research, and human rights. Indeed, she once snubbed a state dinner with President Clinton to protest China's human rights record. Feminist groups also cite her strong support of abortion rights.

Still, Pelosi insists that her record isn't just women's issues. She also served 10 years on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and 12 on the powerful Appropriations Committee. "I have a great deal of confidence about what I bring to the table," she said, after running through her resume at length at the end of a Monitor breakfast with reporters last spring.

She cites her years as one of only four lawmakers getting top intelligence briefings as the basis for her break with the Democratic leadership and the White House on support for war in Iraq. She also opposes the president's plan for homeland defense.

Yet, it is not issues that determine leadership contests on Capitol Hill these days. More and more, fundraising is becoming the key in both parties, and Pelosi is rapidly becoming the most prolific fundraiser for colleagues in House history. This year, her PAC to the Future gave out $1 million to other candidates - more than any lawmaker in Campaign 2002, according to the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics.

Moreover, in the 12 months since she has become the minority whip, the No. 2 position in the party, Pelosi has stumped for Democratic candidates in 30 states and 90 congressional districts.

Her new marble and gold penthouse overlooking the Potomac River in Georgetown now vies with New York Sen. Hillary Clinton's brick colonial as the venue for top party events in the city. "Suddenly, in the midst of all those essentially gray, white men in the Republican leadership, you've got a friendly, intelligent, warm woman who doesn't stand on a lot of ceremony.... It's going to be something!" says Peg Yorkin, cofounder of the Feminist Majority Foundation.

Is image everything?

But skeptics within her own party say all the glitter could send the wrong message. "Our strength lies in our moral authority and the fact that we represent the majority of people in this country who struggle from paycheck to paycheck," says Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D) of Ohio, who mounted a last-minute challenge to Pelosi's leadership bid.

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