Nancy Pelosi is poised to become the most powerful woman in Congress–a leap up the legislative ladder that will position this daughter of the New Deal to play a central role in defining the Democratic Party of the twenty-first century. With Democratic minority whip David Bonior, an able liberal stalwart, expected to step aside in the late summer or early fall to concentrate on his Michigan gubernatorial campaign, Pelosi, an eight-term Californian with one of the most progressive voting records in the House, is well positioned to grab the number-two job in the 210-member Democratic caucus. If she stakes her claim successfully, that would make her the highest-ranking woman in the history of Congress–with a very real possibility, perhaps in the not too distant future, of becoming Speaker of the House, and the certainty of inclusion on vice-presidential short lists for 2004.

The placement of Pelosi at the side of minority leader Dick Gephardt would send a powerful signal about the direction of the caucus, which is set to shuffle its leadership team for the first time since Republicans took charge of the House in 1995. At a time when Congressional Democrats are under pressure from corporate campaign contributors to embrace the inside-the-Beltway compromises of the business-oriented Democratic Leadership Council, Pelosi wants to go to the core constituencies–women, organized labor, environmentalists, civil rights campaigners, gays and lesbians–and mobilize the grassroots. “We can do all we can with our inside maneuvering, but without the outside mobilization we’ll never achieve what is possible,” she says.

Pelosi’s message has appeal among Democrats desperate to retake the House. She already has public commitments from more than ninety members in the whip race, compared with around seventy for her opponent, Maryland’s Steny Hoyer, a decidedly more cautious player. Among her supporters are some of the fiercest critics of the policies of George W. Bush, Congressional Republicans and those who would have Democrats compromise with them. “When Nancy Pelosi enters the leadership, mark my words, it will be a dramatic moment for the Democratic Party. This goes way beyond Capitol Hill,” says Representative Maxine Waters, the fiery representative from South Central Los Angeles who is a leader both within the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Progressive Caucus, to which Pelosi also belongs. “The words I use to describe Nancy are the words I want to use to describe the Democratic Party: ‘Progressive, strong, energetic.’ That is the prospect Nancy offers our party.”

Pelosi, 61, was born into Democratic politics. Her father, Thomas D’Alesandro Jr., was a Congressman and later mayor of Baltimore. Some of Pelosi’s earliest memories are of explaining to schoolmates how their parents could navigate the social service maze. “I would tell them how to get a sick relative into City Hospital, how to get a job that paid a living wage,” recalls Pelosi. “I thought that was what it meant to be a Democrat: You make sure that government works for the people, help them find a job, find the care they need, find a place in the community.”

Pelosi, who married a native San Franciscan and moved to the Bay Area, is frequently portrayed as a nontraditional player in a Congress that remains overwhelmingly male and cautious. She is an outspoken feminist who challenged Jesse Helms to his face when he blocked action on a treaty barring discrimination against women, a relentless battler for gay rights who introduced the parents of slain Wyoming college student Matthew Shepard to the 2000 Democratic National Convention, and a human rights campaigner who has opposed drug-war funding of the Colombian military and battled the bipartisan consensus of Democratic and Republican administrations on free trade with China.

Yet Pelosi is also a protégée of former House Democratic Caucus chairman Phil Burton, a legendary Capitol Hill power broker. She may be one of the House’s most vocal proponents of campaign finance reform, but Pelosi raised almost $5 million for Democratic House candidates last year and is broadly credited with having played a critical role in the party’s biggest coup of the 2000 House campaign–switching four California seats from “R” to “D.” Congressman Jane Harmon, who beat a Republican incumbent, credits Pelosi with helping her decide to run, while Pelosi raised money, strategized and campaigned for the other three.

For Pelosi, who earns 100 percent voting records from the AFL-CIO, Americans for Democratic Action and Planned Parenthood, the two sides of her political persona go together like the etchings of Eleanor Roosevelt and the modern art on the walls of her Capitol Hill office. “I don’t accept that there is a clash between traditional Democratic values and new ideas,” she says. “We have to make connections between our values and the demands of the current debate.” Nowhere has Pelosi done this more aggressively than on the issue of AIDS, where she combines an old-school push for federal funding of hospitals and clinics with advocacy on behalf of nontraditional treatments, needle exchange and medical marijuana. “It’s not just that electing a woman matters–although it does,” says Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch. “It’s also that Nancy Pelosi is so strong on the issues, and she recognizes the need to build coalitions not just in Congress but between Congress and grassroots activists who want Democrats to fight for working people and the environment.”

The whip’s job has traditionally been the ultimate Capitol insider position. As the appropriately sadistic title suggests, a party whip is charged with whipping members of the caucus into shape–spreading the word about party positions, managing floor debates, manipulating rules and procedures to partisan advantage and, above all, delivering the votes. Once little more than appointed mandarins, party whips in Congress are now elected by caucus members and imbued with the power to make or break issues that define a party at the national level. On the Republican side of the aisle, majority whip Tom DeLay, a fierce right-winger, has expanded the list of traditional whip duties to include naming his lieutenant, Dennis Hastert, as Speaker of the House.

Pelosi is no DeLay in drag. Where DeLay calls himself “The Hammer,” Pelosi relies on charm. She jokes with conservative Democrats that she is simply taking the positions they will be embracing in ten or twenty years–an argument that may explain support for her whip candidacy from “Blue Dog” Democrats Collin Peterson of Minnesota and Max Sandlin of Texas. When she first ran for Congress, Pelosi’s personal touch–don’t get her started on the subject of her five children and four grandchildren–was misread as evidence of a lack of depth. A party fundraiser who had chaired the California Democratic Party and lost a bid for Democratic National Committee chair in 1985, Pelosi was the somewhat surprising pick of dying Representative Sala Burton to fill her San Francisco seat in a 1987 special election. That guaranteed Pelosi support from the powerful political machine assembled by Burton’s late husband, Phil, but not of the most progressive forces in the city, which coalesced behind the candidacy of city Supervisor Harry Britt. Pelosi takes legitimate hits from Bay Area activists who complain she is too close to the local business and political elites. She is still scored for her willingness to allow private interests to get a piece of the Presidio, a former military base located on prime Bay Area real estate, which has been converted to National Park status. Even with such criticism, however, Pelosi won last fall with 85 percent of the vote.

In Washington, Pelosi takes hits for being too liberal; foes quietly portray her as too left wing for leadership. Hoyer, meanwhile, has moved from reliable liberalism to the right. Courting conservatives, Hoyer tells DLC audiences that Democrats lost control of the House in 1994 because “too many Americans believed that our party had become weak on crime and national defense, incapable of making hard decisions on welfare reform and fiscal policy, and irrevocably wedded to the idea that all of our problems could be solved by government and more spending.” In a race where regional and personal loyalties are factors, Hoyer is backed by some progressives, including Ohio’s Dennis Kucinich and Georgia’s John Lewis. But, Wallach says, “Hoyer has repositioned himself–one can only assume for political purposes–as the DLC, business candidate in this race.”

If Pelosi wins the whip spot, she will immediately be a prime player in Democratic efforts to thwart Bush’s legislative agenda. And if Gephardt’s ample ambitions steer him toward another presidential run, Pelosi will be high on the list of potential Speakers. Those positions give her personal power. But they also provide a platform for party-building. A biographer wrote of Pelosi’s predecessor, Phil Burton: “Burton took the New Deal Coalition of Franklin D. Roosevelt and extended it far beyond what anyone thought imaginable.” It is that ambition that gets Pelosi out of her chair, almost jumping with excitement, saying, “We need to throw open the windows and say, ‘This is a new kind of opposition.'”