Nancy Pelosi became a member of the House of Representatives after winning a 1987 special election that captured the attention of activists in San Francisco and across the country. The fight that year was between Democrats with different visions of how the party and the country should proceed. And three decades later, that question remains unresolved as Pelosi again bids for the speakership.
The daughter of a former Baltimore mayor and New Deal–era Democratic congressman, Pelosi campaigned in 1987 as a leader of the California Democratic Party. She had the backing of party insiders in San Francisco and beyond. Her chief rival was Harry Britt, a gay-rights activist who had been appointed after the assassination of Harvey Milk to fill Milk’s place on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
“Harvey Milk convinced a lot of lesbians and gay men that we should put our anger and our dreams into politics,” explained Britt, an ardent campaigner for social justice. “When he was killed he left a will in which he named me as a possible successor. I held that office for fourteen years, and…generally used the office as a place where people who wanted to change things could come and work with me.” Britt campaigned as a proud democratic socialist who’d been a leading figure nationally in the Democratic Socialists Organizing Committee and then Democratic Socialists of America.
A New York Times report at the time explained that “both he and Mrs. Pelosi are Democrats, but they represent different factions of the party,” and noted that “he argued that as a homosexual, he would work harder in Congress to end the AIDS epidemic,” while highlighting concerns that Pelosi was “well-connected to party leaders but out of touch with the interests of rank-and-file voters.”
Pelosi won with 36 percent to Britt’s 32.5 percent. Britt continued to serve as a supervisor until 1993, and has remained an outspoken progressive critic of neoliberalism, dogma, and demagoguery. If Harry Britt were a congressman today, he’d be a hero of the left and, perhaps, a leader among House Democrats.
But Britt’s not in the House. Pelosi is. And, despite what Republicans claim, she’s no leftist. Pelosi is what she was in 1987: an able liberal who knows how to count votes—at election time and on the floor of the House. She’s often, though not always, on the right side of history. Yet even those who may disagree with Pelosi recognize that she was a strikingly effective speaker during Barack Obama’s first two years in office.
After eight years in the wilderness, Pelosi has led Democrats back to majority status in the House. Democrats must now choose a leader for their caucus and for the chamber. Though Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Mark Pocan has made no formal endorsement, the savvy Wisconsin Democrat says “the odds are that Nancy Pelosi is the next speaker.”
Pocan leads a faction that carries forward much of the agenda Harry Britt ran on, and it is growing in numbers and influence. The next Congress will have a lot of new members who embrace elements Britt’s vision—as activists, reformers, and, in few cases, democratic socialists. If the progressive faction were mounting a challenge to Pelosi, that would be significant. But that’s not what’s happening.
Pelosi faces opposition from a group of “rebels,” but they are not an ideologically cohesive bunch. Sixteen House Democrats, some veteran members, some newcomers, most of them men, many of them corporate-aligned “New Democrats,” have signed a muddled letter that at once praises Pelosi as “a historic figure whose leadership has been instrumental to some of our party’s most important legislative achievements,” but then opposes the speakership bid by the only woman ever to lead the House because “we promised to change the status quo.”
The rebels don’t have a candidate. And they don’t have a program, aside from vague references to “new leadership.”
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who defeated a House Democratic Caucus chair Joe Crowley with a boldly progressive primary campaign that highlighted her democratic socialism, sums things up when she says that, while there is a need to “transform our leadership,” that doesn’t mean Pelosi should be ousted “just for the sake” of making a change.
That’s an especially sound premise at a time when Democrats need to focus on the threat posed by Donald Trump’s presidency and the policies that extend from it. The fight against Trumpism is not going to be advanced by a shift to the right.
“My standard in this is: I’m going to support the most progressive candidate that’s leading the party, and right now, that is Nancy Pelosi, in terms of the running,” says Ocasio-Cortez. “I would like to see new, younger leadership, but I don’t want new leadership that’s more conservative.”
California Congressman Ro Khanna, a leading figure among the new generation of House Democrats, says, “I have publicly and privately said that Pelosi is the most progressive candidate who can win.”
If California Congresswoman Barbara Lee, a prominent progressive with a record of challenging the status quo on issues of militarism and inequality, were bidding for the speakership, the calculus would be different. But Lee, a Pelosi backer, is bidding for Democratic Caucus chair—not speaker.
A serious challenger to Pelosi might yet step up. That is one reason why a number of key progressives have withheld endorsements. That’s not the only reason, however. Progressives are also framing agendas and making demands. Pocan and CPC vice chair Pramila Jayapal have met with Pelosi to push for “a big and bold” legislative program that links local activism to Democratic priorities in the House, and a major progressive presence on the Ways and Means, Energy and Commerce, Appropriations, Financial Services, and Intelligence committees. Pocan says Pelosi has been receptive to the argument that “there should be opportunities not only for seasoned CPC members, but also for our brand new CPC members, many of whom bring particular issue-area expertise.”
The factions that have always existed within the Democratic Party remain. What’s key, at this point, is the question of who among prospective speakers is most receptive to a progressive agenda, and to the empowerment of progressive members. If that’s Nancy Pelosi, then she should be the Speaker.