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.