Elected: June 1987, 13th full term.
Born: March 26, 1940, Baltimore, MD
Home: San Francisco
Education: Trinity Col., B.A. 1962
Professional Career: CA Dem. Party, Northern chmn., 1977–81, St. Chmn., 1981–83; DSCC Finance Chmn., 1985–87; PR exec., Ogilvy & Mather, 1986–87.
Family: married (Paul) , 5 children
Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House from 2007 to 2011 and minority leader since Democrats lost control of the chamber, is one of the most polarizing figures in politics, with a negative and positive star quality reminiscent of former Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts. Detested by Republicans for her proudly liberal views, she is beloved in her party for her legislative accomplishments as well as her fundraising and politicking, which continue unabated as she enters her mid-70s. Pelosi was the first woman to achieve the speakership.
Elected to Congress in June 1987, she has the energy and shrewdness of one who has handled the most delicate of political chores, and the charm and unflappability of one who is the mother of five and grandmother of seven. As minority leader, Pelosi’s public image has receded since 2010, when Republicans ran hundreds of ads vilifying her in their successful campaign to gain control of the House.
Democrats' dismal showings in both the 2010 and 2014 midterm elections fueled speculation about whether it was time for her to step aside. But she has proven far too skilled at hauling in campaign funds; she collected more than $101 million, a personal record, during the 2014 cycle. Of that amount, more than $65 million went to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, making up more than one-third of the DCCC's total. “I’m the one that brung everyone to the party by winning the House in the first place,” she told The Washington Post. “I could have walked away, but we built something and then we want to take it to the next step” -- winning back control of the House.
Pelosi did bow to the demands for new, younger faces in leadership by appointing 42-year-old Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico, a Latino, to head the DCCC. And she installed Donna Edwards of Maryland, an African-American, as co-chair of the powerful Steering & Policy Committee along with longtime ally Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut. But her diminished influence was reflected in her inability to get her close friend and fellow Californian Anna Eshoo the ranking-member post on Energy and Commerce Committee. New Jersey's Frank Pallone, working with Minority Whip Steny Hoyer and other allies, beat out Eshoo for the job. News reports in early 2015 indicated that some younger rank-and-file members remained unhappy with what they saw as the entrenchment of longtime figures in leadership and top committee slots.
Hoyer also was part of a group that outmaneuvered Pelosi and other liberals in getting a massive so-called "cromnibus" spending package into law in late 2014. Liberals had complained about language in the legislation that, among other things, loosened restrictions on Wall Street banks. But Hoyer was able to help persuade 57 House Democrats to join Republicans in backing the measure.
Earlier, Pelosi began the 112th Congress in January 2011 with 19 Democrats voting against her—the most defections that any party leader had suffered since 1913. As Republicans voted repeatedly to repeal the health care law that had been her signature achievement, she stood steadfast against their criticisms.
Then, as President Barack Obama and Republican House Speaker John Boehner began meeting behind closed doors to discuss a solution to the looming impasse over raising the federal debt limit, she made clear that House Democrats would not accept any cuts to Medicare and Social Security. After those talks fell apart, she rounded up support among half of her caucus for the far less ambitious debt-ceiling deal that emerged, helping it to pass the House. Throughout this period, Pelosi continued to raise money. Before the end of 2011, she had brought in more than $20 million for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee while pulling in more than $5 million for individual members and candidates, as well as for her own campaign accounts. She told the radio show This American Life that she attended almost 400 fundraising events in 40 cities, an average of more than one a day.
The furious fundraising was aimed at her “Drive for 25” —the number of seats her party needed to reclaim the majority in 2012—but it became increasingly evident that, with a sharply divided electorate, Democrats were likely to remain a House minority. Talk began circulating anew about whether she would continue as Democratic leader, and her daughter, Alexandra, told a blogger several that her mother was “done” with Washington and “wants to have a life.” Then, Pelosi announced she would indeed seek another term as party leader. Only five Democrats voted for someone other than her in January 2013.
Pelosi grew up on Albemarle Street in Baltimore’s Little Italy, just east of downtown. Her father, Thomas D’Alesandro, Jr., served in the House from 1939 to 1947 and was mayor of Baltimore for 12 years after that. Her mother, Annunciata D’Alesandro, was an indefatigable political organizer, and her brother, Thomas, was mayor from 1967 to 1971. Pelosi says of her parents, “What I got from them was about economic fairness. That was the difference between Democrats and Republicans all those years ago.” She graduated from Trinity University in Washington, D.C., where she met her husband. After marrying, they moved to his hometown of San Francisco. There he became a successful real estate investor, and she raised their children and got into local Democratic politics.
At first, Pelosi impressed rough-hewn Rep. John Burton of California as just another stylish hostess in a city that had many of them. But she soon got Burton’s attention and that of his older brother, U.S. Rep. Phillip Burton, the de facto liberal leader of the House, who lost his race for majority leader to Texas Democrat Jim Wright by one vote in 1976. That year, Pelosi returned east to run the Maryland campaign of presidential candidate Jerry Brown, then and now once againgovernor of California. She was able to relate both to “Governor Moonbeam,” as Brown was dubbed, and to the practical-minded politicians she had met through her parents. In 1977, she became chairman of the Northern California Democratic Party, and four years later, she became chairman of the California Democratic Party. The positions required a considerable amount of diplomacy. But Pelosi managed to remain on good terms with various warring Democrats and help the party hold majorities in the legislature.
Then in 1982, John Burton declined to run for reelection in a new Marin- and San Francisco-based district. Some Democrats sounded out Pelosi, whose Presidio Heights home was in the district, but she declined to run, and the seat went instead to Marin-based Democrat Barbara Boxer. In the next few years, Pelosi worked with Mayor Dianne Feinstein to land the 1984 Democratic National Convention for San Francisco. In 1985, she ran for Democratic National Chairman but lost to Paul Kirk. Before long, though, she had another opportunity. Phil Burton’s widow, Sala Burton, was elected to succeed her husband after his death in 1983, but her health failed too. In 1987, as she was dying of cancer, she told her friends whom she wanted to succeed her: Nancy Pelosi.
Only two years before, Pelosi had told the press, “I won’t be running for office.” Her children were not yet grown, her husband’s business interests kept him mostly in California, and their net worth was not yet such that she could afford to self-finance a campaign. (The couple eventually became extremely wealthy, with houses in San Francisco, a vineyard in the Napa Valley, a townhome in the Sierras, and a condominium in Washington.) But she ran, moving her residence from Presidio Heights to a Pacific Heights rental apartment. Her chief opponent in the Democratic primary was San Francisco Supervisor Harry Britt, who had succeeded Milk after the assassination. San Francisco’s gay community at that time was not as mainstream as it is now, but Britt, who was gay, had a good record in office, and Pelosi had to work hard to beat him, 35%-31%.
In her early days in Congress, Pelosi focused on important issues of local sensitivity. One was the Presidio. Burton had inserted into legislation a provision that transferred the Presidio from the military to the Interior Department. The problem was that it was so expensive to maintain, it threatened to exceed the National Park Service’s budget. Through several Congresses, Pelosi worked to get bipartisan support for a funding source, and in 1997 created the Presidio Trust.
Another sensitive issue was human rights, especially in China. After the Tiananmen Square massacre, Pelosi sponsored an amendment to give Chinese students the right to remain in the United States, but President George H. W. Bush vetoed it. In 1991, she became the lead sponsor of the bill to make China’s most-favored-nation status conditional on human rights reforms. The House overrode Bush’s veto, but it was upheld in the Senate. After that, Pelosi led the annual fight against normalizing trade relations with China. She did all this at some political risk. Pelosi’s position was by no means universally popular with Asian-Americans in her district; many thought that the United States should trade and negotiate quietly with China. One of her chief adversaries was her San Francisco neighbor, Feinstein; for many years, they lived in houses just a few blocks apart in Presidio Heights. Pelosi courted support from people on the opposite end of the ideological spectrum, especially religious conservatives in the Republican caucus who also wanted to remain vigilant on China’s human rights record.
Pelosi rose to the position of senior Democrat on the Intelligence Committee. At the time of the September 11 attacks, she joined in the committee’s conclusion that, while the intelligence community did not have specific evidence in advance, it did have information that was relevant to the attacks.
Her move into the leadership was persistent, shrewd, and well-organized. In 1997, as a member of the Ethics Committee, she doggedly pursued ethics charges against Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich and worked with Minority Whip David Bonior in using scorched-earth tactics against him. In 1999, she launched a campaign for majority whip, anticipating that Democrats would win a majority in 2000, which they nearly did. Her opponent was Hoyer. They were old acquaintances, having served as interns for Sen. Daniel Brewster of Maryland in the 1960s, but not confreres: there were considerable stylistic and ideological differences. Many of the Democratic women in the House felt there should be a woman in the leadership.
But in 2000, Republicans held on to their majority, and the race for majority whip was moot. Not for long, though. Michigan’s Republican legislature, in drawing new congressional districts, put Bonior in a district it was plain he could not win, and he decided to run for governor. He resigned as minority whip, and Pelosi was off and running against Hoyer. Some supporters played up her potential to become a celebrity—“a glamorous grandmother who knocks people off their feet,” as then-Rep. Neil Abercrombie of Hawaii put it. With nearly unanimous support from the 32 California Democrats and from most women members, Pelosi started off with a strong base. Her support also crossed ideological lines. She was nominated by John Murtha, a mostly hawkish and culturally conservative Vietnam veteran from the coal country of western Pennsylvania, with a following among old-line Democrats. In October 2001, Pelosi won by a convincing 118-95.
As whip, Pelosi moved quickly to assert herself, sometimes independently from then-Minority Leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri. Her biggest conflict came in the fall of 2002, when she actively encouraged opponents of the resolution authorizing the use of force in Iraq, which Gephardt had enthusiastically endorsed. Pelosi contended that supporters had not made the case for using force and that she had seen no evidence that Iraq “poses an imminent threat to our nation.” To the surprise of many, her efforts helped win 126 Democratic votes against the resolution, while only 81 backed Gephardt’s position. In retrospect, the split signaled a transition in the caucus. Once the disappointing 2002 election results were in and Gephardt said that he was stepping down, Pelosi had all but locked up the support of a majority of the caucus. Rep. Martin Frost of Texas announced his candidacy with warnings that the selection of Pelosi might create a “permanent minority party.” He withdrew from the contest a day later, conceding that he could not win. Harold Ford of Tennessee made a belated, quixotic bid designed to appeal to a combination of blacks and New Democrats, but Pelosi won 177-29.
As the Democratic leader in the House, she brought a burst of energy—and favorable press coverage—to a party that badly needed it. She showed hands-on management in selecting members for committee vacancies and in developing a Democratic message criticizing the agenda of President George W. Bush. There were bruised feelings over some committee assignments, but even allies of Hoyer and Frost credited her with bringing a breath of fresh air and enthusiasm to party deliberations. As Republicans pressed their agenda, Pelosi declared that Democrats would take “a party position” in opposition to the Republican Medicare prescription-drug bill. But 16 Democrats voted for the final deal in November 2003, providing the critical margin for passage. She was largely silent about the renegades, many of whom were responding to local pressures favoring the bill.
Pelosi traveled the country in 2004 raising money and boosting local candidates. If she became speaker, Pelosi pledged, she would reform the House to give a greater voice to all members and to assure fairness. She cited Democratic gains of open seats in Kentucky and South Dakota in special elections in early 2004 as proof that the political tide was turning their way. But the three-seat loss in the November election that year turned out to be yet another disappointment for House Democrats, although Pelosi noted correctly that they won a net gain apart from the effects of the 2003 Texas redistricting. Bush’s declining job approval ratings and the rising prospects of Democrats in the 2006 election helped Pelosi maintain party discipline. She saluted her longtime supporter Murtha for a November 2005 speech calling for a redeployment of troops out of Iraq, and she suggested without saying so that it would be the party’s position. Hoyer was adamantly opposed to withdrawing from Iraq.
Hoyer declared in the summer of 2006 that he had no intention of challenging Pelosi if once again Democrats failed to win a majority that fall. Just days later, Murtha announced he would run for majority leader if Democrats won, presumably against Hoyer. For months, House Democrats worked to come up with a platform to run on in 2006 and after many postponements, emerged with a “Six for ’06” program of increasing the minimum wage and enacting the remaining recommendations of the 9/11 Commission. Pelosi campaigned tirelessly across the country and was rewarded when Democrats gained 31 seats, enough for a Democratic majority, on Election Day.
As she assumed the office that put her second in line for the presidency, Pelosi said, “This is an historic moment, for Congress, and for the women of this country. It is a moment for which we have waited more than 200 years. For our daughters and granddaughters, today we have broken the marble ceiling. To our daughters and granddaughters, the sky is the limit.” Much of her leadership team was already in place. Although she had vigorously supported Murtha for majority leader, Hoyer had the support of most of the conservative Blue Dog Democrats, most freshmen, and senior incoming committee chairmen such as John Dingell of Michigan. Hoyer won 149-86, putting him in the No. 2 spot, just after Pelosi. The third-ranking spot, majority whip, went to the well-liked James Clyburn of South Carolina, an African-American who brought some racial diversity to the new lineup. Influential Illinois Rep. Rahm Emanuel had wanted to be whip, but Pelosi persuaded him to take the fourth-ranking job, that of caucus chairman, with new responsibilities.
There were some hiccups in Pelosi’s first months as speaker. The 100 hours to pass the “Six for ‘06” program turned out to be 100 legislative hours, stretched over a couple of weeks. Beneath the velvet glove, Pelosi continued to operate with an iron fist. One of her key issues was reducing carbon dioxide emissions to curb global warming. So she announced the creation of a Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, to be headed by Energy and Commerce member Edward Markey of Massachusetts. Energy and Commerce Chairman Dingell protested that he was being sidelined, but Pelosi had her way.
She had some early and impressive legislative successes, but also some disappointments, especially when Democratic leaders in the closely divided Senate failed to rally the 60 votes needed to pass bills sent over from the House. Her greatest frustration was being unable to end military involvement in Iraq. Pelosi conceded that she had underestimated the Republicans’ willingness to stick with the president on the war, a position at odds with statements they had made to her privately and also at odds with the public mood in some Republican districts.
On domestic policy, Pelosi and her Democratic leadership ran a tight ship and were largely successful, at least in the House. The Democrats’ bill to expand the State Children’s Health Insurance Program was passed by both chambers, but Bush vetoed it. In 2008, she prevailed when she ignored the law giving the president broad authority over trade and refused to bring the Colombia Free Trade Agreement to the floor. When gasoline hit $4 a gallon and public opinion began to favor more offshore oil drilling, Pelosi refused to allow a roll call vote. “I’m trying to save the planet,” she said. Republicans screamed foul, and during the August recess, though Congress had technically gone home, they made speeches to curious tourists in the House chamber urging a vote. Pelosi ordered the lights turned out. But Democrats too were coming under pressure to act on gas prices, and on August 16, Pelosi agreed to allow a vote on a bill that gave the individual states a role in offshore drilling decisions.
Then, crisis struck, as the financial industry teetered on the verge of collapse, with the potential to send the United States into a second Great Depression. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke confronted the House in September 2008 with a request for $700 billion to bail out big, failing financial firms. Pelosi, with Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank of Massachusetts, decided to grant the request. But a few days later, it became clear that many Democrats were unwilling to vote for it. Pelosi announced she would bring Democrats along if 100 Republicans supported it as well. When the bill came to a vote on September 29, it was defeated, and Republicans blamed Pelosi for speaking harshly about Bush administration economic policies. The Senate changed some of the terms of the bill, and it passed on October 1. The House took up the Senate version and, with some vote switches prompted by Pelosi, passed it two days later.
In the November 2008 election, Democrats gained 21 House seats, and Pelosi entered the 111th Congress in 2009 as the leader of 257 Democrats—the biggest majority a speaker had enjoyed since Democrat Thomas Foley of Washington in 1993-94. Pelosi made it plain to the new Obama administration that she expected it to work through her and not make side deals with conservative Democratic factions, much less Republicans. In January, Pelosi pushed through House rules changes repealing the six-year term limit on committee chairmen that Republicans had imposed in 1995 and placing restrictions on motions to recommit, which Republicans had used frequently to delay or stop legislation. As labor unions pressed for a card-check bill effectively abolishing the secret ballot in unionization elections, Pelosi let it be known that the Senate would have to act before she would ask Democrats in the House to cast what for some would be a politically dangerous vote. Pelosi went on to preside over a record of legislative accomplishments that many consider the most impressive since the Great Society Congress of 1965-66.
The first order of business was Obama’s massive economic stimulus bill. Pelosi largely delegated the specifics to Appropriations Chairman David Obey of Wisconsin, but did succeed in reducing the tax cut component from $300 billion to $275 billion. The $819 billion measure was passed without a single Republican vote. The size of the stimulus was reduced in the Senate, and Pelosi negotiated hard to get the price tag to $787 billion. The measure became law at that amount in mid-February, less than a month after Obama’s inauguration.
On Iraq, Pelosi said she was unhappy with Obama’s decision to leave 50,000 troops there and also with the Justice Department’s decision not to prosecute Bush administration officials for approving enhanced interrogation techniques. She was embarrassed in May 2009 when the Central Intelligence Agency released documents indicating that she had been present at a September 2002 briefing where water boarding was discussed. In a tense press conference, she said, “In that or any other briefing, we were not and, I repeat, were not told that water boarding or any of these other enhanced interrogation techniques were used”—only that they were legal. Republicans’ call for an inquiry was voted down 252-172 on partisan lines. Despite her views on Iraq, Pelosi worked with the administration to convince antiwar Democrats to help pass the $105.9 billion supplemental defense bill for the war.
As in the previous Congress, Pelosi pushed hard for legislation restricting carbon emissions, her signature issue. She quietly supported California Rep. Henry Waxman’s successful campaign to replace Dingell as chairman of the Energy and Commerce, with prime jurisdiction over the issue. And she worked closely with Waxman and Markey of Massachusetts on the contents of the bill. In June 2009, she approved Waxman’s concessions to win over conservative Democrats and even met with 11 Republican moderates to get their support. In late June, she brought the bill to the floor where it passed, 219-212, with eight Republicans voting yes. But the Senate failed to act, and the bill died.
The other major initiative for Pelosi was Obama’s health care insurance overhaul, which she had hoped to pass before the August 2009 recess. But finding agreement on complex and far-reaching changes to the medical insurance system, including a controversial proposal to let people opt into a federally sponsored plan, bogged the bill down in committee for many weeks. Waxman finally reported one out of the Energy and Commerce Committee on July 31, too late for a pre-recess floor vote. As Pelosi had feared, opposition to the bill gained momentum at town hall meetings across the country during the recess period, including those in Democratic districts. Lawmakers were more skittish about the legislation when they returned. Still, Pelosi worked hard in September and October gathering up votes. She agreed to changes in the controversial public option but refused to give in to pressure from conservative Democrats to drop it from the bill. And, in the 11th hour and to the dismay of feminists, she agreed to accept Michigan Rep. Bart Stupak’s amendment barring coverage for abortions. A 1,990-page draft was unveiled on October 29 and the bill was passed 220-215 on November 7, with 39 Democrats voting no.
The public option proved to be an even tougher sell in the Senate, and after 25 consecutive days of debate on the bill, the upper chamber ultimately voted on Christmas Eve for a health care overhaul minus the government insurance provision. Normally, a House and Senate conference committee would have begun immediately to hammer out a final version settling differences between the chambers. But on January 19, 2010, Republican Scott Brown won the special Senate election for the seat vacated by the death of liberal Democrat Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts. In his campaign, Brown had promised to be the 41st vote against the health care bill, denying Democrats the 60 votes they needed to stop a filibuster. The obstacles seemed great. But Pelosi characteristically braced for the fight. “We’re in the majority,” she told Obama. “We’ll never have a better majority in your presidency in numbers than we’ve got right now. We can make this work.”
Public opinion polls in early 2010 showed the public to be increasingly wary of the changes to the health care system. Each day of the week leading to a final House vote, Pelosi orchestrated statements of support from previously uncommitted Democrats, most of whom were facing tough opposition in the November 2010 election. Rules Committee Chairman Louise Slaughter of New York prepared a version in which the House would, in one roll call, deem the Senate bill to have been passed and add changes to it. But this procedural sleight of hand was abandoned in favor of two roll calls, one on the Senate version of the bill and one on a set of House changes to the legislation. Pelosi agreed to drop a House-passed surtax on high-income earners, which was replaced by an excise tax on high-end insurance plans. She also got Stupak and other anti-abortion rights lawmakers to agree to changes to their provision that they had previously deemed unacceptable. On the day of the vote, March 21, Pelosi marched with fellow Democrats from their offices to the Capitol, while an angry crowd, held back by Capitol police, chanted “Kill the bill.” Pelosi’s attitude toward the anti-Obama health care forces was clear in a statement in January of that year: “We will go through the gate. If the gate is closed, we will go over the fence. If the fence is too high, we will pole vault in. If that doesn’t work, we will parachute in. But we are going to get health care reform passed for the American people.” The final roll call was 219-212, without a single Republican vote. The Senate acquiesced to the House changes and Obama signed the health care bill.
Its passage was the defining moment of Pelosi’s speakership and showcased her skills at putting together complex legislation and rounding up reluctant votes, amid a volatile climate of public opinion. Polls around the country showed a disturbing number of incumbent Democrats trailing their Republican challengers. Pelosi brought the House back into session briefly in August 2010 to pass a $26 billion bill, already approved in the Senate, to help states pay teacher salaries and make Medicare payments. The following month, she hoped to send Democrats home to campaign on a high note by having them vote to extend the Bush-era income tax cuts except for upper income-earners of $200,000 or more. But when it became clear the votes weren’t there—a counter proposal to extend the cuts for everyone regardless of income was attracting Republicans and some Democrats— she moved to adjourn a week earlier than scheduled, and then voted for adjournment herself, although traditionally the speaker votes on only major issues. It was acknowledgement that her ability to control a majority, after four years of doing so time and again, was now in the hands of a restless electorate in November.
That fall, Pelosi campaigned for Democrats across the country, but she was more a liability than an asset in conservative-leaning districts where Democratic incumbents were bombarded with GOP-orchestrated ads labeling them as “Pelosi-Reid Democrats.” Even as Pelosi was expressing optimism publicly, the political tide was turning dramatically against Democrats who had voted for the health care bill and other elements of the Obama agenda. Democrats lost 63 seats, the most the party had lost since 1938, and they surrendered majority control to the Republicans the following January.
It was widely expected that Pelosi would not try to hold onto her leadership position. The last speakers to become minority leaders after their parties lost the majorities were Democrat Sam Rayburn in 1947 and 1953 and Republican Joseph Martin in 1949 and 1955. The previous speaker, Republican Dennis Hastert of Illinois, resigned shortly after his party’s defeat in 2006. But after two days of prayer and conversations, Pelosi announced she wanted to run for minority leader again. Her ally Clyburn announced he would run for minority whip against Hoyer. Wishing to avoid a bitter leadership fight, Pelosi announced she would create a new leadership post for Clyburn, enabling Hoyer to run for whip unopposed. But she could not stop North Carolina’s Heath Shuler, a conservative Democrat, from launching a quixotic challenge. Pelosi prevailed in the caucus vote 150-43. When asked to explain why she won, she said, “Because I’m an effective leader, because we got the job done on health care and Wall Street reform and consumer protection, the list goes on. Because they know that I’m the person that can attract the resources, both intellectual and otherwise, to take us to victory because I have done it before.”
Back home, Pelosi was reelected with 80% or more of the vote from 1992 to 2006. In 2008, antiwar protester Cindy Sheehan ran against her as an independent. Pelosi refused to debate or acknowledge Sheehan, who wound up getting 16% of the vote, more than the Republican nominee’s 10%. Pelosi got 72%. It was her lowest percentage since the 1987 special election when she first won the seat. But in 2010, she won with 80%, two years later took 85% and in 2014 drew 83%.
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