Nancy Pelosi's Steady Rise to Power

Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) is poised to become the first woman to serve as Speaker of the House when a new Congress convenes in January. The mother of five began her political career as an activist in the San Francisco Bay area. Scott Shafer of member station KQED offers a profile of Pelosi.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jackie Lyden.

Since this was a big week for the Democratic Party, we're spending time this weekend getting to know those who will be entering Congress as freshmen and those who will be returning to lead. With Democrats in the majority, San Francisco Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi is all but certain to become the first woman Speaker of the House of Representatives.

Scott Shafer from member station KQED in San Francisco has this profile. He says Pelosi has politics in her blood.

SCOTT SHAFER: On a shelf behind the desk in Nancy Pelosi's office at the Capitol is a black and white photograph. It shows a seven-year-old girl proudly holding a Bible, as her father is sworn in as mayor of Baltimore in 1947. Little Nancy, as she was called, learned the political ropes at the feet of her father, who went on to serve five terms in Congress, and her mother, who also worked in politics.

Representative NANCY PELOSI (Democrat, California): The two of them were working on the side of the angels. They considered public service a noble calling, that they were there to help people, that the Democratic Party was the vehicle to do that, and that they were - it was very clear.

SHAFER: Pelosi says she learned something else from her parents: the importance of religious faith.

Rep. PELOSI: I was raised in an Italian-Catholic household where faith, family, country, were all very important.

SHAFER: Pelosi took that spirit of faith and public service to San Francisco when she moved there with her husband, Paul, in 1969. The couple had five children in six years: four daughters and a son. Even as a young mother, Pelosi volunteered for Democratic candidates. As chair of the California Democratic Party, she lured the Democratic National Convention to San Francisco in 1984. Two years later, she helped Democrats win back the Senate by chairing their National fundraising efforts.

Pelosi went from the periphery of politics to center stage in 1987 when she decided to run for Congress. It was a bruising campaign. In a raucous debate just before the election, Pelosi was branded by some of her opponents as a lightweight and a wealthy political dilettante.

Unidentified Woman #1: How can she relate to people like me, a single parent, working mother?

Unidentified Woman #2: Why can't she relate?

Unidentified Woman #1: Because her problems are different. She's never met a payroll. She's never had to worry about childcare.

SHAFER: Pelosi won the election, but just barely. In Washington, she quickly won allies by championing liberal causes, like more funding to fight AIDS. But she also reached across the aisle on issues like human rights, and showed her personal charm and shrewd political skills in building relationships with future campaign supporters.

Mr. VIC FAZIO (Former Democratic Representative, California): You know, Nancy understands that to get you have to give.

SHAFER: Former Sacramento Congressman Vic Fazio served with Pelosi for 10 years in the House. He says she rose to party leadership positions through hard work and a personal touch, like sending handwritten notes to colleagues.

Mr. FAZIO: Politics is a process of building relationships. And her very compelling personal style, the engagement that she has with people, she became an incredibly good fundraiser.

SHAFER: In fact, the only Democratic member of Congress who raised more money than Pelosi this election cycle is Hillary Clinton. But in her role as a national party leader, Pelosi has taking heat from liberal supporters back home. This week, 59 percent of her constituents voted for an advisory measure to impeach President Bush and Vice President Cheney. Some of them demonstrated outside her office this week in San Francisco.

(Soundbite of demonstrators)

CROWD: Impeach! Impeach! Impeach! Impeach! Impeach!

SHAFER: They wanted to put her on notice that they expect Pelosi to listen to the anti-war movement.

Unidentified Woman #3: And I'm here to say, Nancy, we have a message for you: silence is complicity.

SHAFER: But Pelosi recognizes that what plays in San Francisco may not play in Peoria. Instead, she says she wants to focus on issues that appeal to moderates, like raising the minimum wage and cutting prescription drug prices for seniors on Medicare. But she will need to keep her Democratic colleagues focused and in line behind her.

Representative ANNA ESHOO (Democratic, California): I've often said she knows how to handle the caucus, and member with all of their issues and their problems. After all, she raised five kids.

SHAFER: That's Anna Eshoo, one of Pelosi's oldest and closest friends in Congress. The Silicon Valley Democrat calls Pelosi a workaholic and a chocoholic, something born out by the dishes of Ghirardelli chocolate in Pelosi's office at the Capitol. Eshoo says what has made Pelosi successful is a combination of grace and grit.

Rep. ESHOO: She's elegant. She's polished. She's a lady. She's very refined. And she may only be a hundred pounds-plus and small in her height, but she's a giant and she is as strong as steel.

SHAFER: Pelosi will need that steely determination if she's to prove that a woman's place is indeed in the House.

For NPR News, I'm Scott Shafer in San Francisco.

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