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The Enduring Power of Nancy Pelosi

Five years in the minority (and counting) has not diminished Nancy Pelosi’s influence in Washington or her popularity at home in San Francisco. In fact, quite remarkably, she’s only grown stronger. A conversation with Madame Leader.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, photographed at the San Francisco Federal Building on September 15.


For nearly three decades, Nancy Pelosi has existed at the nexus of Washington politics and San Francisco values—unquestionably a precarious place to exist. And yet, there is nobody on the left side of the political dial who inspires more loyalty, admiration, and, yes, awe than she. During her 28 years as the representative of San Francisco’s 12th Congressional District, Pelosi has been a progressive backbencher, the Minority Whip, the Minority Leader, the Speaker of the House, and, now, the Minority Leader again. And every step of the way, she has been excoriated by the Republican right as the devil with a blue pantsuit on, a limousine liberal who espouses “middle-class economics” while living high on the hog as one of the 15 richest members of Congress. Their distaste for her politics, however, is tempered by a grudging—and growing—respect: for her longevity, for her mastery of the legislative process, and for her sorceress-like spell over the Democratic caucus. Even they must admit: Nobody in Washington is more effective than Nancy Pelosi.

“Oh yes, they respect her. They respect her,” says Silicon Valley congressperson Anna Eshoo, a Pelosi family friend since the '70s. Congressional Republicans, Eshoo says, “are aware in a very raw sense of what she accomplished when she was Speaker. Nancy Pelosi never took a bill to the floor that she lost. Capital letters: NEVER!” Her perfect record makes that of recently deposed John Boehner—who was ultimately ousted by a rump caucus of 40 ultraconservative members—seem even more paltry. “There have been any number of times over the last couple of years when the Republicans had to pull bills because they just didn’t have the votes,” say Congressperson Jackie Speier of San Mateo. That is something that would never happen to Pelosi, Speier says, because “she knows how to count. And I’m telling you, that is a rare quality around here.” 

Pelosi’s vote-tabulating talents were much in evidence earlier this year, when she persuaded her Democratic colleagues to march in near lockstep behind President Barack Obama as he pushed his landmark nuclear deal with Iran. As is her habit, she ran circles around her Republican colleagues, erecting an impenetrable wall of support for the president before the opposition had even nailed down its talking points. It may not have been the greatest accomplishment of her career—the Affordable Care Act surely qualifies—but it was likely the most artful. Obama, quite simply, could not have succeeded without her. And, most tellingly, she did it without resorting to threats. “Perhaps the general public thinks that a leader has to threaten and cajole to get people to follow her,” says Eshoo. “But that is not Nancy Pelosi at all. It’s nothing short of extraordinary to see her work.”

Pelosi being sworn into Congress for the first time, in 1987.

Pelosi’s style of leadership is more neck massage than arm twist: Speier laughingly describes the 75-year-old as carrying “a big stick—but with a cushion at the tip.” Ever the good San Franciscan, Pelosi believes in the power of consensus rather than fiat—she encourages members of her caucus to make informed decisions that suit their district and their political priorities without fear of reprisal. Her respect for their intelligence, along with her we’re-all-in-this-together philosophy, fosters an environment of collegiality. It’s a sharp contrast to the backstabbing vibe across the aisle, and yet more evidence that she’ll remain a leader of her party for…well, who knows how long.

Pelosi’s ethos of togetherness extends to her feelings for San Francisco, which she loves deeply—and about whose future she is defiantly optimistic. Earlier this fall, during an hour-long conversation with San Francisco editor-in-chief Jon Steinberg in her Federal Building offices, she took pains to sing the praises of the tech companies and entrepreneurs that are increasingly setting the city’s agenda. But she also called for a new wave of measures, both here and in Washington, D.C., to shield San Francisco’s middle class from the upheavals unleashed by the latest tech boom.

Though given ample opportunity to take potshots at her Republican rivals (the interview took place in the midst of l’affaire Boehner, which would end with Paul Ryan’s election as Speaker), Pelosi declined to lob any bombs. “I’m the last person you should ask about what’s going on with the Republicans,” she joked. Still, you get the feeling that she’s saving her sharpest weapons for the battles yet to come.


San Francisco: A few weeks ago, you and I attended a screening of your daughter Alexandra’s latest HBO documentary, San Francisco 2.0, which paints a pretty critical portrait of the city right now. Do you share her ambivalence about the changes going on?
Nancy Pelosi: Well, I see her film differently than how you just described it. I don’t see her as being judgmental. She’s just stating some facts that exist, and one of the facts is that over time, more business comes in and rents go up for both commercial and residential real estate. That’s just a fact. The issue is: How do we manage the change? How do we hold on to a middle class in the city? I’m very proud of the fact that the tech industry is here, but we all have a responsibility to make sure that we’re advancing San Francisco in a way that does not undermine the culture or the character of our city.

Do you think that the current upheaval—the out-of-control housing costs, the explosion of tech companies, the crazy valuations—is diminishing the greatness of the city?
I think that it has to be. But as they always say of Paris, the more Paris changes, the more it stays the same. You cannot stagnate as a city—you have to be invigorated by new energy, new ideas. 

You arrived here with your family at a similarly charged time: 1969. Is today’s discord reminiscent of what was going on back then?
These challenges have existed all along. There was the change in ’69, of course, with the Summer of Love and the infusion of people from all over the country. In some respects it was a very family-oriented city before that, and then along came the whole hippie movement, which changed certain neighborhoods. And then there was a big fuss about the Manhattanization of San Francisco. The city had to make a big adjustment then, maybe even bigger than it’s being asked to make now, as it goes from being a...a... [searches for the most politic word] a wonderful city into a global center of commerce. 

But it’s the very idea of becoming a global center of commerce that is anathema to a lot of San Franciscans.
You have to accommodate it—you have to accommodate it. You can’t hold back change. I think the mayor is making a good attempt to attract commerce, growth, jobs. The cost of housing has always been a challenge in San Francisco, and now even more so. So you have to have more product—more stock, as we say in the housing industry. More of it has to be affordable, or you’ll have a city where the middle class and families are fewer in number, and that’s not a positive thing for a city. So, as good as it is to have new enterprise coming in—let’s cheer that—it shouldn’t be at the expense of the city becoming less hospitable to families.

Do you think that the companies being birthed here, tech businesses like Uber and Airbnb, truly stand for the same things that you stand for? Are they fighting for the same principles you’ve fought for over the years?
It doesn’t matter. I stand for them standing for whatever they want to stand for.

Well, I’m thinking back to a memorable moment in Alexandra’s film when she asks Gavin Newsom whether the tech companies are giving enough back, and he flatly says, “No.” Would you echo him on that?
Some are giving back. Marc Benioff, gosh, he’s doing so many great things—but the fact that he stands out speaks volumes as well. I think San Francisco is a very seductive city. You come here, you love it. But as Alexandra says, the young tech employees have to make it their community, not their playground. To the extent that they are interested in doing that, I think it will be a better city all around. 

Are you bothered by the gender inequalities in the executive ranks and workforce of companies like Twitter and Google? They’re far, far skewed toward males, white and Asian males in particular.
That’s a reflection of what happens in business and corporate America in general. And you know, they are starting to realize that when women succeed, their companies succeed.

But why is it taking so long for tech to get that message? Aren’t they supposedly cutting-edge, at the forefront of new ideas?
I’ve spoken at many such companies, and sometimes the women ask me, “What would you say to our management about encouraging more hires and promotions of women?” And I always say, “When women succeed, America succeeds. When women succeed, your company succeeds.” That is a fact. It’s not a nice expression—it is an absolute fact. If you want more success—in terms of productivity, in terms of morale, in terms of recruitment—have more women in your higher ranks. You want the best? Prove that you recognize the value of women in leadership.

How does the movement to level the playing field in tech parallel what you’ve seen in politics? When you entered Congress in 1987, there were, I believe, 23 female representatives.
Yes, 12 Democrats and 11 Republicans. Now, I think there are 23 Republicans and 65 Democrats—and that’s because we made a conscious effort to recruit more women candidates. Because it’s really essential: It’s not that women are better than men—it’s that you need to have variety at the table. I’m proud to say that in the House Democratic caucus, there is a majority of women, minorities, and LGBT people. And look at who’s heading the committees: Maxine Waters on Financial Services; Nydia Velázquez on Small Business; Louise Slaughter on Rules; Eddie Bernice Johnson on Science, Space, and Technology; Carolyn Maloney on the Joint Economic Committee; Nita Lowey on the powerful Appropriations Committee; Linda Sánchez on Ethics—the list goes on and on. 

And is that a direct result of 13 years of Nancy Pelosi leadership?
Some of it is. Some of these positions I appoint, and then others I...encourage

When you were a young parent—five kids under the age of six, a devout Roman Catholic background—were you pressured to be “just” a mother? Or was the idea always that you would raise your children and do something else afterward?
I didn’t know what I would do. Our oldest child, Nancy Corinne, turned six the week that our youngest, Alexandra, was born. So I didn’t think about it—I didn’t have time to wash my face! I had no time for anything. And, of course, when you have five children, nobody comes near your house to babysit [laughs]. You say to them, “Hey, maybe you’d like to come by and see us?” And they say, “Noooo thank you!” Raising my family was fabulous, and I loved it, but I wasn’t thinking of a career.

The Pelosi home must have been pretty chaotic back then.
Well, it wasn’t fair that nobody would babysit, because the kids were so good. Everybody had their assignments, everybody had to keep their room clean, had to help in the kitchen, and this and that. But when you went into the house, there was a lot of...exuberance. And people didn’t always catch the order right off the bat, because part of the order was no order: What was important, we did; what wasn’t important, we didn’t do.

“The order was no order” sounds a lot like Congress right now. Do you find yourself drawing on your experience as a mother when you’re herding cats inside the Capitol?
More like mother superior, not mother. Here’s the thing: People say to me all the time that the way I conduct a meeting is different. Women are completely consensus builders, and part of building a consensus is that you have to listen. That doesn’t mean you get 100 percent unanimity, because that’s almost impossible to achieve, but members know that they are going to be heard. I would say that rather than a herder of cats, I’m a weaver of fabric. I’m sitting at a loom, weaving all these threads of differences—geographic, generational, ethnic, gender, philosophical—into this fabric that’s very strong, because it’s about respect. Maybe being a mom teaches you that you have to respect each child’s individual aspirations, that you can’t just say, this thread is stronger than that thread. No. A strong fabric holds us in good stead. 

Does that philosophy differ from the thinking of other leaders you’ve seen during your time in Congress?
Well, it was a different time when I arrived. There was a time when leadership said, “This is what it is. Now let’s go sell it.”

How about the way the Republicans run their conference now?
I don’t think they do run it! [Laughs.] But the fact is, you can’t ask people to do something that they don’t believe in. With this Iran agreement, I said to our members, “Study it really hard. You have a responsibility to acquire the knowledge so that you can exercise good judgment, and the administration has a responsibility to provide us with the information. The agreement is self-evident, so you need to read that. You need to read the classified information. Then you have to seek validation from generals and admirals, from nuclear physicists.” One of the best meetings we had was with ambassadors from Russia, the EU, France, Germany, and the U.K., all of whom told our members that if this didn’t pass, it would be all over. Then I told the members, “Meet with your constituents, and they’ll need clarification here or there, and so you’ll need to ask more questions. After all that, you can make your own decision, and we’ll all respect it.”

You’ve been out of the majority for five years, going on six. In our little San Francisco liberal bubble, it’s hard to understand why the Democrats keep losing, time after time after time, when the economy is getting better and better and the unemployment rate has dropped to what it was back in 2007. Why the prolonged losing streak?
I’ll tell you exactly why: because people do not feel financially secure in the middle class. I got along fine with President [George W.] Bush. We did a lot of things together, we accomplished a lot—I can talk to you on another occasion about that. But on economics, we were in two different places, and that, really, is the difference between Democrats and Republicans. The Republicans are about trickle-down economics. Install tax breaks for the wealthy: If capital trickles down, good; if it doesn’t, that’s the free market and so be it. And we’re about middle-class economics, about recognizing that if the middle class doesn’t succeed, the economy can never turn around. In 2008 and afterward, the middle class got so burned—their pensions, their homeownership, the education of their children, their jobs, their stagnating wages. We came in in ’09, and with President Obama we could pass the stimulus right away, and that saved or created around four million jobs. And we pulled the auto industry from being on its heels to being preeminent in the world. The day the president was inaugurated, the deficit was $1.4 trillion—it’s now closer to $400 billion; we reduced it 70 percent. Unemployment was approaching 10 percent; it’s now 5-plus. The stock market was between 6,000 and 7,000; it’s now 10,000 points higher. There have been 70 straight months of private-sector job growth. The list goes on and on, and the president deserves so much credit for it. But unless the middle class has the confidence to spend, a consumer economy cannot succeed. And so that is our fight.

But that’s the same mantra you had in 2010 and in 2012 and in 2014, when you lost. Why should 2016 be any different?
No, no, no. No. There’s one big reason why we lost in those years: money! Big. Dark. Money. Big dark money in campaigns overwhelming the airwaves, so people were like, “Why should I even vote? I don’t know what this is about.” Only a third of the electorate voted in 2014. Meanwhile, we were out there banging away for raising the minimum wage, but people were pretty much unaware of it. They didn’t see any hope on either side, so they didn’t come out and vote, and that was unfortunate.

Approaching 2016, is the solution to match money with money?
It’s a presidential year, so I think that our answer is people power. Yeah, we’ll have to have enough money to get our message across. But I myself think that one of the biggest things we can do for our democracy is reduce the role of money in politics. I am very passionate about it. I’ve issued a dare on it: I’ll never rest until we reduce the role of money in politics.

And yet you raise more money than anybody else in Congress—nearly $500 million for the Democrats since joining the leadership in 2002.
Yeah, I do. I do. But my money comes from very idealistic progressives who want to see good government. They have no agenda. What I’m talking about is big, dark, Koch-brother money coming in to say, “We should have no minimum wage”—which has an agenda for our country that is wrong. I don’t waste my time on any pragmatic money. It’s all about a progressive agenda—that’s my strength. I have an enormous base of people in the country who have an idealism about what the government should be. But I don’t care where the money is coming from—I want to see it reduced. I’m disappointed that even Democrats are going down the path of these big PACs. I mean, you have to do it because you’re in the fight, but you can’t have it be the wave of the future.

So what’s the way out of this endless money cycle?
We’re supporting something called the PAC to end all PACs: Let’s get enough money to win the election so that we can reduce the role of money. It’s about mobilizing at the grassroots level. If you don’t own the ground, you can’t win the election. You cannot mobilize without ideas. So it’s about the message of middle-class economics. Lifting people up—protecting the environment, education, upward mobility, opportunity for people. But none of that really works unless you have the candidates, and our congressional candidates are fabulous. I’m very proud of them. And, again, we have many women and minorities who are coming forward to increase the beautiful diversity. As I say of San Francisco, so I say of Congress: The beauty is in the mix.


Originally published in the December issue of San Francisco

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