The new class of House freshmen have gotten an awful lot of buzz for their willingness to upend the status quo. Many progressive rabble-rousers and moderate district-flippers have professed some dissatisfaction with the leadership and hierarchies of the House Democratic caucus. Much of their rhetoric centered on what they thought of the speaker of the House or what they wanted her to do. Moderates like Rep. Abigail Spanberger wanted a new speaker, while Rep. Rashida Tlaib wanted the speaker to give her a prime committee spot typically reserved for more seasoned members.
And that speaker in question? Rep. Nancy Pelosi, of course — the first woman speaker of the House, MaxMara poster girl, and polished face of the Democratic establishment for over a decade. Pelosi, a divisive figure in American politics and a near-universally acknowledged master of the legislative process, has served in Congress since 1987, making her freshman term 32 long years ago. These days she has become the object of high-profile dissension from a new generation in her party who want to break staid political conventions, yet when she first came to Washington, her insider party experience was seen as her strength.
As the 116th Congress kicks off, a potential Democratic battle looms not over ideology, but rather over how Democrats should best exert their power. For the newest crop of Democrats, overthrowing some of the old ways of doing things is key. But from the earliest days of her career, Pelosi has leveraged her access to backroom decision-making to exert political change. If the speaker and her caucus have a disagreement, it’s likelier to be about that point than about her policy positions.
Pelosi moved to California with her husband and five children in 1969, and her political involvement was shaped in part by her closeness to Democratic power broker Phil Burton.
Burton was a liberal legislative powerhouse who engineered rules changes in the House that helped break the power of conservative Southern Democrat committee heads, a change that, as The New York Times put it in his obituary, “brought greater influence to younger members.”
Pelosi herself would later find political strength by navigating the inner-sanctum politics of the Democratic Party in Congress, but her start in politics was as a fundraiser — her gracious home proved the perfect location to practice the art of separating people from their money. By 1976, she was a California member of the Democratic National Committee, and she was chair of the state Democratic Party from 1981 to 1983.
While Pelosi had entree into the most selective backrooms of Democratic politics, her bid to become the head of the Democratic National Committee in 1985 was marked by a distinct whiff of sexism. The political director of the AFL-CIO called Pelosi an “airhead.” Pelosi eventually withdrew from the race, telling the committee, “It was clear to me many of you did not think the right message would go out if a woman was elected chairman of this party.”
But two years later, Pelosi was back in election mode, this time in a heated Democratic primary for the seat that once belonged to Burton and, after his death, had gone to his widow, Sala. San Francisco was being ravaged by the AIDS epidemic and Pelosi was running against Harry Britt, a gay activist and a city supervisor. A New York Times article from the time, headlined “Homosexuals’ Political Power Tested in West,” summed up the race’s dynamics: Britt’s supporters believed “large numbers of homosexuals will be drawn to the polls Tuesday because they believe that a victory by [Britt] would have symbolic value as well calling attention to their concern over AIDS.”
Pelosi leaned into her insider reputation, campaigning by saying that her voice — and those of San Francisco residents who had AIDS — would be heard in D.C. thanks to her deep connections. Dianne Feinstein, then the mayor of San Francisco, echoed the sentiment that Pelosi would be able to hit the ground running when she told the Associated Press that “Nancy Pelosi would enter Congress with a large measure of the prestige and authority Phil Burton and then Sala had in their more than 20 years in Washington.”
Pelosi won, and devoted much of her first term in office to fighting for greater recognition and funding for AIDS patients, a push that was on the forefront of American social progressivism at the time. When the House passed a 1988 bill allocating $1.2 billion for AIDS research and testing, it included two Pelosi-written amendments that set up mental health counseling and outpatient centers for those diagnosed. In a television clip from 1987, the newly-elected Pelosi is interviewed at a march for gay rights and the reporter mentions that she’s one of the few elected officials who turned out. “This is a logical thing for me to do,” Pelosi says in the clip, before going on to list the gay rights and AIDS bills with which she was involved.
In general, Pelosi was considered a pretty liberal member during her first term. Political scientists sometimes use something called a Nokken-Poole score to delineate how conservative or liberal a politician is, with bigger negative numbers describing more liberal politicians and bigger positive numbers describing more conservative politicians. Pelosi’s score for her first term in Congress was -.536, which was 27th-most liberal among Democrats that year. In the most recent Congress, Pelosi had a score of -.438, which was the 67th-most liberal. It’s hard to say, though, whether Pelosi herself got slightly more conservative or the Democratic caucus simply shifted around her. Regardless, hotly contested bills are unlikely to pass without the support of the speaker, who controls the voting schedule, and during Pelosi’s time as speaker, a number of landmark liberal pieces of legislation passed, some with difficulty, like the Affordable Care Act and Dodd-Frank.
The 116th Congress’ freshmen have attracted attention for their public embrace of rule-breaking, but Pelosi was the exact opposite. She, along with other new lawmakers, was quoted in an October 1988 Associated Press story, “Seniority System, Hectic Hours Rankle Freshmen Lawmakers.” Rep. Dennis Hastert (who would later go on to become speaker and who, after his retirement, would be revealed to have sexually abused young boys) echoed several of those quoted when he said that in order to get anything done, “I pick up the phone and go through the hierarchy.” Pelosi was asked if there was anything she would change about Congress: “A long pause. ‘Actually, she said, “I have a lot of respect for this institution.”
Thirteen years later, she was elected the first female minority whip, making her the highest ranking woman in congressional history. Six years after that she became the first woman speaker. For Pelosi, navigating institutional power has worked from the very beginning. Which will make the 116th Congress all the more fascinating to watch as it unfurls under her rule: The institutionalist Pelosi might be presiding over a new congressional era, one that’s dominated by a lack of respect for the institution.
From ABC News: