All sides take measure of Pelosi before polls
She could be the first female House speaker
A Republican tract attacks Democrat Brad Ellsworth of Indiana, running for a congressional seat. It asserts he could help House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi become House speaker. (Associated Press via National Republican Congressional Committee)
WASHINGTON -- As Republicans argue that Americans would be crazy to let Democrats take over the House, Representative Nancy Pelosi is Exhibit A.
``A disaster," former GOP Speaker Newt Gingrich warned, calling the prospect of the San Francisco-area representative standing third in the line of presidential succession frightening. ``A hyperpartisan obstructionist," a GOP campaign tract pronounces.
Pelosi, leader of the House Democrats, has twice presented Republican Dennis Hastert with the speaker's gavel as the GOP extended its control of the House for two more years. ``This is getting tiresome, Mr. Speaker," Pelosi joked last time.
Now, heading into the November elections in which Democrats have their best chance yet of retaking the House after 12 years in the minority, all sides are taking the measure of the woman who would become the first ``Madam Speaker" if her party succeeds.
``It's the battle of definitions," said Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in California who has written extensively about Congress. ``If the Republicans have their way, she's a wacko San Francisco liberal; if Democrats have their way, she's an Italian-American grandmother."
Or, as Pelosi described herself last week: ``An Italian Catholic mother of five, grandmother of five, going on six."
Pelosi, born Nancy D'Alesandro, is an energetic, street-smart politician from Baltimore, a liberal who knows that the key to leading the fractious House Democrats is to accommodate the broad spectrum of views in the party when possible and come down hard to enforce unity when necessary.
Pelosi, the daughter and sister of Baltimore mayors, moved west in her 20s because her investment banker husband wanted to return to his roots. She managed to work herself into California's Democratic political structure while raising five children who were born over six years. She was first elected to Congress when her youngest daughter reached high school.
The 66-year-old Pelosi represents one of the country's most liberal congressional districts, taking in much of San Francisco. She has a voting record that consistently gets her laurels from liberal interest groups and raspberries from conservatives.
She also is a pragmatist.
``She's good at counting noses, which means that she'll do everything she can to represent the whole caucus," said Bruce Reed, president of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.
Pelosi presides over a Democratic caucus united against President Bush, in which members voted with their party 88 percent of the time in 2005, one of the most cohesive records in decades, according to an analysis by Congressional Quarterly.
That is not to suggest the party lacks fissures .
Black members, for example, were irked earlier this year when Pelosi successfully pushed to strip Representative William Jefferson of Louisiana, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, of his House Ways and Means Committee seat while an FBI bribery investigation is under way.
In 2002, Pelosi raised eyebrows by giving a political contribution to one of two House Democrats who were being thrown into the same, newly redrawn congressional district in Michigan.
It was no coincidence that Pelosi backed Representative Lynn Rivers, who had supported Pelosi's bid to become Democratic whip, over Representative John Dingell, who had been allied with Pelosi's competition. Dingell won.
Pelosi demurs when asked to talk about a potential Speaker Pelosi's agenda, saying she is focused for now on Nov. 7, when Democrats need to pick up 15 House seats to take control of the House.