By Andrew Harmon
In her first speech on the House floor, Nancy Pelosi spoke out on AIDS. Many of her colleagues thought she was crazy for doing so. Twenty-five years later, she's not finished pushing the LGBT envelope in Washington.
There was something slightly off in Nancy Pelosi's usual stride as she walked across the beige marble lobby of the Regency Hotel on New York's Upper East Side. Her determined pace is familiar to those who've seen her approach a scrum of microphones with Senate majority leader Harry Reid or House minority whip Steny Hoyer to announce a victory, rail against an impasse, or lob a charge at her Republican successor who now holds the Speaker's gavel. The broad grin that so irritates her detractors was gone, too. With her was Drew Hammill, her deputy communications director, and her youngest daughter, Alexandra, a documentary filmmaker. Pelosi was wearing a light gray pantsuit and a multicolored Tahitian cultured pearl necklace so closely identified with her that countless online jewelers now simply dub it 'The Nancy Pelosi.'
Pelosi looked hurried and unnerved, as though the House minority leader, one of the nation's top congressional Democrats, had just dealt with something clearly not on her agenda. She had.
It was June 2011, and a few blocks away, at the Sheraton on 53rd Street, Rep. Anthony Weiner was giving a press conference about his tweeted indiscretions, which would ultimately give him plenty of extra time to play pickup hockey games at Chelsea Piers' Sky Rink. Weiner had called Pelosi at the Regency, where she was meeting with donors, to come clean. Meanwhile, Andrew Breitbart, the conservative blogger who broke the story, had become the impromptu warm-up act for waiting reporters in a drab navy blue conference room. Weiner had initially assured Pelosi that the allegations were false, but a few days later she and her staff were quickly digesting the news coverage in a Regency hotel room with Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman Steve Israel and crafting a short statement calling for an ethics investigation before shuffling with Secret Service agents out to an idling black Suburban, bound for downtown. In the dozen or so steps from the front door to the SUV, Pelosi ran into Larry King, who asked if he could take a photo with her - for his Twitter page.
'Nothing surprises me. One thing I don't ever have in my world is surprise,' Pelosi said later, as the vehicle headed down Park Avenue. Of Weiner, she said, 'I'm really overcome by personal sadness and disappointment for him. But frankly, he has to deal with all of that.' Though clearly pained, she moved on, rapidly. 'And I was thinking of something that I told friends at lunch today...'
'But you were surprised by this,' said Alexandra in the backseat, not ready to move on. Alexandra is well versed in documenting sex scandals, notably in The Trials of Ted Haggard, about the disgraced pastor, and an upcoming film on former New Jersey governor Jim McGreevey, who stepped down following a gay affair. 'You told us you thought it was Photoshopped, remember?' she continued, goading her mother. 'You said you couldn't believe that anything like that would ever happen.'
'I didn't think so. I can't answer for personal behavior. You just don't know,' Pelosi said.
'You always assume the best of everyone,' Alexandra said. 'You never think anything ill of anyone. Even when they don't deserve such charity.'
Pelosi looked out the window as the Suburban veered around a curve at Grand Central Station. 'I think that serves me well. Generally.'
The rest of the afternoon found Pelosi back on message. After a 33-minute trip downtown in moderate traffic, she glided past a few curious onlookers on her way into a minimalist lobby and an elevator leading up to a SoHo apartment filled with gay and lesbian Democratic donors. Immaculate and precise, the airy loft belongs to Chris Hughes, a cofounder of Facebook with an estimated net worth of $850 million, and his fiancé, Sean Eldridge, who is the political director of Freedom to Marry. Milling among the servers who held trays of champagne were Hoyer, former National Gay and Lesbian Task Force executive director Urvashi Vaid, Freedom to Marry founder Evan Wolfson, and Jerry Nadler, a rabidly pro-LGBT New York congressman expected by some to replace retiring U.S. representative Barney Frank as lead sponsor of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, a long-pending federal bill that would ban antigay and antitransgender discrimination in private, nonreligious workplaces. Eventual passage of a marriage equality bill in New York State was still weeks away. And though victory was anything but a certainty, Pelosi was confident that Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg would deliver.
As Weinergate reached a fever pitch uptown that afternoon, Pelosi was back to doing what she does better than anyone else in Congress: working a room with a maestro's command, alighting from each handshake as though she were meeting a long-lost childhood friend every minute and a half. The event would be one of 367 events Pelosi has headlined upon her party's return to the minority in the House following the 2010 midterm election. It's a grueling but lucrative schedule that has netted more than $28.7 million for House Democrats in the current cycle.
'All of us are carrying the baton of freedom as we fight this fight for freedom to marry. And all of you who are working on this are making America more American,' Pelosi told the rapt audience. It's a meta-moment as far as political talking points go, the 'American' pronouncement borrowed from closing arguments in the Proposition 8 trial made by former George W. Bush solicitor general Ted Olson; he in turn had cribbed the statement from an antigay defense witness who inadvertently made the case in favor of equal marriage rights during cross-examination.
'It's all about time,' Pelosi said, 'and to those who mock me on this subject, I say to them, 'The inconceivable to you is the inevitable to us.''
Nancy Pelosi arrived in Washington, D.C., at age 47. As a freshman from California's eighth congressional district, she made her first House floor speech on the AIDS crisis crippling her constituency. Her oratorical debut on June 9, 1987 came weeks after President Ronald Reagan finally uttered the acronym, as she commended her district's legacy of 'for peace, for environmental protection, for equal rights, for rights of individual freedom. And now we must take the leadership of course in the crisis of AIDS. And I look forward to working with you on that.'
'Here was this proper, Catholic mother of five who was standing up and talking about a disease that at the time people were really uncomfortable talking about at all,' says Carolyn Bartholomew, a former legislative director and chief of staff for Pelosi. 'It was her engagement on HIV/AIDS as well as her energy on the issue that helped to move it forward.'
In June, Pelosi will mark 25 years in the U.S. Congress. Pelosi's Capitol office is now on the second floor and was once Tip O'Neill's, when he was speaker. In the months since Pelosi attended the SoHo event, House Republican leadership has continued to rail against that which she said was inevitable. After the Obama administration decided last year to no longer defend the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act in multiple lawsuits - a milestone for LGBT rights by any measure - Speaker John Boehner convened the House Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group, composed of three Republicans and two Democrats including Pelosi, to consider legal defense of the law, which it authorized in a party-line vote. 'I didn't even know what the BLAG was,' Pelosi says with a smirk. 'Now I'm a member of it.'
But we've also seen some progressive movement on marriage equality within the GOP. The marriage bill in New York passed in a Republican-controlled Senate. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida congresswoman with a transgender son and a record of favoring LGBT rights, became the first GOP cosponsor of a bill introduced to repeal DOMA. Even some Republican congressional arguments against marriage equality have gone from full-throated to perfunctory, if a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last fall on DOMA was any indication.
And yet the raft of rhetoric during the presidential primary campaign slog -- the anti-gay marriage pledges, the 'strengthening the family' talking points -- is the real window into the soul of the GOP, Pelosi says. And no surprise, she's not surprised by what she sees. 'It's pretty self-evident. This is who they are,' she says of Republicans. 'Are they so bankrupt of ideas that they have to continue the DOMA cases?'
Criticism of Barney Frank from gay Republicans especially sets her off. 'Oh, but what about them?' she snaps. 'He chooses a party that supports his values. They've chosen a party that supports their income -- a party that denigrates them and treats them with disrespect.'
The legislative victories during the first two years of the Obama administration, when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress, were not as numerous as many advocates had hoped and deserved. Looking back, just how full is the glass? How is it that gay people can now serve openly in the military, risking death in combat, yet can be fired in the private sector for no other reason than for being out? Can one put full faith and trust in any politician to protect against such abhorrence, or will any further remedy be the domain of the courts, as the president himself has predicted regarding DOMA?
Many who want to see Nancy Pelosi return to the speakership believe that loyalty to the party must remain absolute, that the gains in the last three years that Pelosi can list reflexively - a transgender-inclusive hate-crimes bill, 'don't ask, don't tell' repeal, a contingent of openly LGBT administration officials approaching too-many-to-count territory - are so extraordinary as to soft-pedal any disconnect. Such Democratic exceptionalism is practically biblical truth to some, including Frank, who said as much during a November news conference.
'The only way you can get any law passed that fights discrimination based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity is if you have a Democratic president, House, and Senate,' Frank said regarding ENDA, the nonpassage of which weighs heavily on many advocates. 'People don't realize how rarely we have had that.'
Those who disagree with Frank see unresponsiveness to the message voters have been sending about the party. R. Clarke Cooper, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, believes that Democrats ignored the lesson of the midterm election and that reinstalling Pelosi and Hoyer as their leaders cost them 56 previously blue seats. Approval ratings for the 112th Congress are the lowest ever recorded, at 9% according to a recent poll. 'As evidenced by [her] failure to move ENDA when she led a Democratic Congress, we will not see advancement of the bill without reaching out to Republicans,' Cooper says of Pelosi. 'If Pelosi wants to continue her focus on fund-raising, she can run the DCCC and abandon being a congressional 'leader.''
Pelosi's multimillion-dollar haul for the DCCC in the current cycle would likely assure her return to the speakership if Dems retake the House, though Frank's exit at the end of the current session has been seen by some political observers as a bad omen. 'In a bell curve of House probabilities, the best-case scenario for Republicans would be no net change. The best case for Democrats would be a gain of about 15 seats,' 10 fewer than the 25 needed to regain the majority, Charlie Cook of The Cook Political Report wrote in November.
If those odds are bested, Pelosi is ready to return to her role as the nation's third most powerful politician, though she insists she has no sense of gavel entitlement. 'It's never been about my being speaker,' Pelosi says. 'I was just doing a job. But for the American people, I think it's absolutely essential that the Democrats win the House.'
Regardless of what happens, two things are certain for the House: Neither Barney Frank nor lesbian representative Tammy Baldwin, who is running for retiring Wisconsin senator Herb Kohl's seat, will be with Pelosi in the next session - and both departures clearly weigh on her. Congressman Frank sees future speakership promise in Democratic members such as Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, the current chair of the Democratic National Committee. But in the short term, he's firm: 'Nancy should be speaker,' he says.
The two have a political relationship based on mutual respect-supplemented with idiosyncratic communication. 'My first call to him - this was about 24 years ago - when he said I was taking up his time, I learned to just say, 'Barney: Subject... Problem... Timing... Action needed...,'' Pelosi says. 'And I find, to tell you the truth, that in talking to him that way, I wish people would talk to me that way.' Pelosi seems wistful about his retirement.
'The IQ will go down here, as will the humor factor,' she says. 'This is a man who brought such values and commitment to a progressive agenda in the Congress, and whether you agreed with him when he spoke or not, everyone listened to him and learned.'
Frank and others, in turn, seem eager to remind historians of Pelosi's role in recent LGBT victories as well as her political prowess to help secure funding for HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment programs. Chris Collins, director of public policy for amfAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research, and a former Pelosi staffer, calls her 'the greatest AIDS advocate I've ever known in my life.'
During a pivotal week for “don't ask, don't tell” repeal in December 2010, when some pundits had all but declared the effort to be dead on arrival, senators Susan Collins of Maine and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut removed the DADT repeal from the defense authorization bill and set it up as a stand-alone measure to improve its chance of passing. Senate leadership asked Pelosi to pass and send them both bills in concert. But Frank had his concerns, he says. Likening the situation to a Cold War-style U.S.-Russian spy swap situation, he had little faith in some Senate Republicans, who he feared could jeopardize what gay advocates had been fighting for, and did not want to send the Senate the defense bill until senators passed the DADT repeal.
Frank called Pelosi two days before the eventual House vote and asked that she stand her ground. 'Then Nancy gets on the phone with Harry Reid and said, 'Harry, I won't send you the military bill until you've done 'don't ask, don't tell.' A few minutes later he calls up and says, 'All right, Nancy, I just filed the cloture petition on 'don't ask, don't tell,'' Frank says. 'We knew then that we were OK.' A few days later, at a press conference following the vote, Mike Almy, an Air Force major discharged under DADT in 2006, was invited to introduce Pelosi. 'She held both of my hands and said, 'I'm so sorry about what happened to you,'' Almy says. 'It was just so motherly. After the press conference we just walked out arm in arm.'
In public, Pelosi is usually in lockstep with the president, but, true to form, she declines to discuss what conversations she may have had with Obama on same-sex marriage. But she's pushing the DNC to help fund the fight against anti-marriage equality ballot measures in Minnesota and North Carolina as well as a campaign in Maine that aims to overturn a 2009 ballot measure that rescinded marriage rights for same-sex couples in the state. 'There are more ways to get your voice heard than just speaking.... But I hope the president would just say he supports equality in marriage,' she says.
Should that day become a reality, Pelosi is delighted when asked if she'd ever perform a same-sex wedding. It may be becoming increasingly de rigueur for some pols who enjoy support from LGBT constituents, including New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, who presided over the July wedding of his chief policy adviser, John Feinblatt, to Jonathan Mintz. Pelosi had called Bloomberg to congratulate him the following Monday, as Feinblatt's father once served as attorney for Pelosi's father, Thomas D'Alesandro Jr., the Democratic mayor of Baltimore from 1947 to 1959.
“I'm not a big officiator, though,” Pelosi says, and follows with a mischievous laugh. “I did it one time, and the people I married are divorced now. So I don't think I'll be called on again. I think that was probably it.”