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San Francisco Chronicle: Stronger Than Ever After 20 Years - Pelosi marks milestone, having risen from quiet obscurity to become House's leading voice

By Edward Epstein


It was something of a shock 20 years ago to the newly elected congresswoman from San Francisco who had campaigned as 'a voice that will be heard'' when she arrived in the Capitol for her swearing-in and was promptly told to sit down and shut up.

It might have been the last time anyone ever said that to Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the proudly liberal Democrat, prodigious fundraiser and organizer for her party, and legislative workhorse who last January made history by becoming the first woman, Californian and San Franciscan elected to the House's highest post as speaker.

'When I came here to be sworn in, I asked how much time will I get to speak and they said none,'' Pelosi recalled in an interview with The Chronicle in her Capitol offices, which feature one of the best views in Washington, straight down the National Mall toward the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial.

The upstart freshman told her party's leaders, including then-Speaker Jim Wright, D-Texas, that silence wouldn't do. They relented, a tad, probably because as the daughter of a former Democratic House member from Baltimore and as former chairwoman of the California Democratic Party, Pelosi was hardly a political naif.

'Keep it short. Keep it short,'' she recalled being told on June 9, 1987, as she was about to be sworn into office.

Pelosi spoke, thanking the late Phil and Sala Burton, the husband and wife who were her mentors and predecessors representing what was then California's Fifth Congressional District. And she quickly laid out a San Francisco political credo as relevant today as it was in 1987 in the waning days of the Reagan administration and the early years of the AIDS epidemic.

'We are very proud of the Fifth Congressional District and its leadership 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,'' she told the House in her 10-sentence statement.

Since then, it has been a crowded two decades for Pelosi, her constituents and for San Francisco, the Baltimore native's adopted city. She has won and lost battles over HIV/AIDS funding, China's human rights record, creating a national park in the Presidio, cleaning up Hunters Point Naval Shipyard and securing federal money for Municipal Railway expansion.

She has risen through the ranks, climaxing last November when she led Democrats as they retook the House after 12 years as the minority party.

Pelosi, in an interview to mark her tenure in Congress, said she can't believe so much time has swept by.

'It's been an amazing 20 years,'' she said, surrounded by memorabilia that includes pictures of her husband, Paul Pelosi, and their five children and six grandchildren, a statue of Phil Burton and of the Goddess of Democracy, the symbol of the ill-fated 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy movement in China. Art on loan from the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco graces the walls.

'I can't believe it's been 20 years. It's a generation,'' said the 67-year-old speaker, who estimated she has made about 800 round-trip flights between Washington and San Francisco since coming to Congress.

Like other California members of Congress, Pelosi has resigned herself to the grind of weekly transcontinental trips when the House is in session. 'I learned to adjust to the fact that a certain portion of my life would be on airplanes,'' she said.

Pelosi marked her 20th anniversary the way politicians mark such things these days, by holding a big-bucks fundraiser.

In this instance, the speaker hosted a few hundred donors at a cocktails and dinner event at Washington's historic Union Station on Wednesday evening to benefit the Nancy Pelosi for Congress Committee.

Pelosi doesn't exactly need the money for her own House race in her prohibitively Democratic district in San Francisco. She has been re-elected with an average of about 81 percent of the vote since winning a raucous special election to replace Sala Burton in 1987. But the speaker can use the money she raises for her campaign committee to donate to other Democrats, something she does to help build loyalty from Democratic lawmakers and candidates.

Tickets to the gala went for $1,000 for cocktails to $10,000 for those who wanted to be listed as co-chairs of the event.

Some of the local San Francisco issues Pelosi pursued when she first came to the House still occupy some of her time, even as she also deals with such national issues as the war in Iraq, global warming and immigration and party crises such as how she should handle the indicted Rep. William Jefferson, D-La.

The shipyard, which the Navy left in 1974, is still only 15 percent cleaned up, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom said. Although construction of the first residential housing development has started, the shipyard remains largely an economic development glimmer in the hard-pressed Bayview neighborhood.

The city has been a focus of the federal Ryan White HIV/AIDS community-based care program since its 1990 enactment, and that has bred resentment from other states as the epidemic spread across the country. This year, even after Pelosi became speaker, the Bush administration surprised the city by cutting $9.2 million from its White grant, setting off a flurry of lobbying by Pelosi, Newsom and others.

Pelosi said she will continue her fight for those issues, especially now that she is speaker.

'Democrats are in power now. It's a different world. Things will move faster now,'' she vowed.

Asked if the power of the speaker's post can be overestimated, Pelosi answered with a long, 'Nooooo,'' and gave her patented staccato laugh as her eyes crinkled into a broad smile.

Newsom, whose parents were friends of the Pelosis even before he was born 39 years ago, said having the speaker from his city is a priceless asset in dealing with the vast federal bureaucracy.

'You can pass resolutions or scream or you can have someone pick up the phone and get action. That's the difference,'' he said.

He predicted the AIDS cuts will be restored soon and that the Navy's expensive Hunters Point cleanup will gain momentum.

Even her political opponents, while scorning her positions on issues, credit her with being a sharp political pro.

'I admire her political leadership,'' said Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, who as chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee is his party's chief strategist in trying to unseat the Democrats and Speaker Pelosi in 2008. 'She's tough-minded, aggressive, knows what she believes in and acts on it.''

But then he zinged her. 'But sometimes she goes too far and isn't bipartisan, and the problems we face will require bipartisanship,'' Cole said.

Rep. David Dreier, R-San Dimas (Los Angeles County), leader of California's 19 GOP House members, said, 'She represents San Francisco very well. She is a dedicated hard worker, that's for sure.''

But Dreier, one of the Democrats' main partisan sparring partners on the House floor, pointed to recent public opinion polls showing that Americans' positive feeling about the new Democratic Congress has sagged recently and in some polls is down almost to the levels of President Bush.

'In just five months, they have a lower approval rating than President Bush and it has to do with the way they run the place,'' he charged.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll released last week showed Bush's approval rating at 35 percent while Congress' approval rating had fallen to 39 percent. But the poll also showed voters trusted the Democratic leadership in Congress to do a better job than the president handling many of the major issues facing the country including the war in Iraq, immigration, global warming and the fight against terrorism.

Republicans, still adjusting to life in the minority, say Pelosi hasn't lived up to her promise to run an open, collegial House. But Pelosi and her deputies slough off the criticism as sour grapes and say they have been more open than Republicans were during their majority.

Pelosi defended the House's productivity so far this year even though much of its legislative output has run into a wall in the Senate. She wasn't surprised Congress' standing in the polls has petered out.

'There's always a crest when you win and we were pretty high,'' she said.

But the speaker said she is just getting started, gearing up for new confrontations with Bush over ending the Iraq war she opposes, for instance, and is deeply involved in campaign planning for the 2008 House elections.

Savoring her 20 years, she turned aside a question about how long she intends to stay in the House. 'I know it's not going to be 20 years. And if I thought about it I wouldn't talk about it,'' she said.