CAMBRIDGE, Md. — She’s an enduring hero, the first woman ever to lead a branch of the U.S. government. Or she’s all that’s wrong with Washington.
Nancy Pelosi is one of the most polarizing figures in American politics, icon to one side, devil to the other.
She reached a pinnacle of politics, speaker of the House of Representatives. Now the California Democrat is in the minority, the gavel and power of the speaker passed on. The prospects for next year suggest more life in a Republican world, as chances appear slim of her party retaking the House and thus of her becoming speaker again.
At 73, she brushes aside talk that she’ll retire from her safe seat. She won’t say whether she’d seek to lead the Democrats again next year, but she signals that she’s still in charge of the House Democratic caucus, and still has plenty of work to do.
In the last few weeks, she delivered the votes that got major budget, farm policy and debt limit bills through the House. She continues to display her trademark passion, and yen for hardball, as she advocates a new women’s and children’s agenda.
Being the first female speaker assures her place in history. With her Democrats in charge of the House, she muscled through the Affordable Care Act, which is changing how Americans get health insurance. She was instrumental in winning passage of President Barack Obama’s 2009 economic stimulus, as well as the sweeping 2010 Wall Street regulatory overhaul.
If that makes her a hero to Democrats and liberals, it makes her a target for Republicans.
“Nancy Pelosi represents all that’s wrong with Washington,” said Andrea Bozek, the communications director of the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Why does Pelosi put up with this?
“I’ll tell you exactly what it is,” the daughter and sister of former Baltimore mayors said in an interview. “My motivation to ever even run for office in the first place or be involved politically is the 1 in 5 children in America who live in poverty. Now it’s getting close to 1 in 4.”
There’s also a sense that Pelosi is reluctant to give up her considerable stature and clout, her ability to command votes and dollars. And she’s in somewhat of a protected Washington position, rarely seen as culpable if the Democratic agenda goes off track.
“They blame the president,” said Sarah Binder, a senior fellow at Washington’s Brookings Institution, a research center. Or they point to the troubles that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has trying to move ahead with an unruly Senate.
Leading the House is a different matter. It’s more about establishing and nurturing personal relationships and building coalitions. Those traits don’t always produce glib public talkers, and though Pelosi speaks with emotion, detail and authority, she can come off as long-winded and too tied to a political system that most Americans disdain.
Pelosi recoiled at any suggestion that Democrats are too close to special interests.
“Wait, wait, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. We fight the special interests every single day,” she said.
“People who give to me are the idealistic,” she said. “I don’t have one pragmatic dollar that I raise. Everybody is a progressive constituent across the country. That’s our small donors and it’s the people who support me.”
She raised an estimated $35 million for the Democratic Party last year. She’s amassed $1.25 million in the Nancy Pelosi for Congress treasury in 2013-14. Her PAC to the Future committee, which helps elect Democrats, has raised $692,998 this cycle, including about $91,000 from labor interests and $56,000 from health care-related interests.
Republicans counter that Pelosi is beholden to labor, liberal groups and those who’d move the country to a government-run health care system. They also note that she’s presiding over a shrinking caucus. After the 2008 election, the House had 257 Democrats; today’s count is 200. Its Blue Dog conservative caucus has dwindled from 54 three years ago to about 15 today.
“Families across the country know her policies have given us a weak economy, forced families to lose health insurance and costs to increase,” Bozek said.
Pelosi’s persistence in the spotlight is unusual in modern American politics. Not since the mid-1950s has a speaker later become minority leader. It’s a sharp change, from coalition-builder to the often-powerless voice of the loyal opposition.
Her task seemed to be getting tougher this year as two longtime confidants, California Democratic U.S. Reps. George Miller and Henry Waxman, announced their retirements. Waxman was a stalwart for health care and environmental issues, Miller for education and poverty-related programs.
When rumors began that she’d be next to retire, Pelosi squelched that notion. But she’s vague about continuing as the Democratic leader.
“Let’s see if we win the election. We’ll take one step at a time,” Pelosi said. “I’m never committed to running for leadership. Never at this point. I always say let’s win the election and go from there.”
Asked whether she wanted personally to lead the Democrats again, she said, “I want a Democratic speaker of the House. I don’t care who it is, just a Democrat, any Democrat will do.”
Her caucus is squarely behind her, praising her personal touch. “She’s emotionally available,” said Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt. Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., called her “direct in what she wants.”
Her immediate goal is a detailed list of initiatives to help women and children, called When Women Succeed, America Succeeds. It includes child care training, licensing and money so states can set up pre-kindergarten programs, a higher minimum wage, paid sick and family leave and equal pay for equal work. It’s very likely dead on arrival.
“I don’t have any illusions this can happen in the next 10 months with Republicans in power,” she said. “We just want to shorten the distance between what is inevitable to us and inconceivable to them.”
Regaining the majority appears unlikely, and she’s inadvertently helped Republicans raise money to defeat Democrats.
“You can still raise money attacking Nancy Pelosi,” conservative consultant Keith Appell said. Republicans are running videos and ads in next month’s special Florida House election that feature Pelosi.
Democrats dismiss the criticism. “Nancy Pelosi is not running for office in other people’s districts,” said Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Pelosi scoffs. “Those people, to me, they’re unimportant,” Pelosi said of her partisan critics. “What the Republicans say about me _ if I were not effective they would not be trying to knock me down. And every time they try and knock me down it fills my coffers.”
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