Call it ironic, or perfectly fitting, that as she stood within reach of becoming the first female speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, California Rep. Nancy Pelosi faced the ultimate dilemma of many American women: work or family?
Between updates from New York, where her pregnant daughter, Alexandra, was overdue for a Nov. 2 delivery, Pelosi, the Democrats' leader in the House, spent the final days of the campaign dashing from one rally to the next, promoting candidates whose defeats of Republican incumbents might put her over the top.
As Democrats rode an antiwar wave to take control of the House, the stakes were historic for the 66-year-old San Francisco liberal, the daughter of a former congressman and Baltimore mayor and the wife of a multimillionaire investor, who waited until her children were grown to run for office.
"It says to women everywhere that not only a glass ceiling but a marble ceiling can be broken and that anything is possible," a hoarse Pelosi said outside a Philadelphia-area campaign stop over the weekend.
But for the Roman Catholic mother of five, the idea of missing the birth of grandchild No. 6 was too guilt-inducing to contemplate. If Alexandra went into labor on election night itself, Pelosi had said with her trademark unflinching, lip-glossed smile, "I'll be at the hospital."
Pelosi's expectant daughter, in an e-mail on the eve of the election, joked, "I am really rooting for the Dems to win the House because if they don't, my mother has volunteered to move in for the nanny job!"
Alexandra's baby chose not to be born on Tuesday after all. So as the returns rolled in Tuesday night, Pelosi basked in the adoration of the hundreds of Democratic activists who chanted, "Speaker! Speaker!" just past midnight in the packed ballroom at the Hyatt Regency Hotel near the U.S. Capitol.
"Today we made history!" Pelosi beamed, blinking back tears. But she dwelled little on gender, instead pledging an ethical and open leadership style and to work in a spirit of bipartisanship. "Mr. President, we need a new direction in Iraq," she said. "Let's work together to find a solution."
In a conciliatory gesture on a night when red states voted blue, Pelosi wore a lavender suit and a purple bead necklace.
If this all seemed too much like a Lifetime network movie to stomach, the days ahead promise a reality check.
Pelosi is unlikely to be challenged in her caucus for the top leadership post, but nasty leadership fights for majority leader and whip are brewing just below. Those fights could pit Democrats with differing Iraq war stances against one another, blacks against whites, women against Hispanics—and present the newly empowered caucus as a fractious and disorganized circus.
Pelosi also can expect sharp criticism from Republicans, who've predicted that a House under her control would raise taxes and pander to illegal immigrants, gays, criminals and antiwar activists.
Her big-picture challenge will be strengthening the Democrats' prospects for the presidency in 2008 by uniting the various factions of her caucus: the liberals vs. the conservative "Blue Dogs," and those who want revenge on President Bush vs. those who'd concentrate on passing legislation.
The degree to which Pelosi is deemed effective could color prospects for a presidential candidacy by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y.
"It sets the stage in a very significant way for electing the first woman president," said Ellen Malcolm, the founder of Emily's List, which raises money for Democratic female candidates who support abortion rights.
Pelosi still is coming to terms with the import of the election. "Ten years ago, I would have never thought we would have a woman speaker, and now we do—well, we will," she said.
"Little Nancy" learned her business as a child. Her father, Thomas D'Alesandro Jr., was one of a handful of Italian-Americans in Congress, elected to five terms from 1938 to 1946. He then ran a Democratic machine as Baltimore's mayor for a dozen years. Her mother, also named Nancy, was known for an unforgiving style and was active in D'Alesandro's campaign and constituent work.
Pelosi interned for a senator from Maryland, then her marriage to investor Paul Pelosi took her to San Francisco, where she raised their children. As Paul Pelosi's wealth grew, so did Nancy Pelosi's involvement in Democratic activism and fundraising. In 1987, she won a special election to replace her friend, Rep. Sala Burton, who'd died of colon cancer.
In nearly two decades in office, Pelosi has been underestimated as a chocolate-popping, rich liberal with a soft touch. But her admirers say she loves baseball as much as many men do and is one of the party's most aggressive fundraisers, and that her pleasantries mask a ruthlessness she learned from her mother.
"She didn't get there on a whim," said Pelosi's brother, Thomas D'Alesandro III, who's also a past Baltimore mayor. "She got there by hard work."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHICS (from MCT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20061026 PELOSI bio.
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