News & Views from 465 California Street

Nancy Pelosi

Clint Reilly

“A Voice That Will Be Heard”

I was Nancy Pelosi’s political consultant when she was first elected to Congress in 1987.

Her performance in that campaign augured the political skills and passionate determination that would not only elect her to Congress but also propel her to become the first female Speaker of the House.

On February 1, 1987, San Francisco Congresswoman Sala Burton died of cancer. On her deathbed, she endorsed Nancy Pelosi, a 47-year-old San Francisco Democratic party leader, to succeed her in Congress.

Pelosi faced a legitimate challenge from Harry Britt, a gay San Francisco supervisor who had succeeded Harvey Milk after Milk’s assassination in 1979. Britt’s stock in trade was an array of carefully calibrated positions on high-profile progressive issues. We quickly assessed Britt’s weaknesses: First, he lacked an organization. Second, he was a talker, not a doer.

Pelosi, on the other hand, had been effective as Chair of the California Democratic Party and she played a major role in the 1984 Democratic Convention held in San Francisco. She had also chaired the Democratic Senatorial Finance Committee during the 1986 elections. The rap on Pelosi was that she was primarily a fund raiser – not a substantive leader on the issues.

But research into Pelosi’s record showed that she had a substantial impact on public policy by helping elect a Democratic state legislature and U.S. Senate. In fact, Pelosi had helped create the Senate majority that blocked Ronald Reagan’s most draconian attempts to cut Social Security and aid to poor and middle class families.

Pelosi benefited from the help of two veterans of Cesar Chavez’s Farm Labor Movement – Fred Ross Jr. and Marshall Ganz. Ross and Ganz were two of America’s best political organizers of the day and they assembled a machine that put a volunteer in every precinct and garnered a large vote-by-mail margin. Pelosi appeared at more than 150 house meetings to meet voters and organize her own grassroots army.

A theme emerged during the campaign which proved to be prophetic: Nancy Pelosi – “A Voice that Will Be Heard.

In the end, Pelosi mobilized women and minorities and scored a decisive victory.

Nine terms later, she became Speaker of the House of Representatives.

I am often asked, “How was Nancy Pelosi different from your other clients?” I answered the question simply: “For Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Party is her religion.” Sometimes I would joke that she was first a Democrat and then a Catholic. Her father and brother both served as Mayor of Baltimore. Pelosi has politics in her blood. But she was hardly a typical politician.

Many politicians arrive with a posse. They are insecure without a retinue of aides and sycophants in tow. They recoil from doing actual work like walking precincts, raising money or meeting with real voters. Many are like stage actors – poised during the play and terrors in the dressing room.

Pelosi was the opposite. She was always a disciplined pro who moved without pretension, absorbed pressure and understood the details as well as the big picture. Movie star good looks and a warm, gracious charm were other Pelosi weapons.

I once produced a brochure that featured her other secret weapon. The front page read: “A long line of accomplishments.” When the brochure was opened, a portrait of her large family unfolded. Nancy and her husband Paul raised five children before she ran for Congress at age 47. Incredibly, Congress was Pelosi’s second career.

The last brochure in Nancy’s campaign was a piece titled, “The Other Nancy.” Of course, the most well-known Nancy at the time was Nancy Reagan. Who would have guessed that by 2008, the most important Nancy in America would be Nancy Pelosi?

Comments (3)

  • One of the attributes of Nancy Pelosi that i always admired and to this day is the fact that she continues to be true to who she is and what she stands for. Very consistent and level-headed.

    Such a warm person.

    Posted by: Don Nguyen | March 11th, 2008 at 1:11 pm

  • Very interesting. We tend to forget where our leaders came from; they almost take on a whole new persona once they get into office. It’s clear from this personal assessment of her rise to prominence that Pelosi is a real asset to the Democratic Party.

    You can see that she puts the party before any single individual in instances like today, when she weighed in on comments Hillary made about Obama’s fitness to serve as commander in chief:

    Posted by: Jackson | March 11th, 2008 at 6:02 pm

  • well done, brother

    Posted by: Gabrielgz | April 5th, 2008 at 2:01 pm

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