Tough style of leadership

If Democrats take House, Pelosi likely to be speaker

Sun Profile

October 27, 2006|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN REPORTER

In Baltimore's Little Italy, where Nancy Pelosi began the political education that propelled her to the peak of power in Washington, there was one person more feared and better-organized than her legendary father, Thomas J. D'Alesandro Jr.

That was her mother, Annunciata, a statuesque woman also known as Nancy, who juggled six children with serving as precinct captain, strategist and all-around enforcer in her husband's storied Democratic machine. And people knew not to tangle with her.

"Cross [my mother]? You're dead in the water. She'd get you," said Pelosi's brother, Thomas J. D'Alesandro III. "With my mother, there was no forgiving."

It's a trait that sounds familiar to Pelosi's colleagues on Capitol Hill, where she climbed to the top echelons by blending savvy, determination and impeccable organization with prolific fundraising - and a hefty dose of her mother's take-no-prisoners approach.

Pelosi's "toughness comes from her," said D'Alesandro, who served four years as mayor of Baltimore, following in the footsteps of his father, a former mayor and congressman who came to be known as Tommy the Elder.

If Pelosi, 66, becomes the first female speaker of the House - a near certainty should her party succeed at what analysts call its best chance in years to take control - it would be due in large measure to her unflinching leadership style, which prizes partisanship and personal loyalty, and punishes public dissonance and deviations from the party line.

It will also put Pelosi to a fresh test: whether she can shift from staging bitter confrontations with Republicans - and serving as one of their most tantalizing targets for attack and ridicule - to a speaker who can lead.

She seems palpably energized by the prospect, and makes no apologies for how she got here.

"This is not for the faint of heart. ... This is very tough," Pelosi said in an interview. "I'm conditioned for it. I'm battle-tested."

Bellicose words might seem incongruous coming from a woman who says she defines herself as an Italian-American, Roman Catholic mother and grandmother. But the grown-up version of the impeccably groomed girl known around the streets of Baltimore as "Little Nancy" is accustomed to wielding power with more than a touch of gender-consciousness.

"Maybe it takes a woman to clean the House," she likes to say as she travels the country raising money for Democratic candidates, snacking on chocolates and working 15-hour days.

On her way into a ladies brunch in Tampa, Fla., Pelosi catches sight of a woman holding a book open to a photo of her handing the speaker's gavel to Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois.

"Next time, it will be reversed!" Pelosi says, pumping a manicured fist.

She tells a room full of women there that a new crop of female elected officials will have a "wholesome effect" on Washington and promises that when the speaker's gavel is placed in her hand, she'll take it on behalf of the nation's children.

Statements like those - from a petite woman in expensively cut suits, chic shoes and a sleek hairdo - may make Pelosi appear softer and more approachable than her male predecessors, but she has her mother's grit.

She is scathing on President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. "These people are oblivious," she says, as she travels by SUV to a fundraiser on Tampa's posh Davis Island. She has called Bush "incompetent."

As for Republicans who deride her as a weak-on-defense San Francisco liberal: "I don't care what they say about me," she says, her mouth twisting into a sneer, "They're pathetic."

Bush and his allies have stepped up the swipes as polls showed Republican fortunes darkening. Republican talking points, distributed to party officials across the country, paint her as a shrill partisan who is oblivious to security threats, itching to raise taxes, and ready to foist an aggressive pro-gay rights agenda on the country.

Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri, the No. 3 Republican, calls the prospect of a Pelosi speakership "just plain scary." Karl Rove, Bush's top campaign hand, recently said a Democratic victory on Election Day would elevate to speaker "a congresswoman who said, quote, `I don't really consider ourselves at war,' end quote."

"Nancy is not in sync with the vast majority of the American people," Cheney told conservative commentator Sean Hannity.

There's little evidence, however, that she inspires much passion, one way or the other, among voters. A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that about three-fifths either don't know who she is or have "neutral" feelings about her.

Democrats, even Pelosi's detractors, say she has been an effective leader whose tactics have helped them capitalize on Bush's problems and Republicans' missteps.

Her demand that Democrats vote the party line against Bush's agenda helped Pelosi cajole and threaten her notoriously fractious caucus to its most unified voting record ever, according to Congressional Quarterly.

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