Pelosi to stress family, faith

Focus on Baltimore working-class background is meant to change image of new speaker as liberal

December 12, 2006|By Matthew Hay Brown | Matthew Hay Brown,Sun reporter

WASHINGTON -- As she introduces herself next month to a national audience, incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will be stressing her roots in working-class, Catholic Baltimore as a way of recasting the liberal image with which Republicans have tried to brand her.

An unusual four-day schedule of festivities to celebrate her swearing-in is tentatively scheduled to begin in Baltimore on Jan. 2 at the Church of St. Leo the Great in Little Italy. Pelosi's childhood in that neighborhood, where she attended Mass, went to parochial school and learned politics at the knee of her father, Mayor and Congressman Thomas J. D'Alesandro Jr., is a key chapter of the biography that she will be promoting as she prepares to become the highest-ranking woman ever in U.S. government.

After a bruising midterm election in which Republicans portrayed her as out of touch with mainstream values, Pelosi will be using the appearance in Baltimore - as well as a Mass at her alma mater, a reception at the Italian Embassy and other events - to present a very different image: that of a Roman Catholic mother and grandmother who worked her way up from working-class roots to become the first Italian-American and first woman speaker.

"The communications strategy is simple," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. "Feature those facets of biography that make it harder for people to say `San Francisco liberal.'"

That focus on personal history is a marked contrast from the festivities that surrounded the installation of Speaker Newt Gingrich with the Republican revolution of 1994. Then, the GOP limited the formal revelry to two days, and Gingrich concentrated primarily on speeches articulating conservative plans for the country.

"We're at a different time and a different place right now," said Jamieson, author of several books on political communication. "Speaker Gingrich wasn't trying to overcome a lot of stereotypes. He hadn't been regularly vilified by the other side."

The celebrations surrounding Pelosi's swearing-in Jan. 4 might also be seen as affording her a fresh opportunity to present herself to the public after the initial stumble of backing the losing side in the battle for House majority leader. Pelosi had wanted a mentor, Rep. John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania, as her No. 2, but House Democrats chose Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Southern Maryland, long her rival, in a rout.

"In many respects, and certainly in terms of elective office right now, she is the most important elected Democrat," said Zach Messitte, director of the Center for the Study of Democracy at St. Mary's College of Maryland. "And if the fracas with Hoyer taught her anything, it's that she has to be perceived as a national leader of the Democratic Party, not just as a leader of one wing of the Democratic Party."

Pelosi's victory lap will take her from a gathering in Baltimore - her staff was planning a reception at St. Leo, but the Rev. Michael Salerno, the pastor, said yesterday that he hadn't heard about an event there - to Mass at Trinity College, her alma mater in Washington, to the reception at the Italian Embassy, where Tony Bennett is to sing.

Also in the works are a tea for Democratic women, a concert featuring Jimmy Buffett and Carole King, and a "People's House" event at the Capitol.

A spokesman said the list of activities, unusually extensive for the installation of a speaker, owed more to the "tremendous interest" in the leader of the new Democratic House majority than to any attempt to craft a politically appealing narrative.

"We have a lot of requests for events and for things to do and people who have wanted to be involved and offered to help," said spokesman Brendan Daly. "These are things that we think are events that people want to participate in."

But Jamieson sees the celebrations as continuing themes that Pelosi has long sounded.

"She's mentioned `grandmother' at appropriate times in the past as a way of telegraphing, `I'm not who you think I am,'" Jamieson said. "The Catholic Mass also signals something very important. The Democratic Party wants those defecting Catholics who have voted for Republicans for a long time but came back to the Democratic Party in 2006 to see the Democratic Party as home. And there is a real advantage to stressing long-lived marriage to one person, mother of five, grandmother."

matthew.brown@baltsun.com

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