WASHINGTON — — Nancy Pelosi's days as speaker of the House were dwindling in number, but her to-do list was growing: The tax deal President Barack Obama negotiated with Republicans but she was charged with passing? Check. Threats of rebellion within her own Democratic ranks? Quelled. Immigration? Gays in the military? Plenty of time — never mind that clock ticking toward Christmas break and the Jan. 5 start date for the new House that she no longer will lead.
But on one afternoon last week, despite the urgent negotiations and the late-night votes, Pelosi seemed as serene as her surroundings: a pale yellow sitting room that is part of the prime Capitol real estate she commands, for now, with power views of the Washington Monument and a collection of photographs that speak to a long and highly personal view of politics, measured not just by election cycles but generational ones.
There is a picture of her 7-year-old self, white-gloved and holding a Bible as her father, Thomas J. D'Alesandro Jr., is sworn in as Baltimore's mayor in 1947. "And here, 40 years later…" Pelosi begins before letting the image speak for itself: D'Alesandro, in a wheelchair, at her swearing-in as a new congresswoman representing her adopted city of San Francisco.
"There are certain principles that don't change," said Pelosi, 70, who will cede her gavel next month to John A. Boehner, the Ohio Republican whose party won the majority of House seats in November. "These are values about opportunity, about fairness. Does it work? Is it fair? Does it provide opportunity for many more people?"
As she transitions from the speaker's office to the lesser role of House minority leader, Pelosi staunchly remains the face of progressive Democrats, a hero to those increasingly embittered by what they view as Obama's abandonment of their causes and a magnet for the scorn of conservatives who ran against her in the midterms.
"San Francisco liberal" is their epithet. To her ears, it sounds like a compliment.
"That's what I am," she declares, "and proud of it."
But there are those who, in assessing her four years as speaker and her prospects as minority leader, would say that such a label gets the city wrong.
"Baltimore is a better predictor of her behavior than San Francisco," said Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, noting her pragmatic approach toward building enough of a consensus among the factions in her caucus to get bills passed.
"She has demonstrated a discipline and a sort of organizational skill, a capacity to understand her members and their districts and their values and proclivities, and keeping enough of them together to advance an agenda," Mann said.
Pelosi began learning nuts-and-bolts political skills at the knee of her father, who ran a legendarily tight ground operation that got him elected state delegate, city councilman, congressman and mayor.
As a young girl she helped manage his "favor file," which tracked requests made by and granted to constituents who showed up at their Little Italy rowhouse seeking work, housing, medical care or just a meal.
"The way I grew up, in a family that was devoutly Catholic, very Democratic, proud of our Italian-American heritage and fiercely patriotic," she said, "those are really the commitments I have in my life."
She is her father's daughter only up to a point, eschewing the colorfully unprintable words that could pepper his blunt talk. While an equally tough political fighter behind the scenes, her public face is decorous, at times even prim. Beginning to quote the Clinton-era mantra, "It's the economy," she stops short, saying, "I won't even use that word" — the rather tame "stupid."
The family vote-counting skills failed her at least once, and quite clumsily, when as the incoming speaker she openly endorsed her mentor, Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania, over her occasional rival Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland for majority leader. Hoyer won, resoundingly, in what played out as a rebuke to the new speaker from the ranks.
She left Baltimore more than 50 years ago, first for Trinity College in Washington and then after marrying Paul Pelosi, moving to his native San Francisco. She is one of the wealthiest members of Congress, with the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call estimating her net worth at more than $21 million, largely from her husband's real estate and investment portfolio.
It was in San Francisco that she raised five children as a stay-at-home mom before becoming more politically active and ultimately winning a congressional seat — although with the kind of organizational skills honed on Albemarle Street.