This commentary is by Kevin Ellis, a communications consultant based in Montpelier.
In 1987, I was a young newspaper reporter in Washington, D.C., when Nancy Pelosi came to town.
A newly elected congresswoman from San Francisco, Pelosi, with the likes of Al Gore from Tennessee and Ed Markey from Massachusetts, formed a new class of politician: young, smart and all in a hurry.
Bit by bit, this new generation slowly displaced the old guard. Back then, Congress was controlled by Democrats dealing with a fairly racist faction of their party. These folks, led by the likes of Strom Thurmond and Jamie Whitten, were not well known but, due to seniority, controlled the committee structure and therefore how the money was spent.
Pelosi and other up-and-comers like Joe Biden (that guy) struggled to balance respecting their elders and moving past them. Unfortunately, walking this tightrope on occasion warped their politics.
Pelosi, however, believed the compromises were worth it if it meant winning. She was focused on results. She wasn’t about serving on committees and doing policy. She wanted to control the levers of power to do good and in 2007 she prevailed, becoming the first female speaker of the House.
I’ve often said that speakers of the House are more mechanic than philosopher — more about results than the journey. Their job isn’t to smile for the camera on Sunday talk shows but rather to wrangle votes for a bill that makes the country better for people.
Pelosi was the ultimate speaker. Uncomfortable with public speaking, she focused on getting her Democratic caucus to unite behind her priorities: child care, health care, worker protections. She already knew the policy she wanted; she just needed to round up the votes.
Trump’s election forced her into a more public position. She held weekly press conferences answering constant questions about his antics. She loathes Trump, but when she told the media she prayed for him, I actually believed her.
In the end, Trump got nothing from Pelosi — not “the wall,’’ not a halt to immigration, not a rejection of Obamacare.
It is easy to think of Nancy Pelosi as a caricature of the Republican mind (crazy, commie radical from San Francisco) or as the corporate sellout painted by the AOCs of the Democratic Party’s progressive wing. She is neither.
Her hard-nosed approach to politics comes from a very Catholic upbringing in Baltimore. One of six children, Pelosi was raised by a fearsome mother and father who served as a mayor and congressman.
Her family dinner table was campaign central. There she learned the value of constituent service. At age 6, Pelosi counted votes with her brothers and sisters. Together they witnessed their father’s “favor box,’’ which held political debts to be paid or collected. That’s how politics worked in Baltimore back then. I have no doubt that Pelosi keeps a favor box in her head today.
It was this education that made her the speaker of the House and second in line to the presidency.
With her announcement that she will step down as leader of the Democratic caucus in the House, Pelosi now steps into history at the age of 82. She is the most powerful woman in U.S. politics and one of the most powerful and skilled politicians in U.S. history.
She had many, many fine moments, all of them stemming from her upbringing and her view that the Democratic Party should stand for the less fortunate.
Best not to challenge her, as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others did early in their own careers. When Ocasio-Cortez was first elected, she challenged Pelosi and the way she ran the House Democratic caucus. When asked about this, Pelosi brushed it off, knowing she held an iron grip on the Democrats.
“They have four votes,” she said, dismissing AOC and her three colleagues known as The Squad.
On Jan. 6, when Trump’s followers broke into the Capitol to murder Pelosi, she worked the phones, seeking to protect the Electoral College count against those who would illegally overturn it. She told Vice President Mike Pence not to tell anyone his location. She might have saved his life.
Her greatest moment was the passage of President Obama’s signature issue, the Affordable Care Act. Yes, it’s still too expensive. Yes, it is still too complicated. Yes, it ensured massive profits for health care companies, but it was the best Obama and Pelosi could do. They made the best deal they could. It provided health insurance to more than 20 million citizens. People are alive today because of it.
But when the going got tough and it looked like they didn’t have the votes to pass the bill, Obama called Pelosi to give up.
“You go through the gate,’’ she told him. “If the gate’s closed, go over the fence.’’
I will always remember Pelosi for her strength of character and bravery in the face of relentless attacks by Republicans who could never match her political skills. Their attacks were vicious. They spent millions turning Pelosi into some kind of left-wing, elitist monster who didn’t care about people.
Those attacks — as they now so often do — surged past the political and into attempted murder when a young man radicalized by internet conspiracy theories broke into Pelosi’s house, intending to kill her. Finding only her husband Paul, he attacked him instead with a hammer. Paul Pelosi suffered a fractured skull and is, thankfully, recovering from the attack.
It’s important to remember this attack was generated by those who manufactured hatred against his wife for political gain. And there are still no apologies from Republicans that I know of.
Now that the Republicans have taken over the House by a slim majority, Nancy Pelosi will no longer be speaker or the Democratic leader. She will, however, remain the congressional representative from San Francisco. I suspect her office will become a central gathering place for strategy sessions to protect and sustain her achievements.
I pity whoever becomes the Republican speaker of the House. When they fail to impeach Biden, defund Medicare or whatever else is on their non-agenda, they won’t see Nancy Pelosi’s hand, but they will know it’s there, behind the scenes, advising the new Democratic leadership on how best to defeat the Republican agenda and protect her legacy of progressive idealism.
Thank you, Nancy, for your service.
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