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Nancy Pelosi Becomes First Female House Speaker

January 2, 2007 at 6:40 PM EDT
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REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), House of Representatives Speaker-Elect: Thank you all very much.

SPENCER MICHELS, NewsHour Correspondent: Nancy Pelosi used political skills honed over more than 30 years to help engineer the Democrats’ 2006 victory, which not only brought her party to power in Congress, but gave her the top job in the House, and made her the highest-ranking elected woman in U.S. history.

It was a long road from 1987, when, at the age of 47, she first ran for Congress in San Francisco, against an array of better-known candidates.

REP. NANCY PELOSI: They’ll take the low road, and I’ll take the high road, and I’ll get to Congress before them.

SPENCER MICHELS: Active as a Democrat for many years behind the scenes, she was a big-time fundraiser for the party and had a major hand in the 1984 Democratic convention in San Francisco.

In the ’87 local race, Pelosi was the best-financed candidate. She also gathered an impressive list of endorsers who were indebted to her, including Maryland’s newly elected senator, Barbara Mikulski.

SEN. BARBARA MIKULSKI (D), Maryland: And I was out there going earring-to-earring with Linda Chavez. She had Ronald Reagan, and I had Nancy Pelosi.

SPENCER MICHELS: Pelosi was a favorite of San Francisco’s politically liberal and powerful Burton family, headed by Congressman Phillip Burton, who built coalitions in the diverse city.

FORMER REP. PHILLIP BURTON (D), California: I’ve got the support of the gays and the cops, as well. Ain’t that?

SPENCER MICHELS: After his death, Burton’s wife, Sala, replaced her husband in Congress. Philip’s brother, John, also a former congressman, and longtime party activist Agar Jaicks recalled how Sala Burton, on her deathbed, anointed Nancy Pelosi to succeed her.

JOHN BURTON, Former California Democratic Leader: Sala’s laying there. And, you know, she was a fairly zaftig woman. Well, she was in pain from cancer, and she said, “I called you here because I want you to help Nancy.”

And she launches into this thing like she’s nominating a president, that she’s smart, she’s tough, she’s good on the issues, she’s organizational, she understands — and, I mean, everything that we see now, I mean, she had Nancy Pelosi pegged right down to her socks.

Pelosi's 1987 campaign for Congress

Michael Yaki
Former Pelosi Chief of Staff
We used to get jokes from the Pelosi kids about, 'Oh, yes, one of these days you're going to get the voice that will be heard.'

SPENCER MICHELS: Good evening. I'm Spencer Michels. The election for Congress is next Tuesday and is being watched...

The '87 election was raucous. Pelosi debated her 13 opponents, one of the few times she has debated, speaking out against American intervention in Central America, and defending herself against charges that, because she was wealthy, she was out of touch with the poor.

CAROL RUTH SILVER, Former San Francisco Supervisor: How can she relate to people like me, a single parent, working mother?

CAROL RUTH SILVER: Because the problems are different. She's never met a payroll. She's never had to worry about child care. She's never had a kid in the public schools. She's never worried about the things that worry most of the people in San Francisco.

SPENCER MICHELS: Let's let her answer that charge, which gets made quite a bit in this campaign.

REP. NANCY PELOSI: By my opponents, no doubt. I don't think you have to be sick to be a doctor or poor to understand the problems of the poor. I have spent my life committed to the ideals of the Democratic Party.

SPENCER MICHELS: Pelosi won the election, using the slogan, "A voice that will be heard," a phrase she still relies on, and one that her former chief of staff, Michael Yaki, recalls had more than one meaning.

MICHAEL YAKI, Former Pelosi Chief of Staff: We used to get jokes from the Pelosi kids about, "Oh, yes, one of these days you're going to get the voice that will be heard."

SPENCER MICHELS: Yaki, who went on to become a San Francisco supervisor, said Pelosi drummed into his head the credo she lived by.

MICHAEL YAKI: Number one, politics is not for the faint of heart. Number two, politics is a free hedge-clipping service. Every time you poke your head up, someone's there to chop it off. And, number three, if you're going to throw a punch, you've got to take a punch.

Her personal life

Sally Hambrecht
Friend to Nancy Pelosi
Every Sunday she goes to mass. And it doesn't matter where she is; she finds a way to go. And it's just part of her makeup.

SPENCER MICHELS: Pelosi learned those lessons early, as the youngest of six children in an Italian-American family in Baltimore. Her father, Thomas D'Alesandro, was mayor, and then a congressman. Politics -- Democratic politics, local and national -- was always part of her life, and so was her competitive nature.

MICHAEL YAKI: She really likes game shows, like "Jeopardy." She is a "Jeopardy" freak.

SPENCER MICHELS: You're not kidding.

MICHAEL YAKI: No. There were times when there would be a TV, and "Jeopardy" would be on, and so she and I would have these mini-contests, you know, to see who could push the button faster and get the answer.

SPENCER MICHELS: After college in Washington, D.C., she married Paul Pelosi, a well-to-do businessman, and eventually they had five children. The family moved to San Francisco in 1969 and became close friends with Sally Hambrecht and her husband, investment banker Bill Hambrecht.

SALLY HAMBRECHT, Friend of Pelosi: It was very clear that she waited until her children were at a certain age before she went into active politics. And I have traveled with Nancy. I have been with her in many places in this country and outside of this country.

Every Sunday she goes to mass. And it doesn't matter where she is; she finds a way to go. And it's just part of her makeup.

SPENCER MICHELS: You can tell that she's religious.

SALLY HAMBRECHT: It's something that she just -- it's where she can be with herself I think, you know?

REP. NANCY PELOSI: My parents would be proud, but they didn't -- they say they'd be so proud that you're going to be the speaker. I said, "They'd be proud, but they didn't raise me to be the speaker. They raised me to be holy; they raised me to care about other people. They told us that you shouldn't pray to win an election; that really wasn't appropriate."

Republican attacks in '06

Rep. George Miller
D-California
She's about as savvy as you can get. She has a tremendous field of vision. She sees where players are; she sees where an issue is.

SPENCER MICHELS: San Francisco was -- and remains -- a city with a liberal, even leftist, reputation, a city some call "out of the American mainstream." So, during and even after the 2006 campaign, Republicans used the specter of a speaker from San Francisco as a way to attack Democrats.

NEWT GINGRICH (R), Former Speaker of the House: She is going to be a very left-wing, San Francisco values speaker, and she should be. I mean, she represents San Francisco, and that's honestly her background.

SPENCER MICHELS: Conservative talk show host Bill O'Reilly called San Francisco a "secular-progressive paradise."

BILL O'REILLY, Fox News Host: There's no question that the nation's most liberal city doesn't reflect the traditional values of most Americans.

SPENCER MICHELS: California Congressman George Miller, a close confidante of Pelosi, says the San Francisco issue didn't work.

REP. GEORGE MILLER (D), California: It was the worst expenditure of money the Republicans ever made, to try to make that a campaign issue. It was hilarious.

SPENCER MICHELS: What Republicans really feared, according to Miller, were Pelosi's political skills.

REP. GEORGE MILLER: She's about as savvy as you can get. She has a tremendous field of vision. She sees where players are; she sees where an issue is.

I always think of her sort of like, you know, when you see Magic Johnson coming down the court. You know exactly who he's going to pass the ball to, except he doesn't pass it to that person. He flips it behind him, and that person takes and dunks it. He knows where the players are on the court, and she brings that kind of vision to politics.

Her critics

Mike DeNunzio
San Francisco Republican Party
She said, "I'm an Italian Catholic grandmother," which indeed she is, but I don't think there's an Italian Catholic grandmother on this planet that supports partial-birth abortion.

SPENCER MICHELS: Such praise is not unanimous. The progressive left in San Francisco -- the people who organize antiwar demonstrations and rally to impeach the president -- find Pelosi too moderate, too establishment. Kristy Keefer, who runs a dance studio in a working-class neighborhood of San Francisco, ran against Pelosi in 2006, and lost badly.

KRISTY KEEFER, San Francisco Green Party: What I think that Pelosi has squelched is more progressive Democrats, who have all voted to cut war funding and also who want the troops to come home.

SPENCER MICHELS: She blasts Pelosi and others for allying themselves with middle-of-the-road politicians.

KRISTY KEEFER: They kind of try to moderate themselves in relationship to very, very, very conservative people. And we are radicals out here; we want a new day in American politics. We want things to be different.

SPENCER MICHELS: But Agar Jaicks says that, from the start, Pelosi allied herself with the liberal, though not the extreme, wing of the party.

AGAR JAICKS, Former Democratic Official: When she sought the people out that she admired the most, they were the ones that were on the left. She's a basic ideological Democrat, a liberal Democrat, but she knows how to be pragmatic and adjust to the situation.

I don't care where you are or who you are; you're going to make some compromises, or you aren't going to be in the leadership. And she wants to be in the leadership. And she's great in the leadership.

SPENCER MICHELS: But Republicans -- a distinct minority in San Francisco -- and some members of the business community still find Pelosi too far left. Mike Denunzio is chairman of the local GOP and a professional fundraiser. He, too, ran against her.

MIKE DENUNZIO, San Francisco Republican Party: Mrs. Pelosi was vehemently opposed to tax cuts. Mrs. Pelosi is vehemently opposed to capital gains reductions. These are business issues that Mrs. Pelosi is opposed to.

REP. NANCY PELOSI: My highest priority immediately: to stop the war in Iraq.

SPENCER MICHELS: Although Pelosi doesn't want to cut off funding for the war in Iraq, Denunzio also criticizes her opposition to the war.

MIKE DENUNZIO: Mrs. Pelosi's position on national defense and the military is not a position that you would expect of a speaker of the House or a minority leader in Washington. It's an extremist position.

SPENCER MICHELS: And he ridicules her position on some social issues.

MIKE DENUNZIO: She said, "I'm an Italian Catholic grandmother," which indeed she is, but I don't think there's an Italian Catholic grandmother on this planet that supports partial-birth abortion.

SPENCER MICHELS: Still, Pelosi has done in San Francisco what she has done with the Democrats in Congress: brought diverse, sometimes warring factions together.

Many business leaders support her, as do labor leaders, like Mike Casey, who heads the Restaurant and Hotel Workers Union, which recently staged a strike that Pelosi endorsed.

Nonetheless, labor has had its differences with her, especially an argument over the North American Free Trade Agreement, which the unions opposed.

MIKE CASEY, Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union: NAFTA has not been good, but she supported it at the time, and we still, you know, are not happy about that. But you take that in the context of everything else that Nancy Pelosi stands for, and what she's done for us. You know, it's extraordinary who she is, and we're grateful that she's going to be there.

REP. NANCY PELOSI: I thank San Francisco for giving me the privilege. When I ran, my slogan was, "A voice that will be heard." I think they've heard us.

SPENCER MICHELS: Pelosi is banking that the skills and toughness she displayed in her fractious hometown, where she has been re-elected 10 times, have prepared her for her new role in a divided nation.