The World According to Nancy Pelosi

An exclusive interview.

BY Andrew Harmon

January 12 2012 5:00 AM ET

Nancy Pelosi arrived in Washington, D.C., at age 47. As a freshman from California's eighth congressional district, she made her first House floor speech on the AIDS crisis crippling her constituency. Her oratorical debut on June 9, 1987 came weeks after President Ronald Reagan finally uttered the acronym, as she commended her district's legacy of "for peace, for environmental protection, for equal rights, for rights of individual freedom. And now we must take the leadership of course in the crisis of AIDS. And I look forward to working with you on that."

"Here was this proper, Catholic mother of five who was standing up and talking about a disease that at the time people were really uncomfortable talking about at all," says Carolyn Bartholomew, a former legislative director and chief of staff for Pelosi. "It was her engagement on HIV/AIDS as well as her energy on the issue that helped to move it forward."

In June, Pelosi will mark 25 years in the U.S. Congress. Pelosi's Capitol office is now on the second floor and was once Tip O'Neill's, when he was speaker. In the months since Pelosi attended the SoHo event, House Republican leadership has continued to rail against that which she said was inevitable. After the Obama administration decided last year to no longer defend the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act in multiple lawsuits – a milestone for LGBT rights by any measure – Speaker John Boehner convened the House Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group, composed of three Republicans and two Democrats including Pelosi, to consider legal defense of the law, which it authorized in a party-line vote. "I didn't even know what the BLAG was," Pelosi says with a smirk. "Now I'm a member of it."

But we've also seen some progressive movement on marriage equality within the GOP. The marriage bill in New York passed in a Republican-controlled Senate. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida congresswoman with a transgender son and a record of favoring LGBT rights, became the first GOP cosponsor of a bill introduced to repeal DOMA. Even some Republican congressional arguments against marriage equality have gone from full-throated to perfunctory, if a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last fall on DOMA was any indication.

And yet the raft of rhetoric during the presidential primary campaign slog — the anti-gay marriage pledges, the "strengthening the family" talking points — is the real window into the soul of the GOP, Pelosi says. And no surprise, she's not surprised by what she sees. "It's pretty self-evident. This is who they are," she says of Republicans. "Are they so bankrupt of ideas that they have to continue the DOMA cases?"

Criticism of Barney Frank from gay Republicans especially sets her off. "Oh, but what about them?" she snaps. "He chooses a party that supports his values. They've chosen a party that supports their income — a party that denigrates them and treats them with disrespect."

The legislative victories during the first two years of the Obama administration, when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress, were not as numerous as many advocates had hoped and deserved. Looking back, just how full is the glass? How is it that gay people can now serve openly in the military, risking death in combat, yet can be fired in the private sector for no other reason than for being out? Can one put full faith and trust in any politician to protect against such abhorrence, or will any further remedy be the domain of the courts, as the president himself has predicted regarding DOMA?  

Many who want to see Nancy Pelosi return to the speakership believe that loyalty to the party must remain absolute, that the gains in the last three years that Pelosi can list reflexively – a transgender-inclusive hate-crimes bill, "don't ask, don't tell" repeal, a contingent of openly LGBT administration officials approaching too-many-to-count territory –  are so extraordinary as to soft-pedal any disconnect. Such Democratic exceptionalism is practically biblical truth to some, including Frank, who said as much during a November news conference.

"The only way you can get any law passed that fights discrimination based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity is if you have a Democratic president, House, and Senate," Frank said regarding ENDA, the nonpassage of which weighs heavily on many advocates. "People don't realize how rarely we have had that."

Those who disagree with Frank see unresponsiveness to the message voters have been sending about the party. R. Clarke Cooper, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, believes that Democrats ignored the lesson of the midterm election and that reinstalling Pelosi and Hoyer as their leaders cost them 56 previously blue seats. Approval ratings for the 112th Congress are the lowest ever recorded, at 9% according to a recent poll. "As evidenced by [her] failure to move ENDA when she led a Democratic Congress, we will not see advancement of the bill without reaching out to Republicans," Cooper says of Pelosi. "If Pelosi wants to continue her focus on fund-raising, she can run the DCCC and abandon being a congressional 'leader.'"

Pelosi's multimillion-dollar haul for the DCCC in the current cycle would likely assure her return to the speakership if Dems retake the House, though Frank's exit at the end of the current session has been seen by some political observers as a bad omen. "In a bell curve of House probabilities, the best-case scenario for Republicans would be no net change. The best case for Democrats would be a gain of about 15 seats," 10 fewer than the 25 needed to regain the majority, Charlie Cook of The Cook Political Report wrote in November.

If those odds are bested, Pelosi is ready to return to her role as the nation's third most powerful politician, though she insists she has no sense of gavel entitlement. "It's never been about my being speaker," Pelosi says. "I was just doing a job. But for the American people, I think it's absolutely essential that the Democrats win the House."

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