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Pelosi and the

Pelosi and the


She's been attacked as a "radical San Francisco liberal." But Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi says she's sticking with her gay constituents as she takes control of the nation's political agenda.

When Nancy Pelosi first arrived in Washington, D.C., as a newly elected congresswoman in 1987, her fellow Democratic lawmakers warned her about identifying as a San Francisco liberal. After all, she represents California's eighth congressional district, which includes almost all of the city of San Francisco--including the predominantly gay Castro district--and some worried she might be perceived as too liberal to be taken seriously.

"On my first day my colleagues told me not to speak. You don't speak on the first day; you just get sworn in and that's it," she recalls in an e-mail interview with The Advocate. "So I tried to do that, but when the speaker [of the U.S. House of Representatives] said, 'Would the gentle lady like to say anything?' I said 'Yes, I am here to fight AIDS.' People asked me 'Why would you say that? You don't need to be labeled that way.' I responded, 'Well, that's why I came here.' "

Now Pelosi, 66, is the speaker of the House, and everyone is asking: Will she continue to be that headstrong San Francisco liberal, standing up for gays and lesbians? In a recent Saturday Night Live skit, an actress portraying Pelosi rebuts GOP warnings that Democrats would bring "San Francisco values" to the country. Then, midway through the sketch, a gay staffer appears, clad in leather bondage gear.

Pelosi's connections to her LGBT constituency may be fodder for late-night comedy and grist for the conservative smear machine, but those ties are also long-standing and deep. And her ascension to the highest leadership office in Congress would seem to bode well for gays and lesbians. "This is an historic moment for this community," says David Mixner, a gay writer, activist, and longtime Pelosi friend. "I don't think we've ever had someone at that level of leadership who has her record on our issues."

For the next two years and possibly beyond, the person who sets the agenda in Congress and wields the greatest influence on the ruling party is a woman who has opposed a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage and advocated for increased AIDS funding. Those issues have personal meaning for Pelosi: She has attended the commitment ceremonies of her gay friends and watched others die of the disease.

Indeed, Pelosi's close circle of gay friends, including James Hormel, the former ambassador to Luxembourg, and his partner, Timothy Wu, has shaped her worldview--and her politics. She has attended numerous gay events and has hired many gay staffers in Washington and in her district offices. " 'Organic' is a good way to describe it," says Mark Leno, a gay California assemblyman, of Pelosi's championing of gay rights. Leno, who represents San Francisco and who has known Pelosi for more than 20 years, says the speaker-elect is "very much a part of this community and of the progressive community, so it only comes naturally."

Although she is considered one of our strongest allies in Congress, Pelosi is first and foremost a political animal. She grew up in Baltimore before studying at Trinity College in D.C. She was raised on old-school party politics under the tutelage of her father, Baltimore mayor and Democratic boss Thomas D'Alesandro Jr. She played a backstage role in California politics for years before running for office. In 2002 she won a tough intraparty race to lead House Democrats, and she has since performed a delicate balancing act to appease her fractious caucus.

Besides gays, Pelosi counts among her national constituents labor unions, trial lawyers, African-American voters, and Hispanics--all of whom she must continue to court. And as the new public face of the Democratic Party, she isn't likely to put the gay rights agenda at the top of her to-do list, says Hastings Wyman, founding editor of the Southern Political Report, who frequently writes about gay issues.

Wyman and others agree that Pelosi learned a lesson from President Bill Clinton, who challenged the military's ban on gays immediately after taking office. After running with a centrist message, the sudden leftward lurch mired his nascent presidency in controversy. "I don't think the Democratic powers that be want to end up like Clinton," Wyman says. "He ended up giving away the store and not being able to get much done."

But Pelosi says she is willing to take up gay rights issues--as long as the political climate is right. "There are quite a few issues that are significant to the gay community that I believe present opportunities for consensus among House Democrats and can attract moderate Republican support," Pelosi says. "Legislation like the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and a federal hate-crimes bill have earned this type of wide-ranging support."

Though conservatives love to paint her as a dangerous lefty, Pelosi has long taken knocks from some gay and progressive activists--particularly in San Francisco--who say she's too moderate, notes Richard DeLeon, professor emeritus in the political science department at San Francisco State University. Now that she's the party's most visible member, that rift will only deepen. "There will always be people who say she's not doing enough for them," DeLeon says.

Hill watchers predict Pelosi and House Democrats will make small strides on gay issues, even if they have to wait behind other Democratic priorities, like raising the minimum wage and changing course in Iraq. "I could also see revisiting the 'don't ask, don't tell' policy," Wyman says. "You could tie that to needing more people in the military, making it a national security issue" and therefore more palatable to a national constituency.

Though even the most ambitious of gay advocates privately admit that they are not looking to the Pelosi Congress for major--or swift--legislative victories, they say the gay rights movement will gain strength during her tenure. For one, proponents of gay rights will be able to ease up on their defensive game. "A Democratic majority will not condone mean-spirited measures that target the rights of LGBT individuals," Pelosi assures us.

And that will allow gay rights groups to better fund and organize themselves, says Mixner. "I don't think we're fully aware of how much of our energy, time, and resources we spend defending ourselves against bad legislation and amendments instead of being proactive," Mixner says. "That will change dramatically, and that is not a small thing."

And with Pelosi and her Democratic colleagues replacing a Republican leadership that routinely advanced policies that alarmed gays, the change in the cast of characters itself is cause for relief among activists. "What we get out of this is a champion on our issues, someone who speaks up for our health and our dignity and our first-class citizenship," Leno says. "That has symbolic benefits as well as legislative ones."

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