By By Allison Stevens
Tuesday, February 5, 2002
When she is sworn in Wednesday as the Minority Whip in the House of Representatives, Californian Nancy Pelosi will make history and be living proof that Democrats believe women's votes could determine the 2002 congressional elections.
WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)--Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi of California, a Democrat and longtime advocate for women, will become the highest-ranking woman ever elected to federal office Wednesday when she is sworn in as House Minority Whip.
The ascendance of Pelosi, a staunch and outspoken supporter of abortion rights, represents a significant shift in power from that of her predecessor, Rep. David Bonior, a Michigan Democrat who opposes abortion but has voted with his party in support of fetal-tissue research and against the anti-abortion "gag rule," which prevents U.S. funded medical clinics abroad from disseminating information on abortion or lobbying to change the laws in their countries. With plans to address issues such as breast-cancer research, childhood development and family planning--topics often left out of the legislative limelight--Pelosi brings a unique perspective to her party's mostly male leadership.
"I don't intend to just talk about women's issues," said Pelosi, who narrowly defeated Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland last fall after a costly, two-year campaign for the support of her Democratic peers in the House of Representatives. "I think every issue that we deal with is an issue that women are concerned about. I want to draw them into the loop of that discussion" on issues including the economy, terrorism, education, health care, abortion rights and gender equity.
Known to champion progressive issues from AIDS awareness to environmental protection, Pelosi has perhaps been most vocal in her uncompromising commitment to reproductive rights. NARAL, for example, gave her a perfect rating on abortion rights votes in 2000 while Bonior earned a score of 46 percent.
She also brings to the table considerable experience in foreign policy, an issue area that voters tend to associate with men, said Karen O'Connor, a political science professor and director of the Women and Politics Institute at the School of Public Affairs/American University. O'Connor also noted that the electorate tends to view women as more competent in the domestic arena on issues such as education and health care. Nonetheless, Pelosi served as the top Democrat on the Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Relations, a post she left last year when she landed an assignment as the ranking Democrat on the Select Intelligence Committee, a panel that has achieved special prominence in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
By becoming the second-ranking Democrat in the House behind Minority Leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri, Pelosi joins a small cadre of prominent women lawmakers such as former vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferarro, once a Democratic member of Congress from New York, and Sen. Hillary Clinton, another New York Democrat. With Pelosi set to take over, progressives expect the seven-term lawmaker to cultivate women legislators and candidates and to serve as role models to politically minded girls and women across the country.
"We're all feeling like our long road to full and equal participation in the socio-politico and economic life of this nation continues to make strides," said Kate Michelman, president of NARAL, a leading advocate for reproductive freedom. "Nancy is a kind of pioneer. She's a good role model for young women thinking about careers in politics. She gives them more to look forward to."
Indeed, a growing number of women have assumed leadership posts during the 107th Congress. They include Rep. Nita Lowey of New York, chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the campaign and fund-raising arm of the House Democratic caucus; Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the campaign and fund-raising arm of the Senate Democratic caucus; and Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, running a strong campaign for the chair of the House Democratic caucus, her party's third-ranking position.
Pelosi's historic election also will attract positive media coverage and will put the Republican Party, which has failed to promote women to high-ranking leadership positions, on the defensive, according to Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia.
"Democrats are very dependent upon the disproportionate support of women," Sabato said. "Now they will be able to project the right image at election time. For Republicans, it reminds voters that if they're going to compete, they're going to have to do a better job of promoting women within their leadership."
On the Republican side, two women currently occupy second-tier leadership posts. Rep. Deborah Pryce of Ohio serves as vice chair of the House Republican Caucus and Rep. Barbara Cubin of Wyoming serves as caucus secretary. Several women in recent years have been elected to these positions, but none has ascended to any of the higher-ranking leadership posts.
In recognition that only 209 of the 12,000 men and women who have served as congressional representatives have been women, Pelosi will attend a celebratory luncheon Wednesday in the Library of Congress with the 117 living women who serve or have served in Congress.
The luncheon, is "my way of saying that this day is possible because of the work that so many of those women did as pioneers early on," Pelosi said.
In a less thankful mood, political scientist O'Connor added that "it's almost unfortunate that it has taken so long to get a woman in an elected leadership position in the House of Representatives." She added, "Hopefully it bodes well for the subsequent election of more women in both parties to leadership positions."
Democrats eager to take back control of the House in the November midterm elections contend that Pelosi, a master fund-raiser and skilled communicator, will help the party attract more women voters--a key constituent group that already backs Democratic candidates by a wide margin. She attended the Super Bowl with several Democratic candidates on Sunday and plans to campaign for Democratic candidates, especially women, later this year.
"I have a day job and that will dominate," Pelosi said. "And then whatever time is left over from there I will use to help win the House for the Democrats. That's very important." She added that she will raise money for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and for candidates, "traveling to their districts to the maximum extent possible."
Pelosi may be new to the leadership team, but she is hardly new to politics. She is the daughter of the late Democratic Rep. Thomas D'Alesandro Jr. of Maryland, who also served as mayor of Baltimore for 12 years. She married, moved to California and raised five children. She became a Democratic activist and made her first congressional bid in 1987 in a special election to succeed the late Rep. Sala Burton. Pelosi won the backing of much of the city, the state-party establishment and a vote-getting blessing from Burton prior to her death. Pelosi has won easy victories in her heavily Democratic district in San Francisco.
At 61, Pelosi said she intends to climb the political ladder and make a bid for Speaker of the House, the third-ranking political office in the country, when and if the position opens up for a Democrat.
Even though her father served in public office, Pelosi said it is her mother, a full-time homemaker, who is one of her greatest role models and she continues to draw inspiration from her.
"She cared about people enormously and worked on their behalf," Pelosi said. "She infused all of us, her children, with that value. She was a beautiful lady who was a tough politician. She was ahead of her time."
Allison Stevens covers politics in Washington.
Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi
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