Nancy Pelosi

SAN FRANCISCO (WOMENSENEWS)–U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi became the most powerful woman in American history Thursday when House Democrats elected her their caucus leader.

Pelosi says her party will find new focus on issues that affect women.

“The first thing we need to do is puttogether an economic message–this is the central mission of the Democratic Party,” Pelosisaid last Saturday at an annual fund-raising dinner for the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. “Economic security provides dignity, sustenance and services like education and health care for everyone, including women.”

Pelosi succeeds Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri, who served in the post for eight years.

“To be the first Californian and the first woman in this position is a special privilege,” Pelosi said.

Pelosi told Women’s Enews that sustaining Social Security is of particular importance to women because they often live longer than men. Republicans, she said, have backed off on their pledge to privatize Social Security, but Pelosi says that it is up to Democrats to ensure a long-term future for the program.

“Republicans say one thing on the campaign trail, but then they do something else in Congress,” Pelosi said. “Investing in Medicare and saving Social Security–these are things they oppose.”

Critics say that Pelosi, from San Francisco, is too liberal to unify the diverse Democrats now serving in the House. But Pelosi emphasized that she would work to find common ground.

When asked about the party’s strategy on reproductive choice, she simply said, “In terms of discrete issues that are not part of the economic plan, we will leave those up to individual districts to decide what to do.”

Democrats Say Pelosi Will Energize Party

Pelosi serves on the Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health, Human Services and Education, where she has focused on women’s health, violence against women and workplace safety.

Republicans have seized on Pelosi’s progressive record as a tool to defeat Democrats in more conservative districts. Republican Rep. Mike Rodgers of Alabama ran television ads this fall accusing opponent Democrat Joe Turnham of selling out “our Alabama values to the Washington liberals.” The ad featured a photo of Pelosi. Turnham lost the race.

But Pelosi’s supporters say she will unite, not divide, the Democrats.

“There is nothing that will re-energize the Democratic base more than seeing Nancy step into the leadership of the House,” said Ellen Malcolm, president of Emily’s List, which raises funds for pro-choice Democratic candidates.

Critics right and left say the Democratic Party has failed in recent years to distinguish itself from the GOP agenda, allowing Republicans to hold onto the House and gain control of the Senate in last week’s election. Several post-election polls found that substantially more Americans thought Republicans were moving the country in the right direction than Democrats.

“As the new minority party, Democrats in Congress must abandon their ‘me-tooism’ and return to their party’s roots, bringing more spirit and commitment to the debate, demonstrating leadership and real boldness on core issues,” said Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women.

Among other challenges, Pelosi will have to persuade voters that Democrats can create a bold vision on international affairs. Pelosi is the ranking Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. Last month she broke ranks with Gephardt and led 125 House Democrats in voting against the referendum authorizing the use of force in Iraq.

“I think the American people deserve to know what the plan is for success [in Iraq],” Pelosi said Saturday.

Pelosi’s Family Business Is Politics

In addition to finding a clear vision, Pelosi must bring in big dollars in order for the Democrats to take the House majority in 2004–a scenario that would make her House speaker. This year, just over 95 percent of House races were won by the candidate with the most money, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that tracks money in politics. Through her political action committee, PAC to the Future, Pelosi gave nearly $1.7 million to Democratic candidates this year, the Center for Responsive Politics says. In total, Pelosi raised more than $7 million this past election cycle, according to The New York Times.

Pelosi grew up around politics. Her father was mayor of Baltimore for 12 years after serving five terms in Congress, and her brother served as Baltimore mayor as well. A graduate of Trinity College in Washington, she married investment banker Paul Pelosi in 1963 and moved to San Francisco, where she raised five children. She was elected to Congress at age 47 under the slogan “A voice that will be heard.” Only 12 Democratic women held seats in Congress at the time. In January, at age 62, she will be one of 42 Democratic women in Congress.

Last year, Pelosi became the House minority whip, making her the first woman to have a seat at the table during meetings between congressional leaders and the president. In this role, she has been responsible for her party’s legislative strategy–experience that will come in handy as the Democratic Party forges a new path.

“We need to take time and dissect our message,” Pelosi said, likening her party’s relationship with voters to a marriage. “If your spouse says you’re not communicating, even if you think you are communicating, you probably aren’t.”

Rebecca Vesely is the West Coast bureau chief for Women’s Enews.

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Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi:

The Commonwealth Club of California
15th Annual Distinguished Citizen Award Dinner
Honoring Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi: