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House Democrats Make History in Electing Pelosi

The San Francisco lawmaker will become the first woman to head her party in Congress.

November 15, 2002|Nick Anderson | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- Rep. Nancy Pelosi won election easily Thursday as leader of the House Democratic minority, making history for women and reaching out to party moderates wary about the rise of a San Francisco liberal.

When the next Congress convenes in January, Pelosi will become the first woman to head a party in either chamber of Congress, as well as the first top party leader in the House from California.

In another path-breaking selection, Democrats chose Rep. Robert Menendez of New Jersey as caucus chairman -- their No. 3 House post. A Cuban American, he will be the highest-ranking Latino ever in congressional leadership.

Pelosi, a 15-year veteran in Congress, smothered her lone opponent, Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr. of Tennessee, 177 to 29, in a closed-door meeting of Democrats. Ford, an African American, offered himself as a centrist alternative.

Pelosi's victory was never in doubt after a more prominent centrist, Rep. Martin Frost of Texas, dropped out of the competition last week and endorsed her.

Her margin was nonetheless striking. With 86% of the caucus vote, Pelosi outdid the 72% won by Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, the outgoing minority leader, when he first won the position eight years ago.

After the vote, Pelosi basked in the gender precedent Democrats had just set. As a reporter attempted to break into her remarks with a question, she cut him off gleefully: "I'm not finished yet. I've been waiting over 200 years!"

She added: "I didn't run as a woman. I ran, again, as a seasoned politician and experienced legislator. It just so happens that I am a woman, and we have been waiting a long time for this moment."

Pelosi, 62, also quickly displayed the pragmatism that has helped fuel her political ascendance, announcing that Rep. John M. Spratt Jr. (D-S.C.) would serve as her leadership assistant. Spratt is a fiscal conservative and a hawk on defense issues who hails from a region where some Democrats have expressed concern that Pelosi's selection could hurt the party.

Spratt, who backed Pelosi, discounted such predictions. He said of her: "She knows where the center of gravity is, and she'll seek it."

To punctuate Pelosi's message of inclusion, the party chose Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, a centrist, to succeed her in the No. 2 position of minority whip.

Even before her election, Pelosi was making overtures to the party's center, well aware of the criticism that she could take Democrats too far to the left following their punishing losses to Republicans in last week's midterm elections.

For the last two years, Pelosi has consistently voted against the Bush administration's social and economic agendas. She has also broken with the president on some foreign policy questions, such as the recent resolution authorizing the use of military force against Iraq.

But on Wednesday, she voted for a Republican-crafted bill to establish a Department of Homeland Security -- months after she had opposed a largely similar bill.

And on Thursday, she offered words of conciliation after her election. "Where we can find our common ground on the economy and on other domestic issues, we shall seek it," Pelosi told reporters. "We have that responsibility to the American people."

At the same time, she made clear she is prepared to offer sharp opposition to the GOP: "Where we cannot find that common ground, we must stand our ground. The American people need us to do that."

Rep. Hilda L. Solis of El Monte, who gave a speech nominating her, said Pelosi would galvanize younger members of the party and draw newcomers into it. "Latinas," Solis said. "Women, naturally. That's a big plus for us."

Pelosi also drew immediate comparison to Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), the incoming House majority leader. She is every bit as liberal as he is conservative. Both are fanatic fund-raisers with a sharp eye for national party strategy. Both are vulnerable to caricature by opponents.

For California -- which will send 53 representatives to the House when the 108th Congress convenes in January -- Pelosi's rise increases the influence of a delegation whose influence has been steadily growing.

"Nancy becomes a symbol of what California is," said Rep. Sam Farr (D-Carmel). "She's new, she's exciting, she's smart, she's attractive, she's passionate."

Among the 33 California Democrats in the new House, four will be ranking minority members on committees: Reps. Henry A. Waxman of Los Angeles on Government Reform, Tom Lantos of San Mateo on International Relations, George Miller of Martinez on Education and the Workforce, and Howard L. Berman of Mission Hills on Standards of Official Conduct.

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