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Pelosi-Harman friction strains Democrats' unity

November 21, 2006|Johanna Neuman and Michael Finnegan | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — When Jane Harman left Congress in 1998 to run for governor of California, her colleague Nancy Pelosi threw her a party -- a chocolate-fudge sundae "social" in the House members' dining room.

Two years later, Harman hosted a fundraiser in Los Angeles for Pelosi when she was running for minority whip, raising $400,000.

These days the two rarely talk, much less throw parties for each other.

Their relationship has been deteriorating since Harman returned to the House in 2001, according to those who know them, and the tension now threatens to complicate Pelosi's role as House speaker when the 110th Congress convenes in January.

Pelosi indicated as early as last year that she intended to oust Harman from the Intelligence Committee -- where Harman expected to become chairwoman if Democrats won control of the House -- in favor of someone more to Pelosi's liking.

The move has created dissension within the party. Some Democrats and foreign policy experts argued that Harman, a centrist on national security, is the most credible person for the job. The Congressional Black and Hispanic caucuses countered that it was time for one of their members on the committee to take the helm.

Fresh from Pelosi's fierce and unsuccessful lobbying effort to install antiwar ally John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania as her No. 2, the coming battle over the Intelligence Committee leadership is turning into a showdown where the political has turned personal. And it could undermine the unity that the Democratic Party has hoped to show as it prepares to take the reins of power.

The falling-out between Pelosi and Harman offers a window into how business gets done on Capitol Hill, where personal friendships are often as important as policies and politics. Pelosi in particular is noted for remembering who has been on her side and who hasn't, as evidenced by her support of Murtha for House majority leader over her one-time rival Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, even though Hoyer was widely preferred by the party caucus.

The prospect of conflict between two such powerful Democratic women is tantalizing to gossipy Washington. But the split is so toxic that Democrats in California and Washington won't go near it.

"I don't want to talk about it," said Roz Wyman, the doyenne of California Democratic fundraising and a friend of both.

Most people contacted for this article spoke only on condition of anonymity, not wanting to get on the wrong side of two formidable politicians.

Pelosi declined through her spokeswoman to comment. The only statement issued from her office, by Press Secretary Jennifer Crider, was that the committee decision "will be made before early January."

Harman said in an interview that she did not wish to vent the matter in public. "I read about this in the paper last year and I visited with her then," said Harman, who would not disclose the nature of their conversation.

"It's so unfortunate because they're both capable people," said William Coblentz, a San Francisco lawyer who has contributed to both their careers and coffers. "I know them both well, and I love them both, but I believe Nancy felt that Jane was abrasive and aggressive, which she can be."

Pelosi's supporters say the dust-up over Harman is not personal, noting that the Democratic leader spent an extra day in California lobbying the state party to endorse Harman in her reelection bid.

Although they may seem similar on the surface -- two wealthy and powerful Democrats from California -- Pelosi and Harman are cut from different cloth. Pelosi is a people person -- she recently entered a raucous room of reporters offering to shush them in her "mother-of-five voice." Harman has a more cerebral personality and revels in the minutiae of policy.

Pelosi grew up in Baltimore, where her father, Thomas D'Alesandro Jr., was mayor, and got an early education in the art of machine politics. She met Paul Pelosi while at Trinity College in Washington, and the couple moved to his hometown of San Francisco. As Paul Pelosi grew the family's fortune through real estate and stock investments, Nancy Pelosi raised their children, then worked her way up in California Democratic Party politics from volunteer to chairwoman for Northern California. She was elected to the U.S. House in 1987.

Harman grew up in Los Angeles, the daughter of a Westside physician. She graduated from Smith College and Harvard Law School at a time when few women went into law. Harman began her career in Washington as a Capitol Hill staffer and later worked in the Carter White House before going into private law practice. She is married to Sidney Harman, founder and chairman of Harman Industries. She ran for the House in 1992 and joined Pelosi in the California delegation, representing Venice.

People who know both women say there was no single incident that soured their relationship; rather it was a series of small irritations that eventually led to estrangement.

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