Pelosi Biographer Charts Speaker's Rise

Marc Sandalow talked about his book <i>Madam Speaker</i> at an April 17 book signing at the Saint Mary's book store.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, is becoming such a Washington institution that she'll someday join the pantheon of politicos with parts of the capital that bear their names.

"People will name buildings after Nancy Pelosi, not just in San Francisco, but in Washington D.C. - and it will drive Republicans crazy," Marc Sandalow told an April 17 audience at Saint Mary's.

Sandalow, a former San Francisco Chronicle Washington bureau chief, just released the Pelosi biography Madam Speaker. He said Pelosi has made history as the first woman in the House's top leadership position on tradition-bound Capitol Hill, where 17 percent of congressional members are women.

Even that's a noticeable increase in historical terms.

"One-third of all the women who've ever served in Congress are there now," Sandalow noted. "A generation ago, the idea of Speaker Pelosi was not even feasible."

Her political pedigree helped pave the way, according to Sandalow.

Growing up the daughter of Thomas D'Alesandro, a three-term Baltimore mayor and five-term representative in the House where his daughter is now speaker, meant Pelosi was born and raised in the corridors of power.

"No other speaker grew up seeing politics in the raw like Pelosi did," Sandalow said, noting that as a teenager she helped maintain her father's constituent files and knew who to call at election time.

With this apprenticeship, Pelosi became a master of the political horse-trading that drives legislation on Capitol Hill. Sandalow believes Pelosi's leadership on this score has prevented a schism between liberal and conservative House Democrats.

"She keeps Democrats like Barbara Lee of Berkeley and Heath Shuler of rural North Carolina on the same team," he said.

"Pelosi's heart is on the left - and her district is on the left - but she governs as a pragmatist because she knows moderate Democrats would lose seats otherwise."

Since becoming speaker in January 2007, Pelosi has scored legislative victories on the minimum wage and fuel-efficiency standards. She's had less success with her party's top priority since the 2006 House elections - the war in Iraq.

Sandalow credits Pelosi for raising concerns on Iraq from her position on the House Intelligence Committee before the war and for voting against the 2002 Iraq war resolution, but says the speaker needs reinforcements in Washington to move forward with the Democrats' Iraq proposals.

"To be successful, Pelosi needs a Democrat in the White House and a larger Democratic majority," Sandalow said, noting that 1980s Democratic speaker Tip O'Neill could overcome defections with his 149-seat majority while Pelosi must be careful with her thin 32-seat advantage.

Sandalow indicated Pelosi will play a significant role in the 2008 congressional and presidential elections.

The speaker, who controls committee assignments for 232 Democratic House members who are also superdelegates, could serve as power broker between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

At some point this summer, Sandalow noted, Pelosi could approach the Democratic presidential candidate that has fewer pledged delegates and say, "You've got to end this, or I will."

--John Grennan
Office of College Communications

Photo by Gorbachev Lingad '10