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How Nancy Pelosi Got to Congress

Dear Readers: UVA Center for Politics Director Larry J. Sabato interviewed Time national political correspondent Molly Ball about her new book, Pelosi, an intimate, fresh perspective on the most powerful woman in American political history.

You can watch their conversation at at:

In an excerpt from the book below, Ball describes how Pelosi first got elected to Congress by narrowly winning election to a San Francisco-based House seat.

The Editors

In January 1987, when Representative Sala Burton was dying of colon cancer, she called her friend Nancy Pelosi. Her time was short, she said, and when she died, she wanted Pelosi to run for her seat representing San Francisco in Congress.

“Come on,” Pelosi told her friend, “you’ll get better.”

“You must promise me you will run,” Sala insisted. “It’s the only thing that will make me feel better.”

Pelosi was a 47-year-old mother of five and political volunteer who’d served as chair of the California Democratic Party and helped bring the 1984 Democratic convention to San Francisco. Her father had been a congressman and mayor of Baltimore, but she’d always resisted entreaties to run for office herself. When Sala called, four of Pelosi’s five children had left for college, and the fifth, Alexandra, was about to start her senior year of high school in San Francisco.

“Alexandra,” Pelosi said one day, “Mommy has an opportunity to run for Congress. But if you don’t want me to do it, I won’t.”

Alexandra gave her mother a classic teenage girl’s sneer. “Mother,” she sighed, “get a life.”

Sala’s brother-in-law John Burton gathered Pelosi and a couple of other close confidants, and they flew to Washington through a snowstorm. They gathered around Sala’s hospital bed. “Nancy is smart, she’s tough, she’s operational, she’s good on the issues,” Sala told them. Then she asked everyone but Pelosi to leave the room. “You’ve got to be ready,” she told her friend. “Are you ready?”

Pelosi said she was.

When they landed back in San Francisco, John read a statement to the press from Sala endorsing Pelosi to replace her. Sala died five days later. She was sixty-one.

A special election was scheduled for June, with a primary to be held in April. The deathbed endorsement had created some goodwill for Pelosi, but it didn’t clear the field. There were thirteen other candidates, including not only several Democrats and Republicans but also candidates from the Humanist Party, the Peace and Freedom Party and the Socialist Workers Party. Under the rules of the special election, all fourteen candidates would be on the same primary ballot, and if none got more than 50 percent, the top vote-getter from each party would advance to a general election. Given the district’s strong Democratic leanings, whichever Democrat came in first in the primary was almost guaranteed to win the seat.

But the primary field was formidable. Four of her opponents were members of the Board of Supervisors, well known to their constituents. The biggest names in labor, the environmental community and the gay community were all committed to other candidates. The once-robust Burton political machine had gone fallow from disuse. She would have to be creative and build her own coalition.

Pelosi launched her campaign with an anodyne speech at a union hall. “I believe the number one issue in the upcoming campaign will be who can accomplish the most for San Francisco,” she declared. She dove into the six-week campaign with customary intensity. She was up at 5 a.m. to canvass commuters at bus stops; she was up late at night conferring with her consultants. Her fund-raising prowess and personal wealth enabled her to spend one million dollars on the campaign (a quarter of that out of her own pocket), which was more than the rest of the field combined.

There was one complication: though the district covered four-fifths of the city of San Francisco, the Pelosis’ house wasn’t in it. So Paul Pelosi went shopping for a new house. He soon found one, a stately brick mansion in the wealthy enclave of Pacific Heights, only about a mile from Presidio Terrace. One day, Pelosi came home to Presidio Terrace from a long day of campaigning only to be greeted by a surprise party in an empty house: everything but the piano had been moved. The party, naturally, doubled as a fund-raiser.

Pelosi’s most formidable rival would be Harry Britt, a gay socialist former aide to Harvey Milk who had succeeded Milk on the Board of Supervisors. The AIDS crisis was at its height, ravaging the community. Britt had a chance to be the first openly gay man elected to Congress in history, at a time when President Reagan refused even to acknowledge the disease. It was time, Britt contended, for gay men and women to be represented by one of their own, not merely a sympathetic outsider.

Pelosi worked her connections to secure the services of Clint Reilly, a well-known local consultant, even though Reilly thought Britt had a better chance to win. Reilly was on a plane when the inspiration for Pelosi’s campaign slogan struck: “A Voice that Will Be Heard.” The campaign’s adman was incredulous. “You want to run a woman who never held elective office as a candidate with connections and stature and effectiveness?” he asked.

“That’s exactly right,” Reilly told him.

Before long, the word HEARD, in giant letters, loomed over the city skyline on so many billboards that people joked about it. Pelosi’s superior funding even allowed her to run a television ad, rare for a congressional campaign in those days. Over a soundtrack of the “Hallelujah Chorus” and scenes of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Capitol, and missiles being fired, a narrator intoned, “Nancy Pelosi: A voice that will be heard.”

Britt countered with mailers calling Pelosi a “party girl” and “dilettante.” The implication, that she was an unserious, entitled rich lady only playing at politics, would dog her throughout her career. One brochure read, “Nancy Pelosi has spent her lifetime doing favors for the rich and powerful. Now they’re returning the favor.” Another accused “oil companies, highrise developers, Washington lobbyists and other special interests” of “pouring a million dollars into San Francisco to elect their candidate to Congress.”

When Pelosi’s friends called her, outraged, to tell her about nasty things they’d seen and heard, she lashed out at them: Don’t waste my time weighing me down with this negativity! If you want me to win, why don’t you go out and recruit more volunteers, or raise more money for the campaign? Once, when a group of activists was shockingly rude to Pelosi’s face, John Burton was outraged on her behalf, but she was unruffled. Turning to Burton, she said calmly, “Someday they will realize just how insignificant they are.”

In public appearances, Pelosi was attractive but stiff. Her impeccable style and striking looks led some to compare her to Audrey Hepburn, but she was still uneasy speaking in public. Her speeches tended to be halting and mechanical. But she knew that just showing up was half the battle—in six weeks, she made more than two hundred campaign appearances. Her mother-in-law instructed her on how to behave at bingo games in Catholic churches: introduce yourself, don’t talk too long, make sure to say the date of the election, and “sweeten the pot” by dropping some cash in the prize pool on your way out.

The candidates, all fourteen of them, met for a single debate, which devolved into a free-for-all. A Republican called for bombing Nicaragua “out of existence.” The Peace and Freedom Party candidate interrupted the proceedings to yell, “This show is a fraud!” and to demand that the candidates discuss impeaching President Reagan. After he was ejected by security, one of the other Democrats attacked Pelosi for using her wealth to fund her campaign. Pelosi fired back: “I don’t think you have to be sick to be a doctor, or poor to understand the problems of the poor.”

Her campaign knew she would lose the gay vote to Britt. But if she could cut into his advantage and get one-fourth or one-fifth of the gay vote, she could win. Two of the city’s prominent lesbian activists stood with her at her campaign announcement, while Jim Hormel, a major figure in the gay activist community and cofounder of the Human Rights Campaign, agreed to serve as a co-chair of the campaign.

John Burton used his union connections to court labor leaders, cutting into another Britt advantage. Pelosi’s mother-in- law recruited her Italian American friends to a “Nana brigade” that sent postcards to the district’s 8,000 Italian American voters. Mailers touting Pelosi’s support for gay rights were sent to any home where two unrelated men of similar age lived together. Brochures sent to the city’s wealthier, more conservative West Side featured a different message: “The individual tax burden is too high,” they proclaimed. “We need a representative who will fight all efforts to raise the personal income tax.”

Pelosi believed the campaign wasn’t going to be won or lost in a televised debate or with a clever ad. It was going to be won in the streets, just like her father’s mayoral campaigns had been. Just like he had, Pelosi broke down the district into wards, precincts and blocks, with a volunteer captain in charge of every piece of territory. They canvassed relentlessly, constantly updating their lists of supporters.

In the final days of Pelosi’s first run, her father sent her brother Tommy out to San Francisco from Baltimore to check on her. Tommy took careful stock of the campaign’s precinct maps, lists of volunteers and databases of voters. He called their father and reported, “She’s better organized than we ever were.”

Pelosi got 36 percent of the vote to Britt’s 32 percent—a lead of 3,990 votes out of 105,000 cast. It was her last competitive congressional race.

Excerpted from PELOSI by Molly Ball. Published by Henry Holt and Company May 5, 2020. Copyright © 2020 by Molly Ball. All rights reserved.