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The staying power of Nancy Pelosi

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi at a Capitol news conference in February. (Photo: Albert H. Teich)

In the end, it all comes down to following the money – about $568 million and counting.

Nancy Pelosi, the minority leader of the House and former speaker, is no stranger to criticism and this year is no different.

But this time, the attacks are coming from fellow Democrats who are calling for the longtime House leader, who turned 77 in March and is a California political icon, to step down.

So far, she’s not budging.

Despite the controversy, Pelosi has refused to step down, citing both her fundraising prowess and her skills as a “master legislator.”

The calls for resignation follow a series of Democratic losses in special elections. The most high-profile loss came in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, during which the San Francisco congresswoman figured prominently in Republican-led attack ads. Total spending topped a record-shattering $50 million, most of it by the Democratic contender, who lost handily.

“We need leadership change,” Congresswoman Kathleen Rice (D-New York) said in an interview with MSNBC. “Nancy Pelosi is a great leader. She was a great Speaker, but her time has come and gone.”

But Pelosi is a first-rate fund-raiser and that, perhaps more than anything else, has cemented her hold on power. She also is viewed by most Democrats as important to their efforts to take back the House in 2018 by winning two dozen seats now controlled by Republicans.

“Pelosi has been in leadership for a long time and has spent a lot of time thinking about other members and raising money for other members,” said Claremont McKenna political scientist Jack Pitney. “She knows her Democratic colleagues extremely well, (both) their political needs and their legislative preferences.”

Pitney believes there is little chance that Pelosi can be unseated before the 2018 midterms, and that raising money for so many of her colleagues’ congressional campaigns has left her with a strong base of support.

Pelosi has raised $568 million for Democrats since she was elected leader in 2002, the New York Times reported, citing campaign disclosure reports.

In days following the Georgia loss, Rice, along with 11 other Congressional Democrats – none of them from California — held a closed door meeting to discuss ways to install a new party leader.

Despite the controversy, Pelosi has refused to step down, citing both her fundraising prowess and her skills as a “master legislator” as reason for her being the party’s best option.

The Congresswoman has been a mainstay of the state’s political scene for decades.

“I think I’m worth the trouble, quite frankly” she quipped at a press conference with Capitol Hill reporters. “When it comes to personal ambition and having fun on TV, have your fun… I feel very confident in the support that I have in my caucus.”

She appears to have enough support to fend off any immediate Democratic challengers. In late November, she beat Congressman Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) to become the party’s leader for a 14th-straight year and a majority of Democratic legislators continue to back her.

“I believe Leader Pelosi is critical to the 2018 elections, and I sincerely believe that under her leadership we are well poised to take back control of the House,” Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) said in an email statement.

Pitney said part of what makes Pelosi such a strong fundraiser is her deep California network. The Congresswoman has been a mainstay of the state’s political scene for decades — during which she worked for Gov. Jerry Brown’s first presidential campaign in 1976 and served as chair of the California Democratic Party from 1981 to 1983. Pitney said these longstanding relationships provide opportunities to draw from the state’s many wealthy liberal donors.

Her West Coast ties have made her one of the Republicans’ favorite political punching bags.

But unlike many politicians, Pelosi also draws money from a national political network, one that includes donors on the East Coast.

Eric Bauman, a veteran L.A. County labor leader and the chair of the California Democratic Party, said Pelosi’s ability to raise money for non-liberal leaning states is part of what makes her such a strong fundraiser.

“Raising the kind of federal money Pelosi raises is a very tough job, especially when you’re fighting all across the country,” Bauman said. “(In California) we get tremendous amounts of money from the entertainment industry and Silicon Valley and we have strong unions, but when you’re raising to run races in Iowa it’s different.”

Pelosi’s roots are in Maryland – her father was a Democratic congressman and mayor of Baltimore — but her brother served on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, and her West Coast ties have made her one of the Republicans’ favorite political punching bags. She and her husband, Robert Pelsoi, moved to California in 1969.

Nancy Patricia D’Allesandro Pelosi was a friend and protégé of the late Rep. Phil Burton, a political legend in California for his ability to draw gerrymandered districts to protect Democrats, and the brother of former state Senate Leader John Burton.

“It’s a specious argument to say that Republicans are going to use Nancy Pelosi to attack and therefore (Democrats) should depose Nancy Pelosi.” — Eric Bauman.

After her stint as party chair, she had ambitions of running for office. Phil Burton died in 1983, and his wife, Sala, briefly succeeded him. But Sala, who served only one full term in the San Francisco district, became ill and picked Pelosi as her successor.

Sala Burton died in early 1987, just after being sworn in to a second term. Pelosi won the seat in a special election, and has been in Congress since then – more than 30 years – representing what is often described as the most Democratic district in the United States. Through various redistricting and numerical changes, it has been in Democratic hands since 1949 and currently has 13 percent GOP registration.

That San Francisco background and her politics offer ample targets to Republicans.

In the Georgia special election for the CD 6, GOP contender Karen Handel repeatedly tied Democratic rival Jon Ossoff to Pelosi. One ad referred to Ossoff as a proponent of Pelosi’s “San Francisco values” and showed his political banner draped over a Hyde and Powell Street cable car.

But Bauman said Republican criticism of Pelosi is nothing new and that Republicans would attack Democratic leaders regardless of whether the she resigned.

“It’s a specious argument to say that Republicans are going to use Nancy Pelosi to attack and therefore (Democrats) should depose Nancy Pelosi” he said.

He added that the key to his party’s success in 2018 will depend on finding strong candidates to run in Republican-held districts.

It will be difficult for the party to win additional congressional races in California.

“With Trump’s record low approval ratings in California and with the attacks on Obamacare…we’re primed right to start picking up (House seats) if we have good candidates, and if we are investing early, which we are,” Bauman added.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, has already targeted nine of California’s 14 Republican held House seats. Seven of these seats, including those filled by Congressman Darrel Issa (R-Vista) and Jeff Denham (R-Turlock), are in districts that Hillary Clinton carried in the 2016 Presidential election.

The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll on the 2018 elections offers mixed signals.

About 52 percent of registered voters want Democrats to control the next Congress, compared with 38 percent who want to keep congress under Republican control.

But the increasing number of anti-Trump protests have not translated into burgeoning support for Democrats.

“Although the poll was conducted before the collapse of the health-care push, the results suggest fresh uncertainty as to whether Democrats can recruit strong candidates and mobilize voters despite negative views of the Republican agenda.”

Darry Sragow, a longtime publisher of the California Target Book, said that while he does not think Pelosi will be a liability for Democrats in 2018, he still believes it will be difficult for the party to win additional congressional races in California. Democrats already hold 39 of the state’s 53 House seats and beating more several Republican incumbents is unlikely, Sragow said.

“For Democrats to pick up at least one of the 14 Republican-held seats in California depends on very smart campaigning from very good candidates and has nothing to do with Nancy Pelosi,” Sragow added.

 


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