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What losing Nancy Pelosi as a leader means for Dems

Episode Summary

After leading Democrats for decades, Nancy Pelosi is stepping away from the helm. We look back at her career — and the challenges ahead for House leadership.

Episode Notes

A new Republican-led House of Representatives convenes tomorrow, and after decades as a Democratic leader, Nancy Pelosi is stepping away from the helm. Undoubtedly, her strength was in unifying her caucus — something that Kevin McCarthy, the G.O.P frontrunner for the speakership, has already struggled to do. Today, we look back on Pelosi's career — and what could be ahead for House leadership. Read the full transcript here.

Host: Gustavo Arellano

Guests: L.A. Times Justice Department reporter Sarah D. Wire

More reading:

The end of a political era: Nancy Pelosi’s leadership legacy in Washington

Column: Nancy Pelosi’s indelible mark

Column: ‘There’s this very toxic energy circulating.’ Alexandra Pelosi on her mom, dad and a new documentary

Episode Transcription

Gustavo: No matter your political views. It's hard to argue with Nancy Pelosi's power as a leader in Congress. She was the first woman speaker of the House.

Ap tape: The honorable Nancy Pelosi of the state of California is duly elected speaker of the House of Representatives for the 110th Congress having received the majority of the votes cast.

Gustavo: She spearheaded major Democratic victories such as passing the Affordable Care Act.

Ap tape: On this vote, the yeas are 220. The nays are 211. The bill is passed.

Gustavo: For her ability to wrangle votes and raise funds for her party, some have called Pelosi the most effective speaker of the House in the history of Congress, a distinction that's also put a target on her back.

Ap tape: Suspect David De Pepe was looking for the speaker shouting, “Where is Nancy?” A chilling reminder of the Capitol corridors nearly two years ago. “Where are you Nancy? We're looking for you.” 

Gustavo: Democrats are bracing themselves now as the new Republican-led House of Representatives convenes tomorrow and after four terms as speaker of the House and many more years as a party leader. Nancy Pelosi is taking a step back. 

Ap tape: A new day is dawning on the horizon, and I look forward, always forward, to the unfolding story of our nation. I will not seek reelection to Democratic leadership in the next Congress.

Gustavo: I'm Gustavo Arellano. You're listening to “The Times, Essential News From the L.A. Times.” It's Monday, January 2nd, 2023.

May you be already having an amazing new year. Today, the House that Nancy Pelosi led and where Congress is headed next.

Gustavo: Joining me today is Sarah D Wire. She covers the Justice Department and national security for the L.A. Times and reported on Congress for years before that. Sarah, welcome to “The Times.”

Sarah: Thanks for having me.

Gustavo: So, starting tomorrow, Republicans are going to take control of the House of Representatives. Historically, where has that left the outgoing speaker of the house?

Sarah: The former speaker often retires early or becomes minority leader through an election, which is what happened to Pelosi before. But Pelosi is stepping down as speaker and she's just going to be a rank-and-file member. She, you know, didn't even want to be considered as minority leader. So it's going to be interesting to see how she navigates that.

Gustavo: With the GOP-led House, though, it seems that Democrats need Pelosi's experience, especially as a minority leader, now more than ever. So why is she stepping down now even from that?

Sarah: You know, she was talking about retiring back in 2016. She's been very clear that if Hillary Clinton had won that election, she had plans to retire. She promised in 2018 that she would only serve one term if she got the gavel back. That's how she got to the number she needed. Pelosi told me once it's no fun being minority leader under a Democratic president. Because you're not seen as the head of the party. You just kind of sit there and do whatever you're told. But also there was the attack against her husband, Paul Pelosi, at their home in San Francisco, and it sounds like he's got years of recovery ahead of him.

Ap tape: It's going to be a long haul, but he will be well. And it's just so tragic how it happened. But nonetheless, we have to be optimistic. He's surrounded by family, so that's a wonderful thing. 

Gustavo: Yeah, not only that, just all the decades that she's been doing her job, she wants to spend more time with her family and all of that.

Sarah: Yeah, you know, she's said that she's making way for new leadership.

Ap tape: For me, the hour has come for a new generation to lead the Democratic caucus that I so deeply respect, and I'm grateful that so many are ready and willing to shoulder this awesome responsibility.

Gustavo: But how exactly then are new leaders chosen? Like how does a new speaker assume their role?

Sarah: So on the first day of a new Congress, they hold the speaker elections, and the magic number is 218 votes. Each member gets to vote out loud on the House floor, and they vote again and again until someone gets enough votes to become speaker. Normally it takes one vote and, uh, you know, we know who's going to be leading the House for the next two years. You know, Those vying for the job have been whipping votes behind the scenes for months, and they have a good idea of where they stand before the process even starts.

Gustavo: And the Republican minority leader in the previous Congress, of course, was California Rep. Kevin McCarthy. We had an entire episode about him late last year. So how's a leadership contest going for him now? Is he basically guaranteed to be the next House speaker because he was a minority speaker?

Sarah: Not really. I mean, McCarthy was counting on a larger majority than Republicans won in November. And not everyone in his party is really excited about him becoming speaker. He got to this point once before and backed out of the speaker's race at the last minute. That's how  Paul Ryan became speaker. There's a variety of reasons why he hasn't sewn this up yet. Um, the majority of it is a group of really far-right Republicans who are not excited about him. They think he's weak. They think that, you know, he's not conservative enough. He can spare four votes. But at this point, five people have said they won't even ever vote for him. They want concessions that take power from the speaker and put it in the hands of rank-and-file members, namely the motion to vacate. And this means that any member of the House can stand up and demand a new vote for speaker at any moment. And this was really used by conservatives to keep, you know, Paul Ryan and John Boehner from going too far in any directions, but it kept them from being able to really have any power to pass legislation.

Gustavo: Have previous speakers struggled so much to rally their caucuses?

Sarah: It has happened in the past. You're negotiating power. People want that give and take of what are they going to get in exchange for supporting you, and you know, Pelosi was particularly good at this. But even back in 2018, she had to agree to a limit on her power that she wouldn't serve another term in order to get the gavel back. This is a woman who had just delivered the House back and she still had to convince a few stragglers to support her. How McCarthy brings the caucus together on the day he becomes speaker could be a really powerful sign for how he's going to manage being speaker and keeping his caucus together when it comes to important legislation.

Gustavo: Maybe, uh, McCarthy should call up Pelosi for some advice on that.

Sarah: They actually have a lot in common as leaders. Pelosi and McCarthy both know their members better than they know themselves. McCarthy is known for constantly studying the districts of his members. And so when he arrives, he can immediately say, “Hey, why don't we talk to the mayor of this town?” And he knows the mayor's name and the restaurant that they have to go eat there. He really knows these people and that's something that Pelosi has been really good at. Pelosi knew how to get votes. She knew how to let members vote their conscience when they had to and convince them, you know, when they had to vote the way the party needed them to. You know, she often invoked her religion as a reason for getting people to come to her side.

Sarah: She had supporters among every branch of the Democratic Party. And I think that's something that McCarthy's going to struggle with a little bit. Pelosi was seen as one of the most liberal members of Congress when she arrived in Washington. And now you've got the Democratic Party, the far left, saying that she's not liberal enough, and she's able to be seen as being on everybody's side even when she's on her own.

Gustavo: Coming up after the break, how Nancy Pelosi kept House Democrats together.

Gustavo: Sarah, most of us have come to know Nancy Pelosi through her leadership roles, both as a minority speaker and speaker of the House for the Democrats. But how'd she get her start in politics, period?

Sarah: She grew up in a political family. Her father represented Baltimore in Congress for decades, and so she grew up, you know, making phone calls and knocking on doors, and it was just, constant having constituents coming by the house, wanting things. And so she learned how to organize at a very young age.

Sarah: She and her husband moved to San Francisco in their, uh, I believe 20s, and she started raising money for local Democrats then, but she focused on raising her family. And she rose through kind of the ranks of, uh, fundraising to become California Democratic Party chair and helped bring the Democratic Convention to California. But it wasn't until a dear friend of hers died of cancer that Pelosi considered running for Congress. The friend asked her to run to fill the rest of her term, and Pelosi loves telling the story that she went to her youngest daughter who was still in high school and said, you know, “Mommy's thinking about doing this. I don't want to be away from you, but what do you think about the idea?” And her youngest daughter rolled her eyes and said, “Get a life, Mom.” And so she ran and, you know, she was pegged by her opponents as this flighty housewife who was just running because she had a lot of money and wanted to do it, and, you know, she was called a dilettante. And her opponent kept saying, Nancy Pelosi should go back to ironing her kids' clothes. And Pelosi had a great political ad where she came back and said, “I don't iron my kids' clothes. They come straight out of the dryer and go on the kids. So I have no time for ironing.”

Sarah: Pelosi won her special election in 1987. And actually her first speech on the House floor she mentioned AIDS. And so she immediately got a little bit of a reputation, but then she was just a rank-and-file member for years.

Gustavo: Until of course 2002, when she became the House minority whip for the Democrats, which started off her trajectory of leadership to become the first women elected speaker of the House ever in 2007. 

Ap tape: By electing me speaker, you have brought us closer to the ideal of equality that is America's heritage and America's hope.

Gustavo: What made her so powerful in her roles?

Sarah: That ability to unify her party and wrangle votes. Think about it: California is the most powerful delegation in Congress. They make up one in five Democrats in Congress. And having their backing was really powerful. She had the backing of the Black caucus. She had the backing of liberals, but she also was able to relate with moderates. And that history of fundraising also made her so powerful. She could bring in amounts of money that no one else could ever match. Part of that was Hollywood connections, part of that was San Francisco connections, but she really capitalized on that across the country. With her deal making, she knew when to walk away, when to give members a chance to vote the way their districts wanted versus how leadership wanted. Her rule was to never bring legislation to the floor if she didn't already know the results. I talked about, you know, she knows her folks and there's one really great example that Susan Page from USA Today had got and had a biography of her. She said that while whipping votes for the Affordable Care Act, President Obama invited an undecided Indiana Democrat to the Oval Office to try to sway his vote with the grandeur of the White House. Pelosi called the member's religious mentor and said, “I need you to convince him that there are religious reasons he should vote for this healthcare legislation.“ The reverend called the member of Congress and convinced him in a phone call to vote for it. You know, it's little tidbits like that. Pelosi knows these members better than they even know themselves. Even Obama's staff say that they wouldn't have gotten passed without her. She's the one who did the heavy lifting, and even she says that was her greatest accomplishment.

Ap tape: Nancy Pelosi – that's one tough lady. That is one tough lady. And she's so elegant, even as she's ripping your heart out, if you're… if, if you mess with her.

Sarah: That's one thing I think that is going to be missing with the new leadership.

Gustavo: What moments from her tenure stand out to you?

Sarah: Oh, there's so many, especially in leadership. 

Sarah: You've got the Affordable Care Act, which is probably what she's best known for. You know, there was the stimulus in 2008, when the economy was collapsing. 

Ap tape: We could have a fiscal stimulus with some monetary ease, uh, to help these families and to help the states who are feeling the pressure as well.

Sarah: And during COVID.

Ap tape: Today was a historic day for us to once again pass our now fourth bipartisan legislation to address the coronavirus crisis.

Sarah: She passed some of the largest spending bills in U.S. history and they were really geared towards Democrat policies and priorities.

Ap tape: The American people expect Congress to do all that we can to protect the lives, the livelihood and the life of our democracy in what we do here. And they expect us to ensure that nearly $2 trillion, the historic relief that we have passed in a number of bills, is widely and effectively used.

Sarah: And you know, impeachments, she fought so hard to keep from impeachment, from being part of her legacy.

Ap tape: My view is that impeachment is very divisive in the country.

Sarah: Democrats wanted her to impeach Bush, she said no. Democrats pushed her for years to push Trump before she finally said that it had gone too far and she had to. 

Ap tape: So sad, so tragic for a country, uh, that the actions taken by the president to undermine our national security, to violate his oath of office and to jeopardize the security of our elections, the integrity of our elections, has taken us to this place. So today we will make history.

Sarah: two impeachments of one president, that's going to put her in the history books, whether she wants it or not.

Gustavo: Pelosi had all this power, but she had so much hate against her. I mean, so many of my memories of Pelosi will be, yes, this very powerful politician, but also just all the nastiness thrown at her. You were in Congress for so long, covering it, and you've been in D.C., how was she able to function basically, why was so much nastiness directed at her and how did she handle it?

Sarah: She realized very quickly that she was a convenient scapegoat. I mean, the San Francisco liberal running the Democratic Party. You know, she was willing to fill that role for Republicans and be the villain because it took heat off of her members. All the attack ads were about her, and the members could get up at a debate during the campaign and say, well, you're not running against Nancy Pelosi, you're running against me, and their opponent would be sputtering. You know, she constantly told her members, ”I can take this, I can take this heat. Don't worry about it.” She appeared more often in campaign ads than even Democratic candidates for president.

Gustavo: Wow.

sarah: In presidential election years, 

Ap tape: How would your ratings be if $75 million were spent against you? Uh, because I'm an effective leader, because we got the job done on healthcare and WallSstreet reform and, and consumer protections, the list goes on.

Sarah: Democrats tried to do the same a little bit with, you know, John Boehner and Paul Ryan, but it just never raised quite to the level as it did with Pelosi. And part of that might be her being the first woman to lead a congressional party. It might be where she was from, the fact that it didn't seem to bother her. Might have made her more of a target, I'm not sure. But, I think you're right, it's going to be something that people remember with her, especially when you cap it with this attack against her husband, where this man broke into their home in the middle of the night and attacked her husband with a hammer while she was away. And, it just kind of a sign of how much politics have changed that she was able to be that boogeyman for so long and that it ends with an actual physical attack against her husband.

Gustavo: But there had to be some grudging respect from Republicans. I'm thinking like the way generals in wars, even if they're on the opposing sides, they can respect the tactics of the other side even, of course, they want to see them defeated.

Sarah: Yeah, I mean the phrase that some used to describe Pelosi, and I believe it actually originated with her daughter, was the iron fist inside the velvet glove. Republicans can respect her ability to keep the party together over and over. And so you do hear that: Man, they really do not like her, but even some people who don't like her seem to have a bit of grudging respect for her ability to get things done.

Gustavo: So this dominant figure, looming legend, what does losing her as a leader mean for the Democratic Party at large?

Sarah: Well the party's losing a lot of knowledge and expertise and relationships, and I think that has been something that at least journalists have brought up over and over. But Pelosi's always said that no one can know if they're capable of doing that job until they actually do it –  that it, it makes something of you the same way that no one knows if they can be president until they're actually in the Oval Office. She said that the Democrats should look for someone who could unite the caucus, would be able to negotiate with the White House and the Senate, regardless of party control, and could motivate grassroots activists and raise money from big donors. And that's a big ask. 

Sarah: It's hard to imagine a single person doing that. The team that Democrats have assembled seems like they all bring different strengths, but none of them bring the total package that Pelosi has to the table.

Gustavo: How will the new Democratic leadership fare in a Republican-led House? That's after the break.

Gustavo: Sarah, we've been talking about all this new leadership, but who's replacing Nancy Pelosi and what do we know about them?

Sarah: Democrats have chosen Hakeem Jeffries to be their minority leader. He represents Brooklyn and he's going to be the first Black leader of a congressional party. And so he's definitely a different person than Pelosi. He’s got a different way of speaking. He's got a different way of interacting with the members. But he's been leader of the caucus for the last two years, and so he’s already built up those relationships that we've talked about being so necessary. His second in command is going to be Catherine Clark of Massachusetts. She is also a very good speaker. She brings the more liberal side of the party into the circle. And third in line is going to be Pete Aguilar. He's a Californian from Redlands actually, and he's going to be the highest ranking Latino in the House. Democrats have really prided themselves that they have selected a slate of leaders that looks like the party. They've made it, that a real big emphasis that it's not just picking another elderly white man.

Gustavo: It's cool to see all that diversity, but what strikes me about this moment is that Pelosi has more years of leadership in the House than all of Jeffries, Clark and Aguilar combined, and the Democrats are now the minority party. What are going to be their biggest challenges?

Sarah: The top three positions in the party were in the House were locked up for so long that  multiple Pelosi proteges have come and gone. No one was willing to wait her out. And so at this moment everything is in flux, not just the speakership. And these three are going to have to navigate keeping the disparate wings of the party together enough so that they can block GOP legislation or negotiate Democrat-friendly changes to legislation. Every interest group within the Democratic Party is going to be making small power plays and moves at this moment, and they're going to have to see how the puzzle pieces fit back together because it's going to be an entirely different puzzle.

Gustavo: And now Nancy Pelosi's just going to be her local congressperson. Has that ever happened before, a speaker stepping down and not retiring or becoming the minority speaker?

sarah: I believe it has, but it's extremely common. I mean, nobody wants to go back to being a rank-and-file member. You see this with committee chairmen all the time: Once they've reached their limit, they're also going to retire. It's going to be really interesting to see how she does this. And when she inserts herself into fights, if she does at all, or if she really tries to stay in the background. 

Gustavo: Finally, what do you think she's going to do for the remainder of her time in Congress? Like all these years, all these decades of wielding so much power. Is she really just going to be, “Yeah, I'm just a congressperson again. It's all good.”

Sarah: She was asked in December if she would fulfill her full two-year term, and she got very angry that someone would even bother asking her that question.

Ap tape: Will you commit to serving your full two-year term for the people of San Francisco? What is this? What is this? Don't bother me with a question like that. Really, really, OK? I said what I'm going to do, you know. I don't, those kind of questions are such a waste of my time.

Sarah: But it's a really valid one. Is she going to be OK sitting on a back bench for a while. She's not going to be a committee chairman or even a ranking member. This is a time for her to decide how to leave on her own terms. What did she want to do when she got started 35 years ago that has not been completed? And what does she see as her unfinished business and pet projects? I think she's going to continue to be an advocate and a counselor for the new leadership, but she doesn't want to be seen as the shadow speaker. She wants to carefully choose when she gets involved and why. I imagine she's still going to be a fundraiser. There's going to be that part of her that wants to start spending more time with the grandkids.

Ap tape: My friends, no matter what title you all my colleagues have bestowed upon me, speaker, leader, whip. There is no greater official honor for me than to stand on this floor and to speak for the people of San Francisco. This I will continue to do as a member of the House, speaking for the people of San Francisco, serving the great state of California and defending our Constitution.

Gustavo: Sarah, thank you so much for this conversation.

Sarah: Thanks for having me.

Gustavo: And that's it for this episode of “The Times: Essential News From the L.A. Times.” Heba Elorbany and Ashley Brown were the jefas on this episode. It was mixed and mastered by Mike Heflin and edited by Jazmín Aguilera. Our show is produced by Denise Guerra, Kasia Broussalian and David Toledo and Ashley Brown.

Our editorial assistant is Roberto Reyes. Our engineers are Mario Diaz, Mark Nieto and Mike Heflin. Our editor is Kinsee Morlan. Our executive producers are Jazmín Aguilera, Shani Hilton and Heba Elorbany. And our theme music is by Andrew Eapen. I'm Gustavo Arellano. We'll be back Wednesday with all the news and desmadre. Gracias.