After three decades in the rough-and-tumble world of politics, it would have been easy for Nancy Pelosi to become a cynic. After six presidents, three wars, two recessions, and the rise of the Tea Party, the far right, and Trumpism, Pelosi could have soured on the power of politics to effect change for the better.
But that seriously underestimates the current and twice-elected Speaker of the House, the first-ever woman to hold that title, the highest-ranked elected female politician in American history, and the person who is second-in-line to the presidency — the highest a woman has ever been in the order of presidential succession. Instead, Pelosi continues to believe in politics, in Congress, and in the ability of lawmakers to improve life for everyday Americans.
“I see everything as an opportunity,” she says during a phone interview from California, conducted during the downtime in a packed schedule that keeps the spry, witty, fiercely intelligent 79-year-old constantly on the go. “An opportunity, given to those who happen to be at the right place at the right time, to do something good and get results for the American people.”
Born Nancy D’Alesandro in Baltimore in 1940, Pelosi grew up as the youngest child, and only daughter, of Thomas D’Alesandro, Jr., a Democratic congressman from Baltimore who later went on to become the city’s first Italian-American mayor. While entering politics wasn’t something she considered until her youngest child was a senior in high school, Pelosi was immersed in the political sphere, and those Democratic values, coupled with a Catholic upbringing and its focus on social justice, informed her views on organized labor, women’s equality, immigration, concern for the poor, and the importance of the social safety net. And it’s those same views — and those of the Democratic Party writ large — that Pelosi believes can help cure political cynicism nationwide.
“I welcome the opportunity to differentiate between Democrats and Republicans,” she says. “I think there are enough differences to give [Democrats] an opportunity to win elections and to be empowered to make a difference in the lives of the American people. And we do have a responsibility to the public to remove some of the cynicism that is there.”
Despite an initial uncertainty about running for Congress in 1987, Pelosi now finds herself in the catbird seat through a confluence of political events, most recently and notably the election of President Donald J. Trump and the Democratic “wave” of candidates who swept the midterms in 2018, which resulted in the congresswoman being elected as Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives for the second time. Her dual position as both Speaker and as the top House Democrat puts her in a unique position, not only allowing her to set the legislative agenda for the country, but casting her as a foil to Trump, a role she relishes, particularly when it comes to contrasting their visions for the country.
In many ways, Pelosi and Trump make the sort of “odd couple” pairing Hollywood scriptwriters dream about. While Trump is impulsive, easily distracted, and indecorous, Pelosi is measured, sober, and laser-focused on what she hopes to accomplish — though not above the occasional pithy jibe aimed squarely at the president. While he tweets with reckless abandon, Pelosi is cautious, reserved, preferring to be seen as a steady hand or calming influence.
That’s not to say Pelosi doesn’t attract a flood of naysayers who criticize every move she makes and every syllable she utters. Her Reublican detractors are all too eager to cast her as an out-of-touch Beltway insider, a bumbling bureaucrat, or a radical “San Francisco liberal.” Yet even the latter moniker seems to have lost the sting it once held as recently as 2010, when Republicans seized control of Congress by urging American voters to “Fire Pelosi.” Instead, right-wing pundits seem more interested in trying to provoke a civil war within the Democratic Party, casting Pelosi as the straight man to the more intemperate, liberal-leaning members of her party.
But Pelosi isn’t anybody’s fool, and isn’t playing to a predetermined script. She’s smart, quick-witted, adaptable — a master legislator who has, time and again, successfully wrangled concessions from Republicans to advance Democratic priorities.
“I can’t imagine what it’s like to be her,” says Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), the first openly gay person of color to be elected to Congress in 2012. “Just the sheer number of issues that she’s got to be familiar with in terms of policy. She always says you’ve got to be a master of the politics, but also the substance of the policy you’re working on. Nancy is as on top of it as anybody I’ve ever seen.”
What’s most impressive about Pelosi to Takano are her leadership capabilities. “We could use her as President right now. She’s very measured as a leader. She’s not impulsive. I think at heart she’s a progressive, but she’s also practical about how you build support for a progressive agenda. She has that sort of motherly…quality of someone who’s raised children, and knows that you can’t buy them candy just because they want it.
“She understands that you build things with relationships. It’s a function of being in a 435-member chamber of the House, but it’s also the way she operates,” he continues. “Keeping support for the Affordable Care Act and not letting it be gutted even when both Houses of Congress were controlled by Republicans. This was a masterful job of her working with outside groups in terms of national mobilizations. Getting through a positive agenda instead of stopping a negative one from happening.”
Throughout her three decades in Congress, Pelosi has become known as a strong ally of the LGBTQ community, supporting marriage equality at a time when it was widely unpopular and being a consistent advocate for nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people — something she has prioritized this year in pushing for the Equality Act. Under her leadership, the bill, which amends the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to include protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity, passed the House of Representatives last month, with every single House Democrat and eight Republicans voting in favor of the measure.
“Nancy has a stellar record of putting our rights and our equality right up on the top of the agenda,” says Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), who is gay. “The fact is, I can’t think of an American political leader who has a stronger record on LGBTQ issues. Certainly someone who comes from the straight community, if you look not just [at] her rhetoric, but her record. She’s a true leader. Both a pioneer, and a current partner.”
Maloney, who first met Pelosi while running for Congress in 2012, says she always asks him about his husband and their children, and even gave a toast at his wedding in 2014.
“She values family a lot,” he says. “Her own family is very important to her, and I think she sees LGBTQ families as equally deserving of respect and love. She showed that to me from the day we met, and every day since.
“I’ve been around a lot of politicians who are ‘good’ on our issues, and there’s very few who don’t just say it, but who feel it, and who live it the way she does,” he continues. “She’s really a rockstar when it comes to issues of LGBTQ equality. She deserves all the praise she can get.”
METRO WEEKLY: Let’s talk about your childhood. What was your upbringing like? What were your family’s values?
NANCY PELOSI: I was born into a family that was devoutly Catholic, proud of our Italian-American heritage, fiercely patriotic, and staunchly Democratic. That was our family. From a personal standpoint, our religion — and of course our patriotism, too — taught us to respect the dignity and worth of every person, that we have responsibilities to each other, and that public service was a noble calling.
MW: Your father was involved in politics as a congressman and mayor of Baltimore. Were you ever involved in any of his campaigns when you were younger?
PELOSI: We were always giving out buttons or placards, which are signs, and bumper stickers, and the rest. But we were first and foremost a family, even though my father was mayor. So it was Mayor outside, it was Daddy at home. There never was a time when you entered our home that, in the vestibule, there weren’t buttons, placards, or stickers and the like for whatever the campaign was, whether it was presidential, gubernatorial, or local.
MW: What eventually made you move to California?
PELOSI: My husband. We met in college. When we were married, we lived in New York City. Four of our five children were born in New York City. My husband was born and raised in San Francisco. When he thought it was time to go home, we all went home to San Francisco — heaven on earth.
MW: And then you were a stay-at-home mom for a number of years.
PELOSI: Yes, I had five children in six years. That didn’t mean that we didn’t have events in our home to organize for the Democrats, our candidates or causes, but I was a stay-at-home mom.
MW: You ran for Congress when your youngest child was in high school. What made you eventually decide to pull the trigger on that run?
PELOSI: Well, I never intended to run for anything. I considered myself a rather shy, private person. I did like advancing other people. That, I enjoyed, because I could be more behind the scenes, but also promoting the cause and the candidates of the Democrats. But I didn’t make a decision to run — it was almost made for me — when I was encouraged to run, which I hesitated to do. But Sala Burton, our Congresswoman, was insistent that I put my hat, so to speak, in the ring.
I didn’t know whether I would win or not, but I knew if ran I would try to win, and I did. But it wasn’t anything I prepared for or anything that I hoped for. It just happened in January. On February 1, she passed away. By April 7, I was the nominee of the Democratic Party in San Francisco, and by June 2, I was elected. It happened very quickly. I would not have been motivated on my own to say, “I think I’ll run for Congress.” Other people were encouraging me to do so, so I did.
MW: As a female politician, what traits or viewpoints do you think that you bring to the table that are different from those of your male counterparts?
PELOSI: Diversity. With all the respect in the world for what my male colleagues bring to the table, this is where I say to women candidates all the time, “We need you to run. We need that diversity of opinion.”
When I became leader, people would say to me, after a meeting, “Do you know how different that meeting would have been if a man were conducting it?” Because I do think that women have a consensus-building attitude of listening and prioritizing working together collaboratively, maybe more than people are used to. I’m not saying men don’t do it, but I’m saying women maybe do it more.
And so what I say to women is, “It’s not that women are better than men, it’s just a difference, and that difference is important at the table,” just as when you have people of color [and] LGBTQ people at the table as well.
MW: You’ve been a longtime ally of the LGBTQ community. Do you remember the first gay or transgender person who came out to you?
PELOSI: I’m not sure anybody actually came out to me. I think they just were who they were and I respected that. I do know of stories of people who told me when they first came out to their families, they were telling them that not only were they gay, but they were infected with HIV, which was a hard story to tell to some families. But I don’t know if anybody actually came out to me and we met that way. I mean, we just all respected each other and that’s the way it was.
You have to know that in San Francisco, in those days, before HIV and AIDS and the rest, the LGBTQ people I knew were active in the community. I knew them from social services, I knew them from other community events, I knew them from sports. They were involved in everything. And then all of a sudden, it became a big community, but everybody knew them separately and apart from being part of the LGBTQ community.
Two of my first mentors in the LGBTQ community were Phyllis Martin and Del Lyon, who were a couple for 55 years. Del Martin passed away a number of years ago. But they really taught me a lot about lesbian health issues and bereavement challenges, and how important it was for the community to have the respect it deserved, and what some of the practical ramifications were of not having that. I don’t ever remember not being involved with the LGBTQ community for one thing or another, because the community was involved in so many ways in San Francisco.
I do remember one person who came out to me, now that you mention it. It was a person who worked for me. I knew her as a mom with children, and then one day, she said to me, “There’s something I have to tell you.” But by the time she told me that, it really didn’t matter. It was like, “Good for you! Congratulations!” It wasn’t, “Oh dear, can I help you in any way?” It was her joy to be sharing this transition, this passage that she had made.
MW: You mentioned that you knew people that were coming out to their families and also admitting that they had HIV. Do you remember when you first started hearing about the disease, and what made it so personal to you when you were fighting for HIV/AIDS funding in Congress?
PELOSI: Well in our community, all of a sudden, there were stories of what was happening at UCSF, that they were seeing evidence of a disease that could not be identified, except that it was related to the breakdown in the immune system. And then people were susceptible to any and all kinds of things.
Around the same time, people all around us, close friends and the rest, were being diagnosed — and at the time, sadly, this was a death sentence. We were going to funerals more than once a day, certainly multiple funerals in a week, of dear, darling friends, or people that we had worked with. I remember so many people who had come to my home to help me with family celebrations or Democratic celebrations or whatever it was, and the shock of knowing that they were HIV-infected, it was very, very, very sad.
If you told me then, 30-some years ago, that we would still not have a cure for AIDS today, I would have never believed you because we thought, “We have to get to work on this. We have to get the money, for research, for care, and for prevention.” And we still, while we have improved the quality of life, we still haven’t eliminated HIV the way I would have hoped for, projecting out ten years at that time.
But I think of Scott Douglas, whom I loved. I knew him through the Carter campaign in the ’70s. I would visit him all the time and I’d say, “How are you today, Scott?” and he’d say, “I’m so disappointed. I thought today was the day I was going to meet John F. Kennedy and all of these champions that I love.” But we just kept increasing his morphine so that he could be comfortable until the time sadly finally came.
I remember somebody that I knew very well. I don’t know whether they were gay or not, it didn’t really come up. But he was HIV-infected, and I went to a meeting and went over and embraced him and everybody was so like, “What? Embracing somebody with HIV/AIDS?” And these were people who were in the gay community, and they were surprised that somebody not in the community would embrace somebody. And I thought, “Why wouldn’t I? This is my friend and he needs to be embraced.”
In any case, it was a lot descending on us at once, and people leaving us rapidly, and it was horrible. So it was something that we had to do something about. I remember when we were trying to attract the Democratic National Convention to San Francisco. I was the chair of the California Democratic Party at the time, and I was having events at my home for those people who would be choosing the site selection. I was trying to make it as much a community-wide thing, not just people who would be making contributions, but a community-wide invitation to come to San Francisco. Well, we took so much heat from other people in other cities saying, “Why would you want to go there? It’s dangerous,” and this or that. It only strengthened our resolve to host the convention in spite of some of the doubts people might have had.
And I remember when we had people to my home, I would introduce them to many of our friends from the community, and then I’d say, “When I dip my carrot into the dip, I’m going to go in right with you at the same time, so that they see that we’re not afraid of each other here.”
MW: You spoke very eloquently on the floor of the House of the need for the Equality Act and how important the passage of it would be. Do you know anybody who has personally been impacted by anti-LGBTQ discrimination?
PELOSI: How many hours do you have? Well, let’s go back to before I was even in Congress, when we were advocating for what would be marriage equality, but was domestic partnership at the time. That was frowned upon by some, and we were celebrating it. And then when HIV came along, we knew we had to get the resources and that’s one of the reasons that motivated me to run for Congress. That’s what I said on the floor on the House in my first comments. But even then, I saw some discrimination, people who were not discriminating against people because they were gay, but who were reluctant to be champions of HIV and AIDS because it stil had the stigma at the time.
The Equality Act to me was very important for our country as well as for the community because even if it just was one person whose discrimination was ended, that would be reason enough to do it, but it was for the whole community and that was important. But it was also important for America to declare itself as supporting equality for everyone in our country. So that expansion of freedom that the Equality Act put into policies in hopes it would be law soon, it’s something that again made America more American and expanded freedom in our country. So it was a community acting for itself, but also patriotically for America.
MW: According to polls, 70% of Americans support laws like the Equality Act. Why do you think that a majority of Republicans in Congress and President Trump refuse to support it?
PELOSI: Why don’t you ask them, because I just don’t know. I don’t know what’s in their hearts, because if they pretend to be people of faith, you would think that faith would lead them to respect the dignity and worth of every person and take pride in the spark of divinity that exists in every person. So I’m sorry, you’re just going to have to ask them. And what’s sad about it is they not only act the way they do, they brag about it in certain circles.
MW: Mitch McConnell has been vocal about his intent to block a vote on the Equality Act in the Senate. Is passing it now more of a symbol of intent of what Democrats might do if they ever get into power again, rather than something that we necessarily think is going to pass?
PELOSI: Oh, I think that public sentiment will weigh in and that he will bring it up. I think the public thinks it’s going to come up, and when it does, we’ll all advocate for it. What I’m saying to my grassroots people and to the communities beyond the LGBT community who support the Equality Act is, “Don’t think he’s going to bring it up. We have to make sure he brings it up.” And that is why public sentiment is so important, because it has broad support, as you indicated. So why would he not bring this up? This would be one of the easiest things he does.
This isn’t about a symbol of what we would do next, we certainly would if it isn’t passed, but it is something we expect to happen now, and it can only happen now if people weigh in. I do believe that there must be five [Republican] senators who would say to him, “Bring up the bill.” But you know, you have to ask them what’s in their hearts and minds about the community that they would resist that. When we passed some of the other bills, we only had a few Republicans who joined us, but we only needed a few then. We need more now.
MW: What do you say to people who argue that President Trump is not anti-LGBTQ, despite his rhetoric and his administration’s actions?
PELOSI: I don’t know what the basis of their statement is that he isn’t anti-gay. It breaks my heart, really, what he’s doing in terms of transgender service in the military. It’s a source of great sadness to me that he would reverse that. And then to have policies that do not encourage recognition of LGBT participation, whether it’s business-wise or any other way, in our society.
I think he is anti-gay. Well, let me say it another way: whatever he may be, and whatever that is, who knows? But I do think his actions are anti-gay and he has to be judged by his actions. And some will say, “Oh, he didn’t mean it,” or this and that — but that they cannot possibly be judging his actions to be pro-gay or even neutral, rather anti-gay.
MW: With respect to the president, he often says or tweets things that are provably false, but many Americans still trust and support him. Why do you think that level of support, that level of trust, is still so high among so many Americans?
PELOSI: Well, whether it’s high at all is the question. The fact is, he has about a third of the public which will agree with him on any score. It doesn’t matter what the question is: “Yes, I’m with Trump.” They don’t have to think about it. Evangelicals are largely there because of their anti-marriage equality and Roe v. Wade stance. Wealthy people are there because they want their tax cuts. Some people are sincerely there because of their financial concerns, where they thought he had a message of hope, and that hasn’t materialized, but they’re still hopeful and they don’t want to think that they made a mistake.
So there are different reasons. I don’t think everybody who supports him is anti-gay or is racist, but I do think most anti-gay and racist people supported him.
MW: The president, after months of not giving you a nickname, called you “Crazy Nancy” recently and tried to question your mental capacity. Why do you think there was a sudden change in his attitude, and how do you personally cope with being publicly insulted like that?
PELOSI: Oh, I consider the source. I don’t even think of him as somebody that I would be concerned about what he thinks, even though he’s the President of the United States. But the president has been a projector. Every time he calls somebody something, you know he’s projecting his own diagnosis. Whether it’s crazy, whether it’s lazy, whatever it is, he’s just saying, “I know this is what I am, so before somebody identifies me this way, I’ll identify them that way.” He called Hillary crazy so many times because he knows that his own mental stability is gravely in doubt, as well as his integrity and any sense of decency.
So I don’t really care about what he says. And again, I got him very hurt when I said he was guilty of a cover-up. Everything in his life is a cover-up, starting with his skin and his hair, and his actions and marriage, as well as his cover-up in the Russian investigation, and his cover-up in hiding what he’s doing to the Affordable Care Act. The term “cover-up” hit directly home with him, and I think that’s what triggered his response, which was to turn on me what he projected to be his own diagnosis. I don’t have anything more to say about him. I’m done with him.
MW: You were correct in your assessment about what issues would be crucial during the 2018 election, and Democrats ran on those and were successful. What issues do you think Democrats should campaign on in 2020, and what should be their message?
PELOSI: I do think that we were successful in our message because it was focused, repeated, and addressed the concerns the American people have. One is they were concerned about health care costs and other access to affordable care and we said, “Our agenda is for the people. Lower health care costs by lowering the cost of prescription drugs.” Two, they’re concerned about their financial security, which is related to their health and financial security. So lower health care costs, increase their paychecks by building the infrastructure of America in a green way, and that’s still the message for this next campaign. And three, cleaner government. Lower health care, bigger paychecks, cleaner government. And to do so in a way that unifies our country, not to divide our country.
I think the imperative of addressing the climate crisis, which is tied to building the infrastructure of America, is a big challenge in this campaign. Young people care about it a great deal, and it will create good-paying jobs if we build the infrastructure in a “green” way. I do believe the disparity in income is disgraceful and immoral in our country and addressing it by building the infrastructure of America in a green way is an answer to that, as well.
I do believe the American people have lost confidence that their interests will take priority in Congress as long as big, dark money — rather than grassroots participation — prevails. And that’s why we supported [House Resolution] 1, to have cleaner government, to reduce the role of voter suppression and misrepresentations and the rest.
So I think those issues are still the same because they affect the health and economic financial stability of America’s working families and they help to restore confidence in government. It’s a mainstream message that shares our progressive values, and it’s a mainstream message that is non-menacing to the public, but yet is very bold.
MW: How has politics, or maybe even the game of politics, changed since you first took office?
PELOSI: I do think the manner in which we communicate via social media, and in real time, has made a difference, because communication is a very important part of politics. I do think that the Republicans have made it more mean-spirited by their politics of personal destruction. I think that started with Newt Gingrich in the ’90s and he was very destructive.
And then in the 2000s, the difference has been one of communications. To be able to communicate in real time has its pluses and minuses — the minus being you don’t have a lot of time to check out the facts before people are putting things forward.
MW: How has being in the political arena changed you personally?
PELOSI: Well, I have been blessed by having the respect of so many people who really care about other people and want to help them. Across the aisle, I’ve worked very closely with many of my Republican friends on religious freedom and human rights throughout the world. They don’t all share some of my concerns about the LGBTQ community, but hopefully we can bring them around by building bridges.
And nothing to me is more of an honor than to walk on the floor of the House each legislative day, sent by the people of San Francisco. So while my colleagues have given me great honors and I thank them for that and I feel blessed by them, to speak for the people of San Francisco is the biggest honor of all. Having said that, I am grateful to my colleagues for giving me the opportunity I’ve had to lead, to listen, and to build consensus within our caucus.
MW: This is our Capital Pride issue and we wanted to ask you: what personal message do you have for the LGBTQ community?
PELOSI: My message to the LGBTQ community is always, “Thank you.” Thank you for having the courage to be you. Thank you for teaching so many of us how to be better by addressing concerns that you have experienced. Thank you for inviting us in to take pride. People will say to me, “Well, it’s easy for you to come from San Francisco, it’s so tolerant a city.” And I would say, tolerance has nothing to do with it. It’s a condescending word. It’s about respect. It’s about taking pride.
MW: What does pride mean to you?
PELOSI: Pride means love, respect, value. It means something very, very revered. It means, “Thank you for having the strength to be who you are and to teach us that lesson,” as well as to take pride in any association we may have with you. Which means respect, love, and acknowledging differences, in the most positive way.
I actually have to add one word to all of this. It would be joy. Joy. I truly believe that, in the fight against HIV and AIDS, the activism of ACT UP and other groups outside, taught America an important lesson that holds us in good stead in so many ways. It’s about how we learn from each other. The pride we take, but with that pride comes joy as well. So it makes me happy to think about all the friendships I have in the community, and I feel blessed to have that imprimatur from them.