'Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the New American Politics'

Frank J. Smist, Jr.
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

The 52nd speaker of the House didn't just shatter the glass ceiling that had barred women from the highest governmental offices, she destroyed it.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the New American Politics

Publisher: Oxford University Press
Price: $29.95
Author: Ronald M. Peters Jr., Cindy Simon Rosenthal
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2010-05

After the U.S. presidential elections of 2000 and 2004, President George W. Bush and his chief political strategist, Karl Rove, hoped to maintain a permanent Republican majority at the national level of our government. But after a failed attempt to reform Social Security, a disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina and a continuing stalemate in Iraq, the Democrats surged back into power.

In the 2006 midterm elections, Democrats regained control of the U.S. House of Representatives, and in 2008 Democrat Barack Obama became the first African-American to become U.S. president. Any dreams of a permanent Republican majority were shattered.

On 4 January 2007, Democrat Nancy Pelosi was elected the 52nd speaker of the House. As speaker, she follows the vice president in the order of presidential succession; as such, she has attained the highest position in the U.S. government that any woman has ever held. Pelosi didn't just shatter the glass ceiling that had barred women from the highest governmental offices, she destroyed it.

But just who is Nancy Pelosi? How did she rise to power? How has she exercised the powers of speaker?

A new book by Ron Peters and Cindy Rosenthal, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the New American Politics, is now the definitive work on the speaker and answers these questions.

Peters and Rosenthal are political scientists and experts on Congress at the University of Oklahoma. They bring to their book the methodological tools of the political scientist and the incisive research and writing skills of the most gifted journalist.

Pelosi was born and raised in Baltimore, and politics were in her blood from her birth. Pelosi's father, Thomas D'Alesandro, was a congressman from Maryland and later mayor of Baltimore. Nancy's mother, Annunciata D'Alesandro, was in charge of her husband's constituent services. Nancy ran political errands and learned grassroots Italian-Catholic politics at a very young age.

In 1963, Nancy D'Alesandro married Paul Pelosi, and they settled in San Francisco. Nancy Pelosi stayed home and raised five children, but politics remained her passion. She became an active and very successful party organizer and fundraiser.

In 1984, she organized the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco. There, she became close friends with New York Governor Mario Cuomo. Two years later, U.S. Sen. George Mitchell tapped her to be finance chairwoman of the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee, and she helped Senate Democrats regain control of their chamber in the 1986 elections.

In 1987, Pelosi ran for Congress with the endorsement of dying San Francisco congresswoman Sala Burton and won election in one of the most liberal congressional districts in the country. Once in the House, Pelosi was unstoppable.

Peters and Rosenthal show how Pelosi used fundraising, organization, candidate recruitment and her gender to climb the ranks of House leadership. She was not content to settle for traditional female House positions. She wanted and worked to become speaker.

The authors interviewed those who surrounded and now surround Nancy Pelosi, and they spent considerable time with the speaker herself. Among their insights: For Pelosi, the key number is 218 — the number of votes required to pass legislation in the House. An ideological liberal, Pelosi will tack to the right, reach out to more moderate Democrats and compromise if that is required to pass a bill. Legislative victory is more important to Pelosi than ideological purity.

Peters and Rosenthal maintain that Pelosi embodies what they call a "New American Politics "composed of excessive partisanship, extensive fundraising, organizing district-by-district, using new technology such as the Internet, and fostering diversity for minorities and women.

It is now clear that Obama's health care legislation would not have been enacted had it not been for Nancy Pelosi's efforts.

The authors show that Pelosi is a true ideological liberal who fervently believes government is the source of public good. Health care is just one item on her agenda; she also wants government to reform social welfare programs, address energy independence and climate change, reform immigration, and rebuild the U.S. economy.

To accomplish these goals, Pelosi has adopted new tools of communication. She was the first member of Congress to start an individual YouTube account, and she also operates on social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

By becoming speaker, Pelosi made American history. She is a significant role model for women who aspire to political leadership roles.

But with the 2010 elections on the horizon, Pelosi has become the focus of Republican attacks, and her long-term impact on American history and American politics remains to be seen.

Frank J. Smist, Jr. is emeritus professor of political science at Rockhurst University.





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