In 2016, when Hillary Clinton looked certain to be president, Nancy Pelosi mused she was ready to retire and end her career as the most powerful woman in the history of the US Congress.
Donald Trump’s win abruptly changed her plans — and the House of Representatives speaker is making history by impeaching the president for the second time.
A San Francisco liberal and multimillionaire, the 80-year-old Pelosi has long served as a hate figure for the right, as witnessed in the deadly January 6 mob attack on the Capitol by Trump supporters who ransacked her office, with one man gleefully propping his leg up on her desk.
The violence, which came after Trump refused to recognize his defeat and urged a rally to march on the Capitol to stop the ceremonial certification of Joe Biden’s win, prompted Pelosi to move quickly to try to oust the “deranged, unhinged, dangerous president of the United States.”
Despite easy caricatures of her and an often sputtering speaking style, Pelosi has maintained a grip on Democrats for nearly two decades for a reason — she is indisputably effective.
Before uniting Democrats on two impeachments, she was instrumental in passing former president Barack Obama’s health care reforms as well as massive economic packages both after the 2008 financial crisis and the ongoing Covid pandemic.
“You didn’t come here to be in a popularity contest, you came here to get a job done,” she said in 2010, shortly before losing the speaker’s gavel in a Republican wave election.
“If I were not effective they wouldn’t care about me.”
– Principled but strategic –
Pelosi may be partisan in her goals but she has succeeded thanks to cold-eyed realism, including working when needed with former president George W. Bush even while fiercely opposing his invasion of Iraq.
Pelosi initially resisted calls from Democrats to impeach Trump, fearing the effects of overreach, but felt she had no choice after he was caught holding up US aid to Ukraine as he pressed a conspiracy theory on Biden.
The December 2019 impeachment poisoned her relationship with Trump, who had voiced respect for her after she led Democrats to win back control of the House a year earlier.
When Trump came to the Capitol after his impeachment to deliver his State of the Union address, Pelosi cooly tore up his speech at the end, instantly changing the night’s narrative.
In an interview last year with Elle magazine, Pelosi said she did not care about criticism from Trump “because he’s always projecting.”
“He knows he’s crazy; it’s so self-evident,” she said.
Pelosi has shown no reluctance to hit back at Trump rhetorically, saying he was at risk for Covid because he is “morbidly obese” and describing his fixation with building a wall on the Mexican border as a “manhood” issue.
– Enforcing unity –
The granddaughter of Italian immigrants, Pelosi was born in Baltimore where her father, Thomas D’Alesandro, was a mayor and congressman who showed her retail politics and staunchly backed Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.
She moved to San Francisco with her husband, businessman Paul Pelosi, and raised five children while delving into Democratic politics before being elected to Congress at age 47.
Taking up causes important to a city with major LGBTQ and Asian-American communities, Pelosi fought to fund AIDS research and pressed human rights in China.
She remains a vocal ally of Tibet’s spiritual leader the Dalai Lama and won eternal antipathy from China’s communist leaders when, on a 1991 visit, she defiantly unfurled a banner in Tiananmen Square in honor of pro-democracy students killed in a crushed uprising.
While easily reelected every two years, she became seen as a centrist by standards of proudly left-wing San Francisco as she sought legislative compromise.
In 2007, she rose to speaker of the House, second in line to the presidency, making her the highest-ranking woman in US history — a feat she will hold for another week until the inauguration of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.
From an office always stocked with San Francisco-made Ghiradelli chocolate, Pelosi has deftly whipped up Democratic votes with tools at her disposal — committee assignments and her prolific fund-raising.
In a sign of her power, Pelosi faced no rivals to her reelection as speaker last week after previous opposition by Democrats seeking a more centrist or younger leader.
She has promised to retire in 2022 and her final two years could be difficult even without Trump as she will need to keep uniting Democrats who are down to their slimmest majority in a century.
“She’s had one finger in the dyke and one finger in the eye of Donald Trump,” Democratic Representative Gerald Connolly said after her win.
by Shaun TANDON