In the midst of a legislative battle with the real estate industry in 1999, I told then-State Senator and now California Democratic Party head John Burton how impressed I was by his tenacity in fighting for our cause. Burton replied, “You think I’m tenacious? I’m a pussycat compared to Nancy.” I knew how proud Burton was of his protégé, Nancy Pelosi, but his description of her as a single-minded “bulldog” never jibed with my own perceptions. Until now. Because when the history of the health care reform effort of 2009-10 is written, Speaker Nancy Pelosi deserves chief credit for making it happen.
In fact, had Pelosi been given complete control of the health campaign from the start, a public option would have been included in the final bill (as was originally passed by the House). President Obama did a tremendous selling job in recent weeks, and helped win the votes of wavering Democrats. But Obama spent several months talking about health care without a clear legislative strategy, placing passage in great peril. It took San Francisco Democrat Nancy Pelosi — channeling the spirit of the late, great arm twister Phillip Burton (whose seat she now holds), to bring the health care bill across the finish line.
To the very end, the health care bill crowded out other progressive issues. In this case, a mammoth March on America for immigration reform whose schedulers never could have anticipated that their event would conflict with a rare Sunday House vote.
This may be the first time in United States history that activists turned out 200,000 for a march and barely got a mention in the media that day. But nobody could have predicted a climactic Sunday session on health care, or that it would stretch to midnite on the East Coast, dominating the television news cycle.
Pelosi and Slaughter Carry the Day
It is clear that top credit for the health care victory goes to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who may have finally won over some in her district who have long argued that she was insufficiently progressive. It was Pelosi who stared down Rahm Emanuel when he argued for a scaled down health bill, and who even got in the President’s face over his lack of legislative strategy.
But let’s not overlook the enormous contribution of Congressmember Louise Slaughter (D-NY), whose history shares many commonalities with Pelosi. As described last week in Talking Points Memo, the procedure Pelosi initially contemplated to pass the House bill became known as the “Slaughter House Rules,” in recognition of the strategic contribution of Slaughter, who chairs the House Rules Committee.
A longtime environmental and peace activist, Slaughter won election to Congress in a very close race in 1986. She became the first Democrat to represent the district since 1910, and the first woman to represent Western New York.
Slaughter was also the first Congressmember whose election was assisted by Neighbor to Neighbor, the national grassroots organization opposed to U.S. military aid to Central America headed by United Farmworkers veteran Fred Ross, Jr. Ross learned from the UFW how to target swing districts and representatives, and his group helped build the grassroots field campaign that brought Slaughter her narrow victory.
Slaughter has been among the nation’s best Congressmembers for over two decades. And now she has played a critical role in the passage of health insurance reform.
Less than a year after Slaughter’s election, Ross and other UFW alums helped elect Nancy Pelosi to Congress. Ross and Paul Milne used “house meetings,” a strategy that Fred Ross Sr. taught to Cesar Chavez, who then used it to build the UFW. Pelosi attended 120 house meetings in only 60 days, and after taking office joined Slaughter in leading the fight against military aid to El Salvador’s right-wing government, and to Nicaragua’s contra rebels (there is a photo of Pelosi and Ross, Jr. at a Neighbor to Neighbor meeting in my book, Beyond the Fields, and Ross later became Pelosi’s district chief of staff).
Pelosi Wins Over Critics on the Left
Like most San Francisco progressives, I did not vote for Nancy Pelosi in that 1987 special election for Congress. I backed then-Supervisor Harry Britt, the Board’s leading tenant advocate and strongest progressive voice.
Pelosi was little known among the city’s progressives, had no track record battling the conservative Feinstein Administration during the 1980’s, and was seen as unqualified to jump from never having served in elected office to becoming a Congressmember.
Even as Pelosi began climbing up the House leadership, and was clearly the most progressive politician close to power in the 1990’s, she was not popular among San Francisco’s left. The San Francisco Bay Guardian has long criticized Pelosi over a range of issues, and her support for the privatization of the Presidio and other issues kept her estranged from the city’s progressives.
I wrote a piece in August 2008 from the Democratic Convention titled “Pelosi a Star: Outside San Francisco,” which described the incredible outpouring of support Pelosi received from the convention crowd after she gave a very powerful speech. But Obama backers saw the future President, not the House Speaker, as the key to progressive success, and this view did not change until the past six months, when it became clear (a) it was Pelosi, not Obama, pushing the public option, and (b) it was Pelosi, not Obama, who knew how to get a health care bill done.
I’ve talked to progressives both locally and across the nation working on a broad range of issues. They overwhelmingly believe that Nancy Pelosi has become the chief political agent for progressive change nationally.
This perspective is backed by political facts. Since 2009, the House has passed the most wide-ranging series of progressive measures since the 1930’s, and this is not because Steny Hoyer is Democratic House Majority Leader.
Nobody blames Nancy Pelosi for the slow pace of health reform, or for Congress’s failure to pass EFCA, tackle immigration reform, enact climate change legislation, provide billions of dollars more for public sector jobs, or for the President’s ill-conceived escalation of war in Afghanistan (which she publicly opposed). In fact, on virtually every issue Pelosi has been in lockstep with progressives, and is often alone in dealing with the White House and Senate in aggressively promoting real change.
Many of us mistakenly thought Barack Obama would be another Lyndon Johnson, in enacting a progressive domestic agenda. But it is now clear that Nancy Pelosi has the necessary Johnson-type skills, as her upbringing as part of Baltimore’s powerful D’Alesandro family (her father and brother served as the city’s Mayor), and her long friendship with Phil and John Burton, imparted her with the skills in legislative infighting that the President is only beginning to grasp.
History will likely view Pelosi’s role in passing the health care bill as her greatest legacy. But a separate milestone is that after two decades, Pelosi may have finally won the appreciation of progressives in San Francisco.
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