After Nancy Pelosi: A San Francisco Race 'That Will Not Be Named'

Jane Kim, former supervisor and executive director of the California Working Families Party, during a mayoral campaign event in San Francisco, Calif., on June 6, 2018. (Josh Haner/The New York Times)

Jane Kim, former supervisor and executive director of the California Working Families Party, during a mayoral campaign event in San Francisco, Calif., on June 6, 2018. (Josh Haner/The New York Times)

SAN FRANCISCO — Nancy Pelosi has made two very different, almost irreconcilable statements about her political future.

In 2018, she promised that 2022 would be her final year as House Democratic leader, agreeing to a term limit to quell an uprising and secure a second term as speaker. In January, she announced that she would be running for another two-year term in the House.

With the House passing a sweeping measure to address climate change and prescription drug prices on Friday, “a glorious day for us,” Pelosi said, and her trip to Taiwan to challenge China that served as culmination of the diplomatic career, the question of what comes next for Pelosi is only intensifying.

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Will she push to stay on as speaker if Democrats somehow control the House? Or, if the Republicans take over, will she just walk away?

He could break his 2018 promise and seek to remain the Democratic leader in the minority. Those close to her describe only one option as inconceivable: a demotion to the rear bench.

Pelosi, 82, avoided discussing her plans last November and declined to be interviewed. A spokesman, Drew Hammill, issued the same terse statement he offered earlier: “The speaker is not on a shift,” she said. “She is on a mission.”

Some clues about Pelosi’s future can be found closer to her home in San Francisco, where the tantalizing possibility that the city has an open seat in Congress since the fall of the Soviet Union has become the political talking point. from the city.

Potential candidates, labor leaders, political strategists, donors and activists are already busy planning what a race to succeed her might look like, albeit almost secretly, to avoid alienating Pelosi, who has made it clear she wants to retire on her own. terms.

“This is very much the campaign that will not be named,” Dan Newman, a San Francisco-based Democratic operative, said of the early pushes. “Nancy Pelosi is a force of nature, and no one wants to appear disrespectful or dismissive in any way.”

In interviews, more than a dozen officials said local Democrats were bracing for the possibility that Pelosi might resign rather than stay and hand the hammer to a Republican. That would trigger an early special election in San Francisco, to be held in 150 days, a sprint for what, given city politics, could amount to a de facto lifetime appointment to Congress.

Adding to the intrigue: A possible successor is Pelosi’s daughter, Christine Pelosi, a party activist and Democratic National Committee executive committee member who is an adviser to her mother, has written a book about her and often accompanies her to local union halls, speeches and parades. . She launches her online opinions of her from a Twitter handle, @sfpelosi, that might at first glance be mistaken for one her mother might use.

Wrapped up in the elder Pelosi’s decision and her timing are intertwined questions of power, legacy and dynasty, and how fully a notoriously competitive and barrier-breaking public figure can manage her exit.

There’s also Washington politics: Pelosi called herself “a bridge to the next generation of leaders” four years ago, signaling her desire for her departure to coincide with that of her fellow octogenarian lieutenants, Representatives Steny Hoyer, 83. years, and James Clyburn, 82. Neither of them has agreed.

In San Francisco, similarly, Pelosi’s name remains cherished, but there is no guarantee of a controlled succession.

A popular state senator, Scott Wiener, whose district overlaps with Pelosi’s, is seen as laying the groundwork for a campaign. Wiener spent nearly $2.5 million on his re-election and has been courting supporters under the guise of good politics, though his ambitions to become San Francisco’s first openly gay congressman are an open secret.

In an interview at a Brazilian patisserie, the 6-foot-7 Wiener refused to even mention the possibility of a post-Pelosi era. “The longer you stay, the better for our country,” he said. “I’m on Nancy’s team.”

It was a comment in keeping with what Tony Winnicker, a longtime local Democratic strategist, called “the first rule of wanting to run for Nancy Pelosi’s seat.”

“You never talk about it in a way that suggests Nancy will ever leave,” he said.

Christine Pelosi also declined to comment.

As a former chair of the state Democratic Party women’s caucus, the 56-year-old Pelosi has been outspoken in the fight against sexual harassment.

Increasingly, she and Wiener, 52, cross paths at local events, like a Pride breakfast at which he and the elderly Pelosi made speeches. “This has been a family affair for us for over 30 years,” Nancy Pelosi said, acknowledging her daughter’s presence. She (she also recognized Wiener).

Just as she has in Washington, where she has outlasted a generation of potential male successors — Rahm Emanuel, Chris Van Hollen and Joseph Crowley among them — Pelosi has kept a string of ambitious local officials in suspense since 1987.

Willie Brown, a former San Francisco mayor, said those planning House campaigns were smart to start, even if it’s a little premature. In an interview over lunch, he speculated that Pelosi would eventually prove to be a powerful ally for his daughter.

“If her mother isn’t around, Christine would be a formidable candidate,” Brown said. “Because her mother would make her a formidable candidate.”

Few expect the speaker to reveal her intentions until November. Doing so sooner could reduce her influence over the slim Democratic majority in the House, not to mention her power as a fundraiser. She is hosting a major donor retreat in Napa, California, next weekend.

Every time your House seat opens up, it will be an opportunity not only to succeed the first female speaker in US history, but also to represent a city that has long overwhelmed its weight in politics. nation, despite having a smaller population than Columbus, Ohio. .

The No. 2 and No. 3 officials in the presidential line of succession, Vice President Kamala Harris, once the city’s district attorney, and Pelosi, both got their political start in San Francisco. Democrats emerging in the city’s notoriously cutthroat liberal politics, from Gov. Gavin Newsom to Sen. Dianne Feinstein to Pelosi, have found ways to placate warring factions of the Democratic Party.

“Struggling gives you strength,” said Debra Walker, an artist and activist who was president of the Harvey Milk LGBTQ Democratic Club. Walker was appointed to the San Francisco Police Commission in June as Mayor London Breed sought to defuse a rift between the San Francisco Police Department and the city’s annual Pride Parade organizers, who had sought to ban officers march in uniform

Even among Pelosi’s friends and allies, some have questioned whether Christine Pelosi, who wrote a book on campaigns but never ran for office, is sufficiently prepared.

“I would rather see Christine start at the state level than in Congress,” said Joe Cotchett, a major Democratic donor and family friend.

Cotchett hoped that Nancy Pelosi would support her daughter, up to a point. “Do I think Nancy will put pressure on her? Emotionally, she is her daughter,” she said. “But I don’t think Nancy is the type of person who would step in and try to stop anyone from coming forward.”

If the elderly Pelosi is known for her skillful management of relationships, that has been less true for Christine, whose years as an activist have included pushing for DNC resolutions, trying to ban corporate contributions, demanding a climate debate by 2020, sometimes to party exasperation. officials

Her last name has insulated her from public criticism, but hidden frustrations have increased, according to half a dozen officials on both coasts.

She antagonized Newsom’s team, for example, when she suggested during the 2021 retreat that Newsom should resign if he seemed likely to lose. Publicly, she sought to undermine Newsom’s core strategy of labeling the impeachment a Republican power grab. Privately, she was texting Newsom directly to complain about his tactics, according to two people briefed on the messages she sent.

Newsom defeated the recall in a landslide.

In a city where politics is often personal and confrontational, Wiener has also racked up criticism.

“People talk about it all the time,” Mike Casey, president of the San Francisco Labor Council, said of the race to succeed Nancy Pelosi. “But mostly, like, who we don’t want. Like, Scott Wiener has really gotten into the trades and a lot of our bad sides.”

And while Wiener and Christine Pelosi are progressives by any national standard, neither would necessarily satisfy the city’s ideological purists, a wing that might as well field a candidate. “I haven’t ruled it out,” said Jane Kim, a 45-year-old former supervisor and executive director of the Working Families Party of California.

Jen Snyder, a San Francisco-based strategist who works with progressives, might have little enthusiasm for a Pelosi-Wiener contest.

“It will be Mothra versus Godzilla,” Snyder said. “I guess I’ll be on the sidelines eating popcorn.”

Another possible candidate is Breed, the first black female mayor. She has indicated she is not interested in a run for Congress, according to people close to her.

“I can tell you that as a friend of hers, she’s not,” said Lee Houskeeper, a local public relations veteran, who joined Brown for the lunch interview.

“I can tell you that as a friend of hers, she better be,” Brown chimed in.

Clint Reilly, who ran Nancy Pelosi’s congressional campaign in 1987 and has known her family ever since, initially refused to speak. “Leave me alone!” he insisted. “They won’t be happy with anything I say!”

But Reilly, an investor who now owns The San Francisco Examiner, agreed to talk, including about how Pelosi won that first race, defeating a gay rival, Harry Britt, who ran to her left, in a multi-candidate scrum.

His prophetic catchphrase: “A voice that will be heard.”

If the Democrats lose in November, Reilly said, “most people would call him at that point.” But not necessarily Pelosi. “She loves the game,” she said. “She hates losing.

“How it ends?” he said. “I don’t think even she knows the answer.”

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