Now that she is the highest-ranking female in Congressional history, many people are trying to get the ear of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
But the nucleus of Pelosi’s circle of advisers is someone who is not even a member of her elected leadership team: Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.).
“People joke that the real leadership meeting happens when the two of them meet,” said one top level Democratic aide.
“He is the inner circle,” added one veteran Democratic Member.
When Pelosi made a run for Minority Whip in 2001, Miller was there to help lead her campaign. He was again by Pelosi’s side about a year later when she decided to jump into the race to replace Rep. Richard Gephardt (D) as Minority Leader.
When she was ceremonially sworn into that post, Miller was the Member chosen to introduce her to the crowd. Miller was then tapped for the special leadership assignment of co-chairman of the Steering and Policy Committee, giving him a seat at all of the high-level meetings.
Miller is charged with guiding Caucus policy, and serves as the liaison between the leader and the Democratic Caucus — relaying her thoughts to Members and their ideas and concerns back to Pelosi.
“I am the Hamburger Helper,” Miller said in an interview. “If I can, I try to extend her reach or help other Members get their proposals considered. Obviously, one person can’t hear 200 Members.”
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Robert Matsui, another Californian close to Pelosi, said of Miller: “He’s first among equals. They are just close. They have known each other for years.”
The relationship dates back several decades to when Miller’s father served as a state Senator in California. Miller’s dad was close to then-Democratic Rep. Phil Burton, whose wife, Sala, succeeded him in the House. Pelosi then successfully ran for the late Sala Burton’s seat in 1987.
Burton called Pelosi every Sunday while he was in Congress and she was the chairwoman of the California Democratic Party. He was also close to Miller, who was a colleague in the House at the time.
“Phil adopted him,” a former Pelosi chief of staff said of the political relationship that developed between Burton and Miller.
The former aide said Burton, Miller and Pelosi have “been family forever,” sharing common interests and a similar passion for politics in California and at the national level. The staffer noted it was natural that Pelosi would succeed Sala Burton given the close relationship between the families.
Matsui said Pelosi and Miller share a mutual trust and respect, which is why the Minority Leader shares confidences with her colleague.
“He has her total interests at heart,” said Matsui. “His interests are her interests. And everyone knows it. She knows it, he knows it.”
Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), another personal friend of Pelosi, said of Miller: “George is someone who can be a sounding board and a reliable ally at all times for her.”
“Everybody needs close to them people who over the years you’ve developed a long-term relationship of complete personal respect and friendship and trust where there’s never an issue of loyalty of one to the other,” she said.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), also a close Pelosi colleague who shares the Steering and Policy chairmanship with Miller, disputed suggestions that Miller wields any more influence over Pelosi than her other senior advisers. He does, however, serve a critical and unique role as a close friend who squarely puts the issue before the leader, she said.
“They have the makings for what is a really good back and forth relationship,” DeLauro said. “If he has something to say, he says it.”
Miller, ranking member of the Education and the Workforce Committee, said his relationship with Pelosi dates back long before her days in the House, when Pelosi was fully entrenched in California state politics. Miller said he’s long admired Pelosi for her political savvy, ability to develop personal relationships and policy knowledge.
“I was in her corner from the beginning,” Miller said. “I’ve been around a long time and it’s very rare to see a person get it all right.”
Miller said they interact every day — often several times — to talk Democratic policy and strategy.
“All I can say is they talk all the time,” said a Democratic leadership aide. “She always wants to hear what his opinion is. She has a lot of confidence in him.”
He’s often the one nonelected leader in Pelosi’s high-level private meetings, and according to another leadership aide, “He’s invited to every meeting we have.”
Democratic Members and aides alike say regardless of his leadership post, Miller has more sway with Pelosi than any other Member. And, they say, she has more influence with him than any other colleague.
“She often will sit with him, talk to him before [meetings] or even during them she also refers to him a lot and calls on him,” said one Democratic leadership aide. “But just by referring to him Members get a sense that he’s her go-to person. I think people do get a sense that they meet and discuss a lot on their own.”
Nevertheless, the two Members who are philosophical and political twins have been known to disagree. Pelosi has had to lead from the center at times, and she and Miller have pushed different buttons at vote time, including many appropriations measures and trade.
“I think Pelosi is attempting along the way to try to find a way to be moderate,” said one senior Democratic aide. “Miller may not agree with that philosophy, nor does he need to strive to be a moderate because he’s in a different position than she is.”
At the same time, however, Democratic sources point to situations where Miller has served as a major influence on Pelosi’s decision-making, including last month when the leader decided to join a majority of her Caucus in opposing the $87 billion Iraq supplemental. Pelosi had been leaning toward supporting the bill.
Beyond serving as a communications link for Pelosi, Miller said he also helps the Minority Leader with fundraising and said he will serve as her proxy when called upon.
But Miller insists that he gets no special treatment just because he is close with the Democratic leader. As the policy co-chairman, he receives no additional staff, funding or office space.
“It’s exciting to be in this kind of atmosphere,” Miller said. “It’s a very substantial and serious challenge, and I’m honored to be tapped to play a major role.”