Nancy D’Alesandro Pelosi, the first woman speaker of the House and arguably America’s most important political figure of the last 20 years, took a bow Wednesday night.
Fellow lawmakers, former staffers, family and friends of Pelosi’s crowded Statuary Hall for the unveiling of her official portrait. Joined by her husband, Paul, she pulled back blue curtains to reveal the painting, which shows her on Jan. 4, 2007, the day she was first elected speaker.
Pelosi’s two-decade reign as the Democrats’ leader in the House will come to an end in just a few weeks’ time. As she said she would, Pelosi announced last month that she would step aside for new leadership. Her Democratic successor, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, was at the unveiling, seated to the right of Kevin McCarthy, the Republican minority leader expected, but far from assured, to take over as speaker. To McCarthy’s left sat Steny Hoyer, Pelosi’s longtime No. 2 in the House and greatest intraparty rival.
Pelosi has been called the “most powerful woman in U.S. history,” “one of the most consequential political figures of her generation” and the most effective speaker in a century. And that was all about her first run as speaker, before she led her party back into the majority in 2018, before she ushered in a series of massive legislative accomplishments, including COVID-19 relief packages, the bipartisan infrastructure bill, the Inflation Reduction Act, and the Respect for Marriage Act, before she led Congress back to finish its work last year on Jan. 6.
Before the big moment, Pelosi was feted by Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, fellow California Democrats Zoe Lofgren and Lucille Roybal-Allard, and former Speaker John Boehner. They were joined by Little Lobbyists co-founder Elena Hung, singer Denyce Graves and — via video — former President Barack Obama.
The famously weepy Boehner choked up at one point. “My girls told me, tell the speaker how much we admire her,” he said through tears, to sustained applause.
“If you couldn’t tell, my girls are Democrats,” he then quipped.
The ceremony was full of elegiac moments like that, with echoes of the past stirring emotions and inspiring laughs. Boehner noted that the same artist who did his portrait painted Pelosi’s — Ron Sherr, who recently died.
When she became the Democrats’ minority leader in 2003, she ran as an outsider, an irony now. Conservatives celebrated, thinking her San Francisco values would pay them political dividends for years. She was a San Francisco liberal, after all, someone who opposed the Iraq War but supported LGBTQ rights — surely real American voters would reject her and her party by extension.
Instead, voters across the nation slowly came around to seeing things the way Pelosi did. A decadeslong strategy of running against Pelosi has shown mixed electoral results for the GOP, at best, while she has secured nearly every legislative goal she set out to win in her career.
We call it Obamacare, but the Affordable Care Act is just as much her baby as his. After Democrats lost Ted Kennedy’s seat in the Senate, the White House was ready to fold, to try passing just a few elements; Pelosi called that a “namby-pamby approach.” In the end, it passed by just a few votes in the House. It would cost many of those “yea” votes their political careers and Democrats control of the House, but Pelosi always knew it was a worthy tradeoff — just ask someone like Elena Hung, who told the crowd gathered Wednesday what the ACA meant to her.
Hung described how the law’s caps on lifetime insurance benefits meant that she was covered for the five months her daughter, Xiomara, spent in a neonatal intensive care unit, tallying up $3 million in medical bills. And that meant “a chance at childhood” for her now 8-year-old.
Pelosi is not without her detractors, setting aside her political opponents. In the minority, she embraced a strategy of obstruction, believing a unified Democratic opposition would return her party to power, even as it fueled partisan polarization. In the majority, she furthered a trend of centralizing power in the speaker’s office. It’s too soon to review her career with the cool objectivity of history.
Pelosi was born to be a politician. Her father was a congressman and mayor of Baltimore, and her mother the real driving force behind his campaigns. After marrying Paul, a financier, and moving to his native San Francisco, Pelosi spent most of her time raising her five doting children. But she also kept active in Democratic politics as a fundraiser, which ultimately led to her chairing the California Democratic Party and taking a lead organizing the 1984 Democratic National Convention. A few years later, she won a 14-way primary for a House seat.
Pelosi might be the most prolific political fundraiser in modern history. In October, The New York Times reported that she had raised $1.25 billion for the Democratic Party since 2002, a staggering sum that still understates how much she’s raised over her lifetime.
That prowess, plus a deft personal touch, powered her rise through the House. But for Pelosi, it was her faith that guided her work through it all.
The ceremony ended with a prayer from Pelosi’s longtime friend Rev. Stephen Privett. Privett, a Jesuit, alluded to the prayer of St. Francis.
“So thank you, Speaker Pelosi, for your long and distinguished career of faith-filled efforts to fashion the world as God would have it be: Where the hungry are fed, the naked clothed, the stranger welcomed and the poor have good news proclaimed to them,” he said.