Pelosi Aims To Recast Self, Party

Incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi is
Incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi is "trying to embody the Democratic Party that she would like to offer" in 2008, a communication expert said. (By Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)

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By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 22, 2006

On a scale associated with presidential inaugurations, Nancy Pelosi is planning four days of celebration surrounding her Jan. 4 swearing-in as the first female speaker of the House. She will return to the blue-collar Baltimore neighborhood where she grew up, attend Mass at the women's college where she studied political science, and dine at the Italian Embassy as Tony Bennett sings "I Left My Heart in San Francisco."

But the hoopla is more than just a party.

Pelosi is grabbing the moment to present herself as the new face of the Democratic Party and to restore the party's image as one hospitable to ethnic minorities, families, religion, the working class and women.

"This is important strategic repositioning," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, who teaches political communication and rhetoric at the University of Pennsylvania. "Essentially, she's trying to embody the Democratic Party that she would like to offer the nation in 2008."

In her meticulous selection of events and venues during a week when she expects to attract media attention from as far away as Australia, Pelosi is clearly trying to bury the label "San Francisco liberal" that Republicans tried to affix to her during the midterm elections.

" 'San Francisco liberal' is a construct used very effectively for a long time by Republicans," Jamieson said. "It's a little like 'Taxachusetts.' It's telegraphic and very powerful. They haven't been able to get her identified with it because, to this point, a lot of people didn't know who she was. She's trying to position a counterimage before she gets well known."

Brendan Daly, Pelosi's spokesman, said the four-day celebration befits a historic moment in American politics. "We've never had a woman speaker before," Daly said. "This is a big deal."

Newt Gingrich (Ga.) took two days to celebrate his election as speaker when the Republicans formally took control of Congress in 1995. They were largely filled with speeches that outlined his "Contract With America" and fleshed out the ideology of the Republican revolution.

Pelosi's mission is entirely different. She is planning events that will highlight select parts of her personal life while muting her liberal voting record and ideology. "She's showing all the ways she shares other women's lives," said Celinda Lake, a Democratic strategist. "It reminds me of the way Sandra Day O'Connor introduced herself when she was nominated to be the first woman on the Supreme Court -- she talked about growing up on a ranch, working as a secretary, all the dimensions of her life."

Ken Sunshine, a communications consultant for entertainers and Democratic politicians, said Pelosi is not creating a false persona.

"If she's going to Mass, right on," Sunshine said. "Going to Baltimore, right on. This is really where she's from. She wasn't born in an elite setting. Here's a wife, mother, grandmother, and in her spare time, she becomes speaker of the House. I don't know if this is a new brand, but it's true about her. Why should the Republicans have a lock on those qualities?"

Pelosi's public relations offensive follows some missteps that marred her first few weeks after the elections, including a stinging defeat when she backed Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) over Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) for the job of House majority leader and a very public spat with Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), who was passed over for the chairmanship of the House intelligence committee.


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