The sum is staggering by any measure: Since she first joined leadership in 2002, Nancy Pelosi has raised more than a half-billion dollars for fellow Democrats, making her the most prolific fundraiser in Congress.
And on her way to amassing this small fortune — $521.9 million to be exact, including $93.1 million this election cycle — she has unquestionably become one of the most powerful politicians in Washington. Ask her whether being a woman has anything to do with that success, and she’ll give you a look that conveys how irrelevant she thinks her gender should be.
Pelosi thinks that achieving power is just that: “Power is when you have the power. The ability to make change … being speaker of the House — that’s real power.”
In interviews for a project on “Women in Power,” The Washington Post talked to Pelosi about the sources of her strength and her leadership style. She dismissed questions about whether being a woman — the first to become House minority whip (2001), then minority leader (2003) and finally speaker of the House (2007) — helped or hindered her ambitions. Her short answer: Neither.
Pelosi may not think her gender had any effect on her rise, but she openly discusses sexist attitudes toward women on Capitol Hill and the men who have tried — and failed — to stand in her way.
Her Democratic detractors mainly complain that she is a fierce partisan whose tight grasp on the highest position in her party’s congressional leadership is supported by a narrow circle of allies, a system that does not allow others to lead. Republicans say they don’t trust her word in negotiations.
But Pelosi’s clout may expand further after November if her Democrats gain the 30 House seats needed to retake the majority and she again claims the speaker’s gavel.
As she prepares to address the Democratic National Convention, it is the focus of her energies.
“I think we have enough seats that are possibilities. But remember this: Donald Trump is a gift that keeps on giving,” Pelosi said in a recent interview at the Delancey Street Restaurant in her home of San Francisco. “In our districts, he is a total gift.”
“I would have told you if we were sitting here around Christmastime, as a friend, honestly, credibly, 20 seats,” she said at the end of June.
“Now, I think we would win,” she said. “Except [the election] is not today.”
Nonetheless, there are some signs that Democrats could retake the House majority. The latest polls show voters narrowly prefer Democrats over Republicans candidates. The battlefield has expanded from 16 to 38 competitive seats, according to the House Democrats’ campaign arm.
If Pelosi reclaims the speakership, it will probably be because another woman — Hillary Clinton — has won the White House. Such a scenario would produce a watershed moment in Washington and American politics: Two women, for the first time ever, would control the levers of power on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.
The possibility comes as female leaders are assuming control across the globe. If elected, Clinton would be the third woman to lead one of the world’s five largest economies in 2016, joining British Prime Minister Theresa May and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Pelosi is not surprised that such potential exists, despite Washington “being a male-dominated pecking-order kind of place” in which men “had it all kind of lined up” before women “broke the line.”
In talking about power, Pelosi said it actually has a narrower definition than some might think — it’s not influence or persuasion, but numbers: How many women are in leadership positions? How many have control of the agenda or the gavel of a congressional committee?
But power is also about the issues that women can influence. For too long, she says, women were expected to confine their interests to family issues, leaving men to decide matters of national security and economic affairs. She seeks to ensure that women have a leading voice on all issues before Congress.
“It is not that women are better,” she said. “The beauty is in the mix.”
By this metric, the mix is indeed getting more beautiful: In 2001, when Pelosi was elected minority whip, there were 74 women in Congress (53 Democrats and 21 Republicans). Today there are 104 (76 and 28).
Although Democrats are in the minority, women hold ranking-member positions on six House and six Senate panels; Republican women chair just one standing committee each in the House and the Senate.
Money is also muscle, and Pelosi has plenty of it — she was credited with raising nearly 60 percent of all donations for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in the first quarter of 2016. She raised $14.2 million of the $24.9 million the DCCC recorded in April.
Pelosi’s 2016 fundraising totals have allowed her to outpace her closest fundraising rival, former House speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who donated nearly $100 million to House Republicans during his career, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Boehner had already raised $33 million for House Republicans’ 2016 reelection efforts when he resigned, according to former longtime aide David Schnittger.
By Pelosi’s own definition, though, Democratic women still fall short.
“Power is not influence — they will have these magazine articles that have the 100 most influential people in the world. I’ll look at it and think: ‘That’s interesting. That’s influence, that’s not necessarily power,’ ” she said.
Since winning her first leadership race for whip in 2001, Pelosi has steadily been accruing power, though she said in the interviews that she “wasn’t ambitious” and instead focused for 12 years on issues important to her such as appropriations and intelligence.
The mother of five children and daughter of a former congressman and Baltimore mayor, she won her first House race in 1987. “Early on people came to me and said I should run for leadership,” she said.
That race 15 years ago for minority whip is infamous on Capitol Hill for the intensity with which it was fought between Pelosi and Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.). They spent two years raising money for the contest and battling for the support of their colleagues. Pelosi won by 23 votes, a definitive margin in a potential electorate of a little more than 200.
But Pelosi said that some male colleagues did not even want her to run, recommending instead that she and other House women “write a list” of their demands that the men would take into account.
“When I said I was going for whip, the comments were like, ‘Who said she could run?” as if some man had to tell me it was okay to run,” she recalled. “Then they saw the women, there were so many of us, and they said, ‘Why don’t you just make a list and we’ll do that for you?'”
“We’re going to make a list, and you’re going to do it for us?” she said. “No. We’re going to compete.”
At the time, Pelosi’s fellow leaders saw an unusually gifted politician with an unparalleled sense of timing and an ability to inspire fierce loyalty from her allies, traits that would come to define the congresswoman as she moved up.
Then-Democratic Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) said Pelosi made a major impression on him from the first time he met her in 1984, when she was the chair of the Democratic National Convention in California.
“She was a leader from the beginning,” Gephardt in an interview. “She will be seen in history as an exceptional leader, putting aside entirely her gender.”
“She knows how this place works,” said former Michigan congressman David E. Bonior, who preceded Pelosi in the whip job. “She’s very good at remembering. She remembers who her friends are. She is very, very good at that.”
Pelosi acknowledges that she knows who stands with her and who doesn’t. “I do have a good memory. Unfortunately for some,” she laughed. “But I always say, ‘Don’t worry, it’s always easier to forgive than forget.’ Tomorrow is always a new day for me.”
Loyalty, a disciplined message and old-fashioned political skill helped lift Pelosi to minority leader and then to speaker after Democrats reclaimed the House majority in 2006. She recalled how she felt when she attended her first meeting at the White House in leadership. She was the only woman.
“It was a small group at a table,” she said. “When the door closed behind me I realized that this was not like any other meeting I had been to at the White House. It wasn’t like any other meeting that any woman had been to at the White House.”
When Obama was elected, Pelosi became his fierce partner on the Hill, helping the president push through legacy-defining legislation such as a landmark economic stimulus package and the Affordable Care Act, as well as a controversial cap-and-trade climate change legislation that only passed the House.
But that partisanship resulted in repeated clashes with Republicans and contributed to Democrats losing their House majority in 2010. Moderate Democrats, whose election helped Pelosi become speaker, were defeated by voters angry about the agenda Pelosi helped Obama enact.
Most rank-and-file Republicans don’t trust Pelosi and have trotted out her name over the years in campaign ads as a warning to voters of who will be in charge if they side with Democrats.
Republican leaders have frequently chafed at her negotiating tactics, though they air those criticisms mostly privately. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) wrote about Pelosi’s leadership style during the 2012 budget negotiations in “The Long Game,” his autobiography released earlier this year.
“Her role in these meetings (as with most meetings) was to come with one talking point and repeat it again and again,” McConnell wrote. “On this day, the talking point she’d been handed must have said ‘Don’t forget the children.’ She must have uttered this phrase a dozen times in her attempts to get us to change our thinking on the death tax.”
Still, Pelosi remains securely in her leadership post with hardly a whiff of discontent among her fellow House Democrats, stability that has eluded Republicans in recent years. After losing the majority in 2010, a small group of them grumbled that they wanted to replace her as Democratic leader but were quickly silenced.
House Democrats, past and present, largely avoid criticizing Pelosi. But when they do, the frustration is largely focused on how long she has maintained a grasp on the top leadership slot — which dictates all of the other openings — reflecting a desire by some to revamp the seniority structure to give fresh faces a chance.
Pelosi and her inner circle bristle at this critique. They point to a long list of up-and-comers, such as Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), the 44-year-old Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman, who were hand-selected by her to join leadership in recent years.
Pelosi is reluctant to discuss the difficulties of being a woman in Washington, preferring to emphasize her can-do attitude. Even so, she is careful not to diminish the problem of sexism she still sees in politics.
During her early days in leadership, reporters scrutinized her image. Aides were peppered with questions about her hair, her shoes and other aspects of her appearance. Reporters speculated about whether she was making major decisions guided solely by her gender, her former longtime aide Brendan Daly said.
“Sometimes when she would oppose something, even on a substantive issue, people would question if she opposed it as a woman,” Daly said. “Her attitude was that if people felt that way, it was their problem.”
That dynamic was on full display in 2005, when a small aircraft strayed into restricted airspace near Capitol Hill. Pelosi lost a shoe in the chaos as she was picked up by her security detail and moved to a secure location.
The pink slingback was later recovered by Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.), who delivered it to Pelosi later that week at her weekly news conference. Aides remember the moment when Reichert, on one knee, presented the shoe as a kind and funny gesture during a tense moment in post-9/11 Washington.
They do not recall as fondly the media coverage that followed — dozens of stories about Pelosi’s Cinderella moment and a robust debate over the exact color of her shoes.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) — a longtime ally and friend — said Pelosi has a unique ability to read the political landscape and make fellow House Democrats feel heard.
“She’s got a very, very good sense of her, for lack of a better word, the political bandwidth she’s operating in,” he said. “She is a team builder, and she expects other people to be team players.”
That approach was key last month when Democrats staged a 26-hour sit-in on the House floor to push for votes on gun control. House Democrats were angry after the mass shooting in Orlando that claimed the lives of 49 people in a gay nightclub.
Democrats decided on a ’60s-style sit-in to attract attention, boosted by a social media campaign and coordination with outside groups Pelosi had prearranged. The sit-in attracted national attention and prompted millions to tune in to social media and C-SPAN to watch Democrats congregate on the House floor in the wee hours of the morning.
But it might not have happened this way if Pelosi hadn’t blessed the action.
Pelosi, a Catholic, said she relayed a parable to Democrats. In it, a cardinal tested his fellow clergy by telling them the Pope needed a heart transplant. When everyone volunteered to help, the cardinal said he would throw a feather in the air and whomever it landed on would become the donor. As the feather fell, each person said “Take my heart!” while trying desperately to blow the feather away.
Democrats laughed, but Pelosi’s message was clear: If you’re in, you’re in. Don’t disappoint me.