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‘I feel balanced about it all’: Nancy Pelosi reflects on two decades at the top

As the iconic California Democrat decides to step back from leadership, she will have to learn a new pace of life

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) delivers remarks on the House floor of the Capitol in Washington on Nov. 17. (Elizabeth Frantz for The Washington Post )
8 min

In her first campaign for Congress, Nancy Pelosi adopted a slogan that proved prophetic: “A voice that will be heard.”

It appeared on campaign mailers, billboards, anything. The California Democrat has kept a version of it in her basement, with the slogan emblazoned on the photo of her family celebrating her victory in 1987, but on Thursday, Pelosi brought it with her to the Capitol to serve as a reminder of how far she climbed in these halls of power.

For the past 20 years, that voice has been heard as the leader of the Democratic caucus, including eight highly productive years as speaker of the House. Now Pelosi, 82, has decided to hand off the reins to a younger generation and return to the life of backbench lawmaker, trying to clean up some priorities for her San Francisco district before retiring from Congress altogether somewhere down the line.

Her voice will carry much less consequence and, as she explained to a small group of reporters after announcing her stepping down on the chamber floor, Pelosi will have to learn a new pace of life that goes against another longtime motto:

“Resting is rusting.”

She has been a whirling dervish of activity. The legislative accomplishments range from massive expansions of health care to hundreds of billions of new dollars to fight climate change. She led the response to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol and she gaveled shut two impeachment roll calls of Donald Trump.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says she has ‘survivor’s guilt’ from husband’s attack

She estimates that she had to raise about $1 million a day, five days a week, and aides believe she’s raised nearly $1.3 billion for Democratic campaigns the past 20 years.

Her voice sounded relieved Thursday, a bit unburdened by a decision that has been months in the making and took an extra nine days because the fate of the Democratic majority hung on the slow counts of very close elections. Finally, late Wednesday, the Republicans secured their 218th vote in the House, her majority was gone and she sent word that she would announce her decision in a floor speech to a half-packed chamber — only a couple dozen Republicans showed up — as most knew this meant she would leave.

“I feel balanced about it all,” Pelosi told the reporters.

She chose the Board of Education room on the Capitol’s first floor for the hour-long session with a handful of reporters. It’s a small but ornate room that had been the provenance of male speakers in the past — “A euphemism for camaraderie, cards, whatever,” she said of the “board” title — that she has updated with commemorations to the 19th Amendment, women’s suffrage and the Golden Gate Bridge.

Democrats “won” the midterm election, in her estimation, by dramatically overperforming expectations. “We won the ground” with voter turnout efforts, she said, that defied historical projections that President Biden’s party should have lost at least 20 seats.

If not for the politics of New York — a judge overthrowing the original district map and Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) “had a problem” that depressed votes in Long Island and the Hudson Valley — Democrats would have held the House, according to Pelosi.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Nov. 17 said she won’t seek reelection to lead the Democratic caucus and that it’s time for a "new generation." (Video: The Washington Post)

That prospect might have prompted a different decision than retiring. “I would have prayed over it, I would have prayed over it,” the Italian Catholic speaker said when asked about that possibility.

The Oct. 28 attack on her husband, Paul Pelosi, in their San Francisco home came at a time when she was leaning toward retiring as leader, but it almost prompted her to continue as leader.

“If anything it made me think again about staying. ... No, it had the opposite effect. I couldn’t give them that satisfaction,” she said.

Instead, she plans to devote a lot of her time out of leadership to affairs that she has not focused on over the past 20 years. While she will not take a seat on any legislative committees, she said she needs to shore up some projects for San Francisco. She needs to go through all her papers to get them ready for the Library of Congress while also sitting for long interviews with the House historians.

She floated the idea of writing a book, but Pelosi made clear that she does not want to be seen as a hovering adviser to the new group of leaders, with Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) atop the list as her most likely successor.

She invoked a Thanksgiving dinner metaphor for wanting to stay out of the way of Jeffries, 52, who was still in high school when Pelosi won her first House race.

“I have no intention of being the mother-in-law in the kitchen saying, ‘My son doesn’t like the stuffing that way, this is the way we make it in our family.’ They will have their vision, they will have their plan,” Pelosi said.

For all the talk of generational change, Pelosi views time inside the legislative trenches as the most important key to success. “It helps to have legislative experience. There’s a lot to be said for experience,” she said.

That included negotiating a very necessary, but very unpopular, $700 billion bailout of Wall Street in 2008; the nearly year-long slog to pass the Affordable Care Act in 2010; a new North American trade deal in 2019; and about $5 trillion in funds to battle the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 and 2021.

Her negotiating style could drive lawmakers mad. Fellow Democrats came to believe she would play with the temperature in her office during long negotiations. She once boasted about how she would starve lawmakers if they weren’t really negotiating, then serve them tons of food once talks started to heat up.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced on Nov. 17 that she will not seek reelection as the House Democratic caucus’s top leader. (Video: Michael Cadenhead/The Washington Post)

Some days she had to dismiss liberals who wanted to pass Medicare-for-all — “there aren’t 218 districts where that would be the right approach” — and other days she had to infuriate moderates who thought she went too far on climate legislation.

Her philosophy came down to a friend today could be an enemy tomorrow, but today’s enemy might be her most loyal supporter tomorrow.

“So one day you don’t get your way, the rest of us come to a compromise. You’re annoyed, you’re some fringe element, but you vote with us because tomorrow might be your day,” she explained. “I call it a kaleidoscope and you just turn that dial.”

Pelosi has led House Democrats with an unflinching grasp on the caucus

But she also became the face that Republicans focused on in political attack ads that painted her image in the most negative light, with hundreds of millions spent tying Democrats to Pelosi over the last 15 years.

Each turn as speaker followed a familiar arc: two years of jousting with a Republican president while cinching some big deals, followed by two years of aggressive liberal agenda items with a Democratic president.

And then a midterm loss that gave the majority to Republicans.

But those losses were worth it given the stakes of the agenda she secured, particularly this most recent midterm in which House Republicans will have roughly the same narrow margin that she has governed with the past two years.

She dismissed questions about the abilities of her counterpart, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who did not show up to her farewell address, for struggling to find enough support to claim the speaker’s gavel.

“Why do you ask?” she said. “Is he going to be speaker?”

Pelosi places all the blame for the partisan polarization that has engulfed this era at the feet of Republicans, who she called “anti-science, anti-government” for their actions of the last decade.

“So what would I have done differently? Won more elections and not given them the power to do what they did,” she said. “Make sure that a creature like Donald Trump never became president of the United States.”

Pelosi has always carved her own path, growing up with five older brothers who doted on her. She left Baltimore behind, where her father and brother would serve as mayor, for life on the West Coast with her venture capitalist husband.

After raising five of her own children and serving in Democratic fundraising circles, Pelosi jumped into a special election in 1987 when a mentor, Sala Burton, encouraged her to run just before her death.

Still, her father sent her brother, Tommy D’Alesandro III, out to check on the campaign to make sure things were going well. He reported back that things were just fine, and a little while later she won, a moment captured about a “voice” that would dominate Washington.

“And it was a voice that was heard,” Pelosi said Thursday.