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A Local Legacy

by Marc Sandalow

A 1987 campaign brochure highlighting Pelosi’s public service, and a moment with President John F. Kennedy


Nancy Pelosi’s national accomplishments are widely celebrated — but her impact on San Francisco is indisputable.

Nancy Pelosi’s ability to deliver to her Bay Area constituents is no doubt enhanced by her standing at the top of House leadership, her seniority, and the combined power of the Bay Area delegation.

However, just like her rise to national prominence, her local accomplishments can be largely attributed to her mastery of the inside game. In contrast to her image as a liberal ideologue promoted by her opponents, Pelosi’s long tenure in Congress — only seven of the House’s 435 members have served longer — has been marked by shrewdness and pragmatism.

Former San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos recalls Pelosi’s “powerful advocacy’’ following the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. She successfully persuaded the Department of Transportation to allow the City to use federal money to demolish, rather than rebuild, the damaged Embarcadero Freeway, which reintegrated the Ferry Building into the downtown landscape.

“HIV/AIDS, affordable fealth care, marriage equality, responding to disasters by building back better,” Agnos continues. “Always with an eye on the future for children and the next generation.”

From pushing the fight against AIDS onto the national agenda to extending BART to the airport, Pelosi has been instrumental in promoting local priorities from the day she was sworn in. In San Francisco, her impact has spanned dozens of projects, collectively valued at over $14 billion: $1.28 billion to clean up Hunters Point Shipyard, $1.2 billion for BART’s Transbay Core Capacity Program, $1 billion for the Central Subway, $639 million for the Salesforce Transit Center.

During her first run for Congress, the 1987 special election to replace the late Sala Burton, she campaigned as “A voice that will be heard.” It was a bold claim for someone who had never held elected office.

But Pelosi was no political neophyte.

Her father, Tommy D’Alesandro Jr., represented Baltimore in Congress when Pelosi was born and served three terms as mayor. Pelosi slept with copies of the Congressional Record stashed under her bed, and the entire family conducted constituent services from their Little Italy home.

A generation later, Pelosi’s Presidio Terrace home was abuzz with politics, with her own five children pitching in to stuff envelopes and serve appetizers at fundraisers. By her first run for Congress in 1987, Pelosi had served as chair of the California Democratic Party, finance chair of the 1986 Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and head of the 1984 Democracy Convention Host Committee. The first time she stepped onto the House floor as San Francisco’s representative, she figured she knew 200 members by name.

Nancy Pelosi is surrounded by her children, Nancy, Alexandra, Paul Jr., Jacqueline and Christine, and husband Paul.

“The gene pool for politics and political operation begins with Nancy Pelosi,’’ former San Francisco Mayor Willie L. Brown Jr. said when Pelosi began her first term as speaker. “If you wanted to infect people with political skills, political operation, Nancy Pelosi would be the repository.’’

Numerous biographies chronicle Pelosi’s mastery ushering President Obama’s 2009 health care plan through a polarized Congress. Her greatest display of legislative acumen, however, may have come more than a decade earlier, when she persuaded a Republican Congress to approve the most expensive national park in history, right in the heart of her own liberal district.

The Presidio of San Francisco had been an Army base since 1846. It was where Gen. John Joseph Pershing was dispatched to chase after Pancho Villa in 1915, and where African American “buffalo soldiers” trained for the Civil War. With remarkable foresight, Congressman Phil Burton — who then represented San Francisco — inserted language in a 1972 bill mandating the National Park Service take over the land if it was ever abandoned by the Army.

Obstacles emerged as soon as the military moved to close the base in 1989. Tens of millions of dollars of cleanup was needed. The price of real estate led some to call for its commercial development, while others insisted it be converted to low-cost housing or even a refuge for the City’s homeless. With an estimated operating cost larger than Yosemite, Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon national parks combined, Republicans were nearly unified in their opposition.

Pelosi spent five years crafting compromise legislation, creating a quasi-governmental agency that would rent the Presidio’s historic buildings and apply the revenue to the park’s upkeep. Her bill initially passed the Democratic House along party lines but stalled in the Senate.

And then Republicans — for the first time in nearly 50 years — won control of the House.

“Losing is not an option,’’ Pelosi told her staff, as she personally invited scores of Republicans to San Francisco, enlisted the help of Republican Governor Pete Wilson, and agreed to concessions including a clause that gave the plan 15 years to succeed, or the land would be deemed surplus.

As the measure passed with a large bipartisan margin, even Republicans marveled at what a San Francisco Democrat had achieved.

Pelosi has the added luxury of a secure seat, winning more than 80 percent of the vote in 12 of her 18 elections. The district is not only Democratic, it is among the nation’s richest, with the median family income double and home prices nearly six times the national average.

It has allowed Pelosi to distribute money to and campaign for Democrats around the country, building up a base of loyal and indebted followers.

History will remember Pelosi as the nation’s first madam speaker.

Agnos says she will also be recognized for her performance “on behalf of all the American people as well as her district in San Francisco.’’

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