Q: Where Is Nancy Pelosi Not a San Francisco Liberal?
A: San Francisco
Not long after Nancy Pelosi’s election as House Minority Leader in November 2002, Washington Post columnist David Broder dubbed the California Democrat “the near-perfect embodiment of a San Francisco liberal.”
Since then, Pelosi has become a political lightning rod, frequently blasted by national Republicans for what they describe as her extreme left-field positions on everything from Social Security to the Iraq war.
So it may come as a surprise to the rest of America that there is a small but vocal contingent in the City by the Bay that disagrees.
“There’s no rhyme or reason to why nationally she’s being accused of being a liberal,” said Bonnie Weinstein, a spokeswoman for the group Bay Area United Against War. “Just because you are a Democrat doesn’t make you liberal when you have reactionary right-winger views.”
“Now that she’s out of the closet politically as a right-leaning Democrat we’ll see what happens to her now,” added California Green Party spokeswoman Beth Moore Haines.
Pelosi, it seems, has a share of hometown detractors — at the far left of the political spectrum.
Helping to lead the charge is Tim Redmond, an editor at the San Francisco Bay Guardian, an alternative weekly, which has run several items over the years highly critical of Pelosi’s positions, from her stance on the war to her support for legislation allowing private development in the Presidio National Park.
“She’s unaccountable, she’s arrogant, she’s hardly ever here,” harrumphed Redmond, adding that he viewed Pelosi’s primary goal as raising money in hopes of one day ascending to the Speakership.
“I would not at all call her a San Francisco liberal,” he said.
Pelosi, Redmond pointed out, only won her initial victory by besting gay city Supervisor Harry Britt (whom Redmond’s paper endorsed) during a special election in 1987 — a contest that pitted “the left of San Francisco against the mainstream of the Democratic Party.”
For years, that “mainstream” has been led by such political legends as former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown and ex-state Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (also a former Congressman), allies of Pelosi’s who ruled Bay Area politics for decades before term limits forced them both to step aside.
Despite these political exits, few believe Pelosi’s position has weakened back home.
Although “there’s an entirely new generation of leadership in San Francisco,” Pelosi’s clout and influence have not been affected, said state Assemblyman Mark Leno (D), a Pelosi friend.
As for her supposed conservativism, Pelosi defenders say the fact that her liberal credentials are even questioned is simply an indication of the San Francisco political landscape.
Americans for Democratic Action, a liberal group that annually ranks Members of Congress for their voting records, continues to give Pelosi a perfect score. The National Journal, which ranks Members from left to right, said Pelosi voted the “liberal” way 86 percent of the time in 2003, the most recent year the magazine has surveyed. Fifty-five of her Democratic colleagues were designated equally or more liberal based on the magazine’s criteria.
In 2002, Pelosi was found to have voted the liberal way 88 percent of the time, and in 2001 it was 94 percent of the time.
“One can always be out-lefted in San Francisco,” said Leno, a former member of the city’s Board of Supervisors. “That’s the beauty and wonder of her Congressional district.”
He added: “We used to joke when I got re-elected supervisor: Since when is the Jewish homosexual who advocates for medical marijuana and transgendered rights … the conservative in the race?”
Other Pelosi friends bluntly rejected the suggestion that there is any discontent brewing. Except for the “f–king Bay Guardian,” Burton said, “everyone in the district seems pretty happy with her.”
David Binder, an independent pollster in San Francisco, said that while Pelosi’s popularity is hardly in danger of plummeting — she just won re-election by near acclamation with 83 percent of the vote — there is “a growing left flank in San Francisco that has been galvanized a bit based on the war. … Their patience with Pelosi and others has worn thin.”
Some critics dislike Pelosi’s pragmatic stands on issues such as gay marriage (she fought to defeat the amendment banning gay marriage on the House floor, but reportedly cautioned San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom against authorizing City Hall to issue marriage licenses to gay couples) and abortion rights (her encouragement of ex-Rep. Tim Roemer (Ind.), an abortion foe, to run for chairman of the Democratic National Committee).
But in a town that has led the nation in anti-war activity, it is really the Iraq conflict that seems to most exercise Pelosi’s left-wing opponents.
In the past two years, hundreds of thousands of individuals have participated in repeated protests against the war in San Francisco. And this past November, more than 60 percent of voters there supported a city ballot measure calling on the United States to withdraw its troops from Iraq.
Given the disquiet with the war and President Bush’s re-election, “people will be looking for targets to turn their attention to,” said the Green Party’s Haines. Pelosi, she noted, could become a focus of the discontent.
“I think she’s completely uninvolved at all in the anti-war movement,” said Weinstein of Bay Area United Against War. “I don’t think she’s really against the war.”
Jennifer Crider, a spokeswoman for Pelosi, called her boss one of the “highest profile, most vocal opponents of the Iraq war in this country.”
She added that Pelosi’s critics may be focusing on some of the leader’s votes in favor of funding the war, which were motivated by the need to ensure that U.S. service personnel were properly equipped and protected in the line of fire.
Although 60 percent of the House Democratic Caucus voted against the initial resolution authorizing the use of force in Iraq, party leaders let Members vote their conscience on the war, and Pelosi has been careful to shield them from political attacks regardless of their position.
Stephen Zunes, a politics professor at the University of San Francisco who has criticized Pelosi’s record on the Iraq war in the Bay Guardian, said that Pelosi’s past positions on Iraq, including support for a resolution praising both the troops and Bush’s “firm leadership and decisive action” in executing the war, and her failure to add her name to a letter last month calling for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, raised questions about her anti-war credentials.
“A city this progressive ought to do better than Pelosi,” he said.
On the other hand, Zunes acknowledged the attraction of Pelosi’s leadership position to her constituents.
“It is very nice to have your Representative be the party leader,” he said.
Leno said he doesn’t question Pelosi’s anti-war credentials or commitment to the gay rights movement and said the Congresswoman is constantly undertaking a delicate balancing act.
“She is wearing more than one hat,” he said. “She’s not a streetfighter in San Francisco. She’s the Minority Leader in the U.S. Congress.”
Asked whether Pelosi was a true San Francisco liberal, Burton rejected the suggestion, but not because she isn’t liberal enough to merit the moniker.
He said the term was first invented at the “[GOP] convention in 1984,” where Jeanne Kirkpatrick used “San Francisco Democrats” to describe the party’s left wing. The appellation, he said, was likely aimed at slurring the city’s gay inhabitants.
“There’s no such goddamn thing as a San Francisco liberal,” Burton added.