As she talks about the nation’s energy policy, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi walks across her Capitol Hill office to retrieve a statue of a miner sculpted in coal.
"My father was a member of Congress when I was born, and when I became a member of Congress almost 50 years later, he gave this to me," she says. "He had this in his office."
She explains Jennings Randolph, the late senator from West Virginia, gave it to her father. Both men had a deep understanding of the importance of coal to their constituents and to the nation.
When Pelosi came into office, the statue helped her connect with Johnstown Democratic Rep. Jack Murtha, too.
"He wanted to know the story behind the miner, and ever since then, we became fast friends, you know, we just became friends because of this guy," Pelosi says, proudly tracing her fingers along the face of the miner.
Pelosi’s family always has played a big role in shaping her identity and how she runs the House. Now those connections — not only as a daughter, but as a mother and grandmother — are helping her set legislative priorities such as reforming health care and energy.
As House speaker, she is arguably the most powerful woman on the planet and the only woman ever to be second in line for the presidency. She learned the basics of running the show as a stay-at-home mom who had five children in six years.
"Never underestimate what happens in a home," Pelosi tells two Tribune-Review reporters and two editors. "All the discipline, diplomacy, sense of organization … I learned it all there."
Political supporters and opponents agree.
Pelosi’s maternal skills have helped her to instill discipline and to demand loyalty within her party, says Kent Gates, a GOP strategist who works with another congresswoman, Republican Rep. Shelley Moore-Capito of West Virginia.
Pelosi "resolves intra-party disputes behind closed doors and presents a unified House majority that should enable her to pass her agenda," Gates says.
Democratic strategist Mark Siegel met Pelosi in 1972 when he was executive director of the Democratic National Committee and she was a delegate to the party’s national convention. Much of her success, survival and ascension in politics began with her strong political family, he says.
"That taught her organizational skills, building up political credit or chits, locking in loyalty and always planning years and years ahead," Siegel says.
‘Get a life’
Until her youngest daughter, Alexandra, was in high school, Pelosi, 69, of San Francisco, stayed home but volunteered in local and statewide politics. The family matriarch decided to run for office only after Alexandra told her to "get a life" outside the noisy Pelosi home.
And so she did: Pelosi ran and won a special election to fill the seat of Democratic Rep. Sala Burton, wife of Rep. Phillip Burton, both of whom died of cancer in office.
Pelosi’s office is awash in warmth and family with gold-colored walls and miniature vases filled with yellow tulips and roses. Framed photographs of her grandchildren sit next to one of her at 16 posing with then-Sen. John F. Kennedy.
Another photograph shows Pelosi and her father, Thomas J. D’Alesandro Jr., on the day she was sworn into Congress in 1987. D’Alesandro, a former Maryland congressman and Baltimore’s first Italian-American mayor, inspired Pelosi to meld politics with her family life. He died that year.
Pelosi did not become a party leader, however, without a few fights along the way. She knows when and how to fight, and when not to fight, Siegel says.
"When she fights, she wins … and those that stand in her way not only lose, but she never forgets," Siegel says. "Cross her once, she crosses you off the list."
Siegel and Pelosi were on opposing sides during that 1972 nominating convention.
"I am pretty sure I threw her off of the convention floor because of a technicality in her delegation’s support of George McGovern," Siegel says. "Thank God she forgot … at least until she reads this."
Pelosi says she expects to accomplish much this year.
"The American people did not send us a message of change to split the difference," she says. "They want us to make a difference."
Pelosi dismissed the notion that the newly signed federal budget was strictly partisan, even though it passed the House with no support from Republicans.
"Budget votes are generally always down party lines," she says.
Some critics contend Congress is doing too much, spending too much money and taking the nation toward socialism.
She says they’re wrong, but she does not dismiss their concerns.
"That is what they believe," she says. "They just do not believe in government."
Her central issue is health care, and she says she wants to get comprehensive legislation approved this year.
"Health care is a looming economic issue for families," she says. "At the end of the day, we can’t say, ‘I’m sorry. We couldn’t get universal access or quality affordable health care.’ "
Pelosi says she knows that means compromise on some points.
"Nobody gets everything they want," she says. "You know that going in. The biggest issue will be, will there be a public option health care?"
Senate Republicans — including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Charles Grassley of Iowa — have said they will oppose any health care reform that includes a public option. Their concern is that private health insurers will not be able to compete with a government health insurance program.
When pressed for a bottom line on health care, Pelosi pushes back.
"I am not a bottom liner because we are trying to be open and listen to everybody’s point of view, and put every reasonable suggestion on the table and treat it all with respect," she says.
"But I will say this: Unless we have a public option, I just don’t think we are doing the best we can. … The president said if you have a better idea to do this, tell me what it is. So that’s it. But right now the differentiation is the public. There will be plenty of other fights."
Pelosi sees room for compromise on coal issues, particularly on President Obama’s cap-and-trade proposal to limit carbon emissions.
"Coal pollutes the environment," she says. "There’s just no question about it … but we’re going together with this technology, and we’re going to try to find a way to make this happen."
All in perspective
When an aide walks in to hand Pelosi a note from first-term Rep. Kathy Dalhkemper, D- Erie, she quickly explains:
"Kathy Dahlkemper is going to bring her mother over to meet me. I’m so excited," she says.
When Dahlkemper walks in with mom, the speaker invites them onto her balcony, along with the Trib reporters and editors, for photographs.
In the distance the Mall is sprinkled with tour buses, with groups of people young and old pouring out and fanning off in different directions, all in an effort to see the nation’s capital.
On the balcony, Dahlkemper and her mom are chatting with Pelosi, casually sharing pleasantries.
"This really does put it all in perspective," Pelosi says to no one in particular, watching the tourists and traffic bustle along the Mall.