US Midterm Elections: First Woman to Head House of Reps

With the Democrats taking over the House of Representatives in Tuesday's midterm elections, Nancy Pelosi will become the first-ever female Speaker of the House. But does she have what it takes to continue to lead her often fractious party as it takes control of the house?

With the Democrats' victory on Tuesday, Nancy Pelosi is set to become Speaker of the House.
REUTERS

With the Democrats' victory on Tuesday, Nancy Pelosi is set to become Speaker of the House.

If you're looking for one reason why the Democrats have regained a solid hold on the House of Representatives for the first time in a dozen years, you could do worse than pointing to Nancy Pelosi, the Representative from California who will now become America's first ever female Speaker of the House.

Not only did Pelosi raise more than $59 million for House Democrats and stump tirelessly during the campaign, she also managed to bring together a fractious party as it took on President George W. Bush. As Democratic minority leader, a post to which she was elected four years ago, she managed to get her party cohorts to vote together 88 percent of the time, according to Congressional Quarterly.

"The campaign is over. Democrats are ready to lead and prepared to govern," Pelosi said triumphantly on Tuesday night. But she was also conciliatory. "We will work with Republicans in Congress and the Administration in the spirit of partnership, not partisanship."

Pelosi's ability to keep Democrats together, many say, was an important factor in the party's successes in Tuesday's midterm elections. Her party gained at least 22 seats in the House of Representatives on Tuesday -- comfortably more than the 15 it needed for a majority -- and at least four seats in the Senate. The Senate races in Montana and Virginia remain too close to call.

Pelosi, considered a liberal Democrat, represents a district in San Francisco and has served in the House for 19 years. A mother of five, she grew up in a prominent political family in Baltimore, Maryland before moving to New York and then to California. She got her own start in politics as a Democratic Party fundraiser and then became the state's party chairwomen. She made her first run for a seat in the House at the late age of 47 and hasn't lost an election since.

Many have criticized her for being too liberal -- a label she herself doesn't shy away from. "I pride myself on being called a liberal," she said in a 1996 San Francisco Chronicle interview. "I don't consider myself a moderate." She voted against the Gulf War in the early 1990s and opposed President George W. Bush's 2003 invasion of Iraq. "The war in Iraq was a bad idea and it has been badly executed by Secretary Rumsfeld and the civilian leadership at the Pentagon," reads a statement on her Web site.

But she has also been credited with bringing a toughness to the Democrats they have often lacked during their years as the House minority party. (The Democrats briefly regained control of the Senate for 19 months in 2001 and 2002 after Sen. Jim Jeffords switched from Republican to independent. But the party lost it again in 2002.) She was able to unite Democrats to defeat Bush's plan to reform Social Security in 2005 and counters Republican attacks, according to a recent profile in Time Magazine, by saying things like: "If people are ripping your face off, you have to rip their face off."

Though no one has suggested that Pelosi might have legal and ethical problems like former House Leader Tom DeLay, many have compared her leadership style to his. She has insisted on Democrats voting the party line and is not shy about calling them to chew them out when they don't. She has also avoided compromise with the Republicans in an effort to provide her party with a clear profile. Her insistence on Democrats helping colleagues with fundraising played a major role in the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee being able to spend some $64 million during the campaign.

In total, this midterm campaign ended up being the most expensive in US history with candidates, parties and interest groups spending a total of $1.4 billion.

Pelosi, who -- as Speaker of the House -- will be third in line to the presidency behind Vice President Dick Cheney, now faces the difficult challenge of turning an opposition party into a party that can govern. The Democrats have a long history of being more difficult for party leaders to control than their Republican counterparts.

But, as a former opponent of hers for the position of house minority leader points out, Pelosi's ascendancy goes beyond party politics. "Her election as speaker will serve as an enormous symbol that the United States has finally joined the 21st century by giving a capable woman the opportunity to lead," wrote Martin Frost, a Representative from Texas from 1979 to 2005 wrote for Fox News. "We will join the ranks of England, Germany, Chile, Israel and India in promoting women to top positions in elected government."

cgh/Time/ap/reuters

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