Ken Garcia: Stumbling beginning by Pelosi chips away at Dems’ grace period

If this is the show of unity Democrats promised with their stunning congressional election victory this month, you have to wonder what will happen when the honeymoon period ends.

For as it stands, San Francisco’s own darling Democrat, Nancy Pelosi, is hardly looking like the consensus-building leader she vowed to be after a leading a very disciplined campaign to win the House back from long-held Republican control. Instead of the overreaching arrogance that defined the GOP in recent years, the early signs suggest that the Democrats under Pelosi will be defined by vengeful infighting.

So far, it’s been a less than audacious start for the next speaker of the House. First, she got embroiled in a fierce and high-stakes public battle between two Democrats, John Murtha of Pennsylvania and Steny Hoyer of Maryland, to be the No. 2 post in the House. Even though Hoyer was widely preferred by the Democratic caucus, Pelosi threw her weight behind loyal ally Murtha, barely hiding her dislike for Hoyer.

Murtha was trounced in a landslide and even staunch loyalists of Pelosi were questioning why she would engage herself in such a nasty spectacle. And it didn’t seem quite so genuine when, after Hoyer’s win, Pelosi once again pledged that the party would work as a team.

Now another issue looms that hardly echoes the concept of team-building. Fellow California Democratic Congresswoman Jane Harman is in line to assume the chair of the House intelligence committee and has the credentials for the job. But Pelosi and Harman had a falling-out years back and the next speaker is reportedly pushing Florida Rep. Alcee Hastings for the job, further stirring dissent.

The pending conflict between Harman and Pelosi is so strident that no Democratic strategists or members of Congress I called would comment about it on the record. “No one wants to touch it,’’ one representative told me. “But we’re all anxiously awaiting to see what will happen.’’

Whether Pelosi will use her considerable political capital to block Harman from the committee job is questionable, since Harman represents the same state and has a very high profile in California and in Washington. Harman has long been considered a rising star in the party and has been a frequent guest on political talk shows, usually on issues of national security.

Even more curious than her desire to oust Harman is Pelosi’s choice of a replacement. While serving as a federal judge in 1989, Hastings was impeached by the House and later convicted of corruption charges by the Senate. Given that ethics scandals proved to be a major factor in the Republican election meltdown a few weeks ago, it hardly seems like that’s the kind of background the Democrats would want in a person charged with intelligence oversight.

That’s especially pertinent when you consider that Pelosi promised to “drain the swamp’’ of scandals involving House members and that on the list of the party’s “100 hours’’ agenda when it reconvenes in January is lobbying and ethics reform.

Pelosi grabbed a lot of headlines this year when she announced that “anybody who’s ever dealt with me knows not to mess with me’’ — but I don’t think that picking fights where none exist is a winning strategy.

Indeed, her stumbling out of the gate prompted Time magazine last week to ask: “Did Nancy Pelosi Get The Message?’’

Still, there’s plenty of time left to recover her footing and I don’t think that anyone would underestimate Pelosi’s leadership skills, now that she’s climbed higher than any female politician in U.S. history. She has already tried to steer the message back to the themes that brought Pelosi to her ascendancy — criticism of Bush’s handling of the war in Iraq, stricter budget restraints and the enactment of all of the 9/11 commission’s recommendations.

But she’s now generated reams of negative publicity for her battles, right after basking in the glow of the big congressional upset, and actually giving her Republican rivals hope that the backbiting will continue. History suggests that the Democrats are hardly the party of unity — party leaders have already been calling on Democratic chairman Howard Dean to resign.

If the divisions over Harman’s post linger, many will begin to question Pelosi’s strategy and wonder how long she will survive perhaps Capitol Hill’s toughest job.

It’s worth remembering that each of the last four House speakers have been bounced from their jobs. They might not have been as tough as Pelosi, but at least at the beginning, they showed a more deft touch.

Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at or call him at (415) 359-2663.

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