For San Franciscans, one of the most important subplots of the 2022 midterm elections is whether Nancy Pelosi — who has represented The City in Congress since 1987 and has been leader of the Democratic Party in the House of Representatives since 2003 — will seek reelection. Even if Pelosi runs for another term, it will almost certainly be her last.
In other words, sometime in the next 36 months there will be a major political transition in San Francisco.
Some background is helpful here. San Francisco has been represented in Congress since 1964 by only three people: Phil Burton; Sala Burton, who served four years after her husband’s death; and Pelosi. Pelosi and Phil Burton were both extremely powerful Democrats — Burton himself narrowly missed becoming majority leader in 1976. Pelosi was endorsed by Sala Burton and supported by the powerful Burton political operation, so the continuity between the Burtons and Pelosi is very strong.
Pelosi’s departure from Congress will mean an immediate loss of influence for San Francisco. The decision by Jackie Speier — who represents a sliver of the southern part of San Francisco and much of San Mateo county and who has been in Congress since 2009 — not to seek reelection will be another blow to The City’s seniority and power in Congress.
Even if the next congressperson The City elects has the political acumen and skills of Pelosi (extremely unlikely), it will take at least a decade before that person is a major player.
When Pelosi steps down, either this election or the next, the seat will be open for the first time since Sala Burton died in office in 1987. That was the same year a San Francisco mayor was leaving office after an impressive career that included eight years on the Board of Supervisors and nine as mayor, but Dianne Feinstein was just getting started.
There are many safe seats in Congress, yet few are as safe as the one Pelosi has held for 35 years.
No incumbent representative from the seat that represents most of San Francisco has lost a bid for reelection in over a century. So if history matters here, whoever succeeds Pelosi will be there for a while.
Two of the leading, and most intriguing, candidates to run for Pelosi’s seat are Senator Scott Wiener and Christine Pelosi. These are the names that come up in virtually every conversation I’ve had on the topic.
Wiener, whose senate district includes all of San Francisco and overlaps with essentially all of the congressional district where he would be running, would be a strong candidate based on his resume and record as a proven vote-getter. If elected, Wiener would also be the first gay congressmember to represent San Francisco. Harry Britt came close to that milestone, but he narrowly lost the primary in 1987 to Pelosi. Wiener feels like the safe choice — a 50-something career politician who has served on other legislatures.
Christine Pelosi would be a different kind of candidate. Christine Pelosi is one Speaker Pelosi’s five children, but she is more than just the scion of a powerful political family. Christine Pelosi has been a Democratic activist for decades who, like her mother before being elected to Congress, has held several Democratic Party positions in California and nationally. The younger Pelosi is a frequent media presence whose intellect and political skills are hard to miss. Christine Pelosi has also been one of her mother’s most consistent and forceful defenders on social media and other fora.
The paradox facing Christine Pelosi is that if she wins, the last public act of Nancy Pelosi’s career will be seen as having helped her daughter get elected to Congress in the seat she held for decades. That would be bad for the elder Pelosi’s reputation, which Christine Pelosi has fought so hard to defend for so long. This may not be entirely fair to either Pelosi, but politics is rarely fair.
It is unlikely Wiener and Christine Pelosi would be the only candidates in the race. A safe seat in the House of Representatives would be very tempting and likely draw several other candidates, including possibly citywide officials such as Mayor London Breed or City Attorney David Chiu. Wiener and Christine Pelosi are identified with the more moderate wing of the Democratic Party in San Francisco, so there would be an opening in that race for a progressive.
There are many progressives who might run, but none would have an easy time winning.
For example, Jane Kim and Mark Leno ran for mayor in 2018 and might look at this race, but would have some challenges. Kim, a former supervisor who played a major role in Bernie Sanders 2020 presidential run, might be a progressive standard bearer, but Kim already has run citywide twice and lost both times. Similarly, Leno, who finished a close second to Breed in 2020, has support on the left, but he has not won an election since 2012.
The major challenge for any progressives would be to raise their name recognition to compete with Wiener, who has been elected to a citywide senate district in 2016 and 2020, so is well known to voters, and Christine Pelosi, who has one of the most recognized last names in San Francisco politics. This would require raising a lot of money early in the campaign. The name recognition barrier would be even greater for any supervisor, as they are rarely well known outside of their districts.
Because this is a race for federal office, there will be no rank-choice voting, but the two top finishers in the first round would meet again in November. A progressive victory could probably only happen if Christine Pelosi, Wiener or other similar moderates split the moderate vote in the first round allowing a progressive to sneak into the runoff. Whoever that progressive might be would also need to get a few breaks to win the runoff. This path to progressive victory would require a fair amount of luck and a very strong unified progressive campaign.
It is also important to step back from our San Francisco myopia and recognize that Wiener, Christine Pelosi or virtually any other San Francisco moderate would find themselves on the left end of the House Democratic Caucus, perhaps not Squad-worthy, but only two ticks to the right of that.
Nancy Pelosi’s plans are still unknown and, although she is an octogenarian, she remains a potent and effective political force. Still, nothing lasts forever. The transition to the post-Nancy Pelosi San Francisco will occur within the next few years and will be an important landmark in The City’s political history.
Lincoln Mitchell has written numerous books and articles about The City and the Giants. Visit lincolnmitchell.com or follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell.