Opinion: You’d have to be crazy. Or Nancy Pelosi

Yet by declining to step down, the congresswoman enhances her ability to choose her successor

Imagine being a financially secure 81-year-old grandparent facing the prospects of a major demotion in your stressful 80-hour-a-week job — yet refusing to retire.

You’d have to be crazy. Or Nancy Pelosi.

The San Francisco congresswoman is planning to run for a 19th term in 2022, according to reports last week. And, if elected, she would not rule out standing for Speaker of the House, or — if Republicans take the majority — Democratic Leader, contrary to a pledge she made to appease opponents in 2018.

It is neither ageist or sexist to ask why?

Why not, as Rep. Jackie Speier did last month when she announced that she would not seek re-election, say that it is time for another chapter in life? Pelosi, after all, already has accomplished more in Congress than any woman — and at least as much as any man — before her.

The 118th Congress, to be inaugurated Jan. 3, is unlikely to return Pelosi to her powerful post. When the president’s approval rating is below 50%, the party in control of the White House has lost an average of 37 House seats in midterm elections dating back to WWII. Biden’s approval rating is hovering just above 40%, and a loss of just five House seats would give Republicans control. Betting markets give Donald Trump a better chance than Pelosi of becoming the next House Speaker. (House rules allow nonmembers to be elected speaker.)

The speaker has not publicly discussed her thinking. But having followed Pelosi closely during most of her three and half decades in Congress and written a book about her, let me offer some likely explanations.

Fundamentally, Pelosi believes no one can do the job as well as she can. And she is not without reason.

Her fundraising ability is legendary. Even before 2022 has begun, Pelosi has raised an estimated $16 million for Democrats for November’s election. By some estimates she has raised more than a billion dollars for Democrats since becoming a party leader 20 years ago.

Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) and Adam Schiff (D-CA) are prodigious Democratic fundraisers, but Pelosi typically raises more than the three of them combined. In 2019, the final year before COVID, her office reported she held 181 fundraising events in 54 cities raising $87 million for Democrats.

Her legislative acumen has been challenged this year, as Biden’s signature infrastructure and social safety net bills got caught up in intra-party wrangling. Much has been written about how Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) has scuttled the president’s agenda. Yet despite the slimmest Democratic House majority in history, Pelosi successfully pushed both measures through her House.

Her liberal positions provide fodder for Republicans, and her pragmatism annoys progressives. But no Congressional leader in modern history has been more effective at getting legislation passed.

And at 81, Pelosi seems to defy age. She still runs circles around colleagues 30 years her junior, even while shunning caffeinated coffee (which she may compensate for with chocolate).

And then there is a matter of control.

By declining to step down now, Pelosi greatly enhances her ability to choose her successor — both as the Democratic leader in Congress and as San Francisco’s representative.

Democrats in Washington will wage a fierce battle when it comes time to replace Pelosi. The frontrunner is Jeffries, who represents Brooklyn and Queens, and currently serves as chair of the Democratic Caucus. He would become the first African American to be the Democrats’ top leader.

Steny Hoyer (D-MD), who waged a multi-year leadership battle against Pelosi decades ago, is the No. 2 Democrat and has held ambitions to be speaker almost as long as Jeffries has been alive. Many believe Pelosi is unlikely to leave if Hoyer would replace her.

In San Francisco, the filing deadline to qualify for June’s Congressional Primary is March 11. There are three Democrats who have filed — none of whom have any likelihood of providing Pelosi a challenge. However, that number would likely skyrocket if Pelosi were not expected on the ballot.

There are multiple people who would likely seek the seat. Much speculation has been given to her daughter, Christine, who would be helped with name identification if Pelosi retired in the middle of her term requiring a shortened special election campaign.

I don’t pretend to have any insight into who is interested or who would prevail. But Pelosi would be able to provide an enormous boost to whomever she wants if she controls the terms of her departure.

And finally, there is a matter of Pelosi’s political DNA.

Pelosi is a devoted grandmother and says she’d like time to read and write. But even more than others in D.C., every chapter of Pelosi’s life is defined by politics.

Pelosi has been a political creature from birth, sleeping as a toddler on a bed under which copies of the Congressional Record were stored. Her father was a House member himself before becoming mayor of Baltimore.

Willie Brown, the former mayor, Assembly speaker and a political creature himself, once told me that if you wanted to spread a political gene throughout the population, you’d get the DNA from Pelosi.

“If you wanted to infect people with political skills,’’ Brown said, “Nancy Pelosi would be the repository.”

Marc Sandalow has written about San Francisco Bay Area politics from the nation’s capital since 1993.

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