A distinctive and effective legislative career was established by a deathbed endorsement and the fight against a DSA insurgent. This is the real story of the making of Nancy Pelosi.
The Democratic Party’s policy to winning elections is grounded in choices taken by party leaders in the immediate wake of Ronald Reagan’s election to the presidency in 1980. That year saw not only Jimmy Carter’s surprising defeat, but also the demise of a generation of liberal lions in the Senate. A net loss of 12 Democratic senators, several of whom had been liberal heroes for decades, turned the chamber to Republicans.
It is difficult to exaggerate how politically traumatic that election was for Democrats. It was only two years after the advent of the New Right, the class of ’78 right-wingers headed by firebrands like Gingrich, and it seemed like the nation was rejecting everything the party advocated for, which was — what, precisely?
Furthermore, Democrats hadn’t merely been abandoned for a moderate Republican like a Gerald Ford, but the country had said it would much rather be headed by a radical like Reagan. An actor was ousting the party that had defeated the Nazis, created the modern welfare state, traveled to the moon, and presided over the longest period of economic success in human history.
But when forced to look more closely, they were compelled to acknowledge that things had been unpleasant. Gas lines were endless, wages were stagnant, inflation was out of control, and 52 Americans were being held hostage by the emergent Islamic Republic of Iran.
The liberals of the day contended that Reagan won because Carter was too conservative to provide on what the voters had asked of the party, notably the working class in general and organized labor in particular.
But while the slow-moving realignment pushed forward, it was the Senate losses that really sent the GOP into a tailspin. Former presidential candidates Birch Bayh and Frank Church, both longtime senators, failed to win reelection. Alaskan anti-war icon Mike Gravel failed to secure the Democratic Party’s candidacy. George McGovern, a candidate for president who had served in the Senate since 1962, lost. Both Warren Magnuson and Gaylord Nelson, who had both held office for a total of 54 years, were defeated. “My timing was terrible,” complained Barney Frank in his memoir, recounting his 1980 election to the House. “I had arrived at the party just when the curfew went into effect.”
Liberals were not the only ones who suffered. Democratic incumbents—some populist, some conservative—lost their primary or general elections in North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and Alabama. Democrats could pick and choose data items to fit their analyses by digging through the debris.
On the one hand, longstanding leftist collaborators had been vastly outspent, with Republicans making their first significant use of extravagant and disparaging television advertising. However, Southern conservatives had also been completely eliminated, so perhaps the issue was not that the party was too liberal. But hold on, the party might be too liberal because Democratic senators in Kentucky, Arkansas, South Carolina, Missouri, and Louisiana were re-elected.
And then there’s the House, where Republicans gained 35 seats, more than Democrats flipped in their wave year of 2006. The wave, however, plummeted back into the water because the southern wall was too high. In 1981, Democrats still held the majority in the House.
Democrats were so sure they would always win the House that it was simple to disregard their losses. In 1974, the Watergate scandal brought John Lawrence to Washington as a legislative assistant. He wrote a book about the class of 1974 after working for Nancy Pelosi for several years as her chief of staff. He pointed out that it took the Republicans ten years to return to their previous position in the House following their defeats in 1974, which still left them well short of a majority. “That masqueraded the realignments that were occurring in the electorate, and the rise of really strong conservative cultural/financial/grassroots organizations that really made the conservative movement much more formidable, but not necessarily more visible in an electoral way,” he said.
The party lacked both fear and drive. “There was still a sense, even after the Reagan election, even after the Senate went Republican, that the majority in the House was secure. If they had had a longer view,” he said, “they would have seen that they needed to be a lot more tactical than they were.” The result was “an institutional weakness in terms of building and maintaining the kind of political apparatus in the states and the districts.”
The House majority, on the other hand, was built with Southerners who were Democrats just in name — a term that is overused today but had actual significance back then. Rep. Richard Shelby, for example, was re-elected as a Democrat in Alabama with 73 percent of the vote that year. Shelby would ultimately be elected to the Senate twice as a Democrat before switching parties during the 1994 wave, becoming the top Republican on the Banking Committee and the leading opponent of Wall Street reform. His political views remained constant.
Reagan was able to force through the majority of his economic plan in the first 200 days of the new Democratic Congress, which necessitated a large number of Democratic defections and the help of House Speaker Tip O’Neill, who authorized Reagan’s agenda to be considered. In other words, Democrats controlled the House thanks to Democrats who would subsequently turn Republicans or lose to Republicans, the majority of whom were involved in the Gingrich revolution of 1994. “In the House, a narrow Democratic majority included enough Southern conservatives to give the right effective control of the agenda,” Frank recalled.
In 1982, during a Democratic midterm election, Harry Reid was elected to the House. He got along well with Reagan, as did many of his colleagues. “I was not a big shot at the time in the Congress, but he was easy to work with,” he told me. “I can remember the first time I ever went to the Oval Office. We were there fighting about aid to the Contras and went down with three House members to the Oval Office and [Paul] Kanjorski from Pennsylvania asked, Mr. President, I’m afraid you’re going to invade Nicaragua, and Reagan, without hesitating a second said, Don’t worry about invading Nicaragua. I’m not going to, but I want those sons of bitches going to bed every night thinking I’m going to. That was kind of Ronald Reagan. He was so easy to deal with. Every [Republican today] wants to be a Reagan Republican. I wish they were because he was one of the finest, easiest people to work with. He was a dealmaker.”
The party had two options: follow in the footsteps of progressives who had forewarned that Carter had abandoned the party’s natural base and write off the right-wing Democrats who were no longer associated with a progressive consortium, or appeal to their populist tendencies and attempt to persuade them to the left. Another variation of that strategy, championed by California Democrat Phil Burton, called for disempowerment of the right-wingers while stepping up fundraising efforts — preferably from the least unpalatable sources — in order to create true progressive power that could compete with the right. Or, as the party eventually chose to do, it could have attempted to defend itself against the last incumbent by matching Republican spending dollar for dollar while assuming a defensive crouch to defend the New Deal’s most fundamental components and newer initiatives for the underprivileged that Reagan was targeting, such as Head Start.
Tony Coelho, a young congressman from California who was appointed head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee at the time, made the case for a vigorous corporate fundraising campaign. Coelho, who eventually became Rahm Emanuel’s mentor, quickly started reaching out to business interests that Democrats had traditionally ignored for contributions with a simple proposition: Democrats are in control of the House, therefore they had better pay up.
“Tony saw Democrats were not playing the aggressive game on fundraising that Republicans were developing under the rules as they emerged, following the ’74 campaign finance reform act and subsequent rule changes, and felt the Democrats were simply going to get outgunned if they didn’t develop a different fundraising model,” said John Lawrence.
“Tony really bears a fair amount of responsibility — whether that’s credit or blame, depends on where you stand — for pointing Democrats to the need for a PAC-based industry strategy for fundraising.”
“With that came a lot of problems,” Lawrence added. “Nobody told me they felt beholden, but obviously there were plenty of times where it was very tough to pass some of the legislation the more progressive parts of the caucus would have liked.”
Pelosi was among those who understood the need of conservative Democrats maintaining the majority, but wanted them disempowered inside the caucus. But, maybe more crucially, she was a natural fundraiser. According to legend, Pelosi wanted to enter politics after raising her five children. Even in the midst of that incredible achievement of child-rearing, she was already fully involved.
When Phil Burton saw the San Francisco estate she lived in with her husband, investor Paul Pelosi, he thought it would be an excellent venue for political fundraisers. Pelosi, it turned out, had a talent for it, and her ability to raise funds would later propel her to prominence in California politics. She was elected to the Democratic National Committee in 1976, more than a decade before she was elected to Congress. She would become chair of the Northern California Democratic Party and eventually the statewide Democratic Party during the next five years. She ran unsuccessfully for DNC chair in 1985.
Burton, a 19-year member of Congress, had a profound political impact on Pelosi’s political education as well as California. He was reportedly referred to as “the single most important member of the House of Representatives in the ’60s and ’70s” by labor reporter Harold Meyerson.
As was frequently stated of Burton, Pelosi is praised for her remarkable ability to count votes. He was not a purist who distanced himself from what many on the left perceived as a corrupt enterprise, but rather someone who was enthused about fundraising and treated politics seriously. He was a role model for Pelosi. “I’m a fighting liberal,” Burton would famously say. His biographer, John Jacobs, agreed: “A ruthless and unabashed progressive, Burton terrified his opponents, ran over his friends, forged improbable coalitions, and from 1964 to 1983 became one of the most influential Representatives in the House. He also acquired more raw power than almost any left-liberal politician ever had.”
Fighting required dirtying your hands. Burton established gerrymandering in California (he called it “my contribution to modern art,” and he even drew a district to give his brother John a seat in the House), and he pioneered the now-common practice of giving colleagues in competitive races PAC money in an effort to increase caucus power. He helped design the House floor procedure so that lobbyists had more leeway in tweaking specific pieces of legislation, uncorking contributions from K Street and contributing to the creation of the Washington ecosystem we currently know. Burton urged Pelosi to run in one of the newly formed districts, but she declined.
When he was first elected in 1964, he challenged the dominance of the Southern bulls, who had utilized seniority and one-party rule to secure control of important committee chairmanships in the South. He maintained that the sooner the party crushed its Dixiecrat side, the better. Burton united his liberal colleagues and overhauled the process of picking chairmen, substituting it with a secret vote, which marked the commencement of the end of the House Democratic caucus’ Southern supremacy.
In 1976, he was one vote short of becoming majority leader in a three-way race he was anticipated to win. Burton and Richard Bolling split the progressive vote, allowing Texas populist Jim Wright to speak for himself. If Burton had been in charge during Reagan’s ascension, the Democratic response could have been substantially different and far more effective.
Burton already had a willing pupil in Pelosi. If you only know her from Republican attack advertisements, you may refer to her as a “San Francisco liberal” or even a “radical,” yet her father, Thomas D’Alesandro Jr., the head of the Baltimore political machine and a former congressman and mayor of Charm City, raised her in Maryland. According to his FBI file, D’Alesandro’s operation, like most big-city operations at the time, was openly associated with regional Mafia figures.
Burton correctly identified Pelosi as that rare of breeds: a liberal born to battle. Pelosi discovered in Burton someone who understood how to make progressive change happen. Despite or in part because of his renowned viciousness and rage, he achieved a lengthy list of legislative accomplishments, including Supplemental Security Income, a higher minimum wage, compensation for black lung, food stamps for striking workers, and the abolition of the House Un-American Affairs Committee.
A notable radical activist from the 1970s named Jim Shoch told The Intercept about his first encounter with Burton. “I think he was actually yelling into two phones at the same time when we entered his office,” he said. “Part of our conversation included his recent success in favorably gerrymandering California for the Democrats. With a deeply satisfied expression on his face he exclaimed, We fucked ’em! We fucked ’em!”
Phil Burton’s brother John Burton, a former congressman himself, claimed that Phil never really served as Pelosi’s mentor. “I mean, Christ, this is a woman who was brought up in Baltimore politics. He wasn’t working with some neophyte that all of a sudden he had to explain, Well, here’s how it works. They got along because even though she was an ‘amateur’ at that time, she was still a pro,” Burton told author Vincent Bzdek for the book “Woman of the House.” He acknowledged, though, that Phil helped “hone her skills.”
Although they had very different personalities on the outside, they had a similar drive on the inside. “Nancy is tougher than nails, but she’s a gentle person. Phillip was just hard-ass and hard charging. He could be charming sometimes, but I can’t quite remember when,” said John Burton.
Pelosi stated that Burton was simple to handle because of her Baltimore schooling. “Actually, my family really prepared me for Phil Burton. One of the reasons I got along with Phil is because I wasn’t afraid of him. I knew a lot of people like him,” she told Bzdek.
It was generally thought that the relatively young Burton would have another attempt at leadership and succeed this time, but he died of a heart attack in April 1983, at the age of 56. Burton’s tragic death effectively ended the possibility of a Democratic counter-history. According to John Lawrence, at the time, Burton was one of the few Democrats who recognized that the party did not have a perpetual monopoly on the House of Representatives, and that overconfidence hampered the party’s capacity to think tactically about what kind of alliance it wanted to be in the post-civil rights era. Coelho, on the other hand, strip-mined the majority for all the corporate dollars it was worth, right up until it crumbled. “Would Gingrich have been as effective if Phil Burton was the foil, and not Jim Wright? There’s a fair case to be made that Phil would not have been caught sleeping,” he said.
Sala Burton, Burton’s wife, won the special election to succeed him. But four years later, as she lay dying, she gave a final recommendation: “Nancy.”
The nod was helpful, but the special election was far from a coronation. The left, which included young people, the gay activist movement, and the city’s numerous social organizations, rallied behind city Supervisor Harry Britt, who had been nominated by Mayor Dianne Feinstein to fill the position left empty by Harvey Milk’s assassination.
Jim Shoch, a fellow member, pointed out that Britt served as vice chair of the city’s Democratic Socialists of America chapter. “Pelosi’s experience in dealing with the city’s many Democratic clubs and factions was good practice for leading the often fractious House Democratic caucus,” Shoch said.
According to The Los Angeles Times, the choice was between an established candidate and an upstart. “The Democratic establishment backed Pelosi, a 46-year-old mother of five who has raised large sums for her party’s candidates. Younger, more liberal activists and the city’s powerful gay community backed Britt,” the paper wrote.
Pelosi campaigned on the prescient and on-brand phrase “a voice that will be heard,” and on election night she defeated Britt 36 to 33 percent, with the remaining votes split among smaller contenders. Both Pelosi and Britt would have advanced to the main election under California’s current top-two system. For better or worse, such electoral innovation was 25 years away, and Pelosi’s total was enough to propel her to the main election against a hapless Republican. Big money and establishment influence had defeated grassroots, leftwing enthusiasm in her first run.
When she returned to Washington, Steny Hoyer was already there, having won a crowded special election in 1981. The shift toward big-money fundraising occurred when there was more big money available. The new tax policies implemented by Reagan and Democrats in Congress meant that many people could afford to pay up big. When the highest income tax rate was first implemented in the early twentieth century, it only pertained to a few families. The argument that marginal tax rates were in the 90s and even as high as the 70s throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s is frequently made. However, this argument is mainly erroneous since almost no one paid those high rates. However, that misinterprets the goal of those high rates as revenue generation. The main benefit was that it made people less inclined to obtain extremely high incomes.
The expression “greed is good” became popular in the 1980s. However, that’s not because greed is a new phenomenon. Greed was rewarded for the very first time since the Gilded Age. Greed is meaningless with a marginal tax rate of 90%. The assumption that obtaining that much money so quickly is nearly invariably unethical and damaging conduct is central to the governmental goal of reducing excessive incomes. In other terms, there is no genuine value a person can offer to the world that is worth a million dollars per week. The only way to earn that kind of money is to grab it from others while leaving a trail of destruction behind. That is why, in the 1980s, corporate raiders — now known as private equity investors — emerged, using leveraged debt to acquire a controlling position in a firm, liquidate its holdings and pension fund, then file for bankruptcy and lay off workers.
A high marginal tax rate’s true goal is not to take money from the wealthy; rather, it is to slow down the rapid accumulation of wealth and create disincentives that prevent private equity investors from even considering, say, taking over Sears and siphoning off its value before wrecking it. Yeah, they could do it, but what is the point when the marginal tax rate on extreme incomes is 90%?
Extreme earnings and quick wealth growth were encouraged under the new policy of the 1980s. Reagan and the Democrats reduced top rates from 70 to 50 and under 30 percent by the end of the decade. At the same time that campaigns were becoming immensely more expensive due to television’s dominance, there was a new class of super-rich people who could be tapped to provide the necessary funding. The super-rich were also dismantling organized labor while exploiting their newfound authority to plunder their pensions, which made the Democratic financing gap worse. One of the better studies on the subject of how the Democrats changed from being a party of workers and citizens to one dominated by Wall Street has been conducted by political scientist Daniel Schlozman of Johns Hopkins. His conclusion is both shocking and rational at the same time. Most of the businesses the Democrats dabbled in during their pursuit of corporate funding sparked opposition from other members of the coalition, frequently from labor or environmentalists. However, Wall Street was not the monster it is now in the early 1980s, making the financial sector a relatively benign source of party funding. It initially seemed innocuous, just like any addiction. Low tax rates today provide the flow of money that is undermining our politics in addition to the vast disparity they cause. For the time being, the Supreme Court is against what is known as “demand-side policing of corruption.” However, we must not disregard the supply side.