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‘People Think of Pelosi as a California Liberal; No, She’s Like a Baltimore Boss’
‘I mean, Christ, this is a woman who was brought up in Baltimore politics. We weren’t working with some neophyte’
This will be a short piece, a pointer to information available elsewhere. I may return to this later, but for now, these are the essentials. Note: This is not to denigrate Nancy Pelosi, but to describe the very high level of her skill.
In light of the news that Nancy Pelosi will step down as leader of the House Democrats, people are asking “What’s her legacy?” The better question is, “What’s her reality?”
People think of Nancy Pelosi as a “California liberal.” According to Ryan Grim, DC bureau chief for The Intercept, she is actually like a “Baltimore boss,” an old-school big city machine boss. I find that this explains a lot about, not just who she is, but how she retained so much Congressional power — to a degree not seen, I think, since LBJ — for so many years.
Listen to his explanation, starting at 4:18 in this clip from the Counterpoints podcast of November 18:
Bottom line: Pelosi is the daughter of Baltimore boss “Big Tommy” Delosantro, she learned the ways of machine bosses from an early age, and she runs the Party in the House by the lessons she learned. She has the old Mayor Daley’s secret weapon, a magnificent memory for personal details, and she uses money to maintain control, which she seems to covet.
As Ryan says at 6:07 in the clip: “People think of her as a California liberal now; no, she’s like a Baltimore boss.” Again, this is not to denigrate her, but to describe the nature and level of her skill.
There’s much more of her history at Bad News, Ryan’s Substack site, in a major piece called “The real story of the making of Nancy Pelosi,” including her transformation by California politician Phil Burton and Tony Coelho.
Here’s a section from Grim’s book We’ve Got People, which he reprinted at Bad News. It will give you a taste of the whole story (emphasis mine):
Burton, who served in Congress for 19 years, was a transformative political figure both in California and in the education of Pelosi. Labor reporter Harold Meyerson once called him “the single most important member of the House of Representatives in the ’60s and ’70s.”
Pelosi is often lauded for her uncanny ability to count votes, something that was also said repeatedly of Burton. He was a role model for Pelosi, someone who was enthusiastic about fundraising and took politics seriously, rather than a purist who stood aloof from what many on the left saw as a corrupt endeavor. “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 meant getting your hands dirty. Burton pioneered gerrymandering in California (“My contribution to modern art,” he called it; he even drew a district so that his brother John could have a House seat, too) and began what is now a common practice of spreading PAC money around to colleagues in tough races in order to build power within the caucus. He helped shape the House floor process so that lobbyists would have more ability to tweak individual pieces of legislation, uncorking contributions from K Street and helping to create the Washington ecosystem we know today. Burton encouraged Pelosi to run in one of the new districts he had drawn, but she demurred.
First elected in 1964, he took on the power of the Southern bulls, who had used seniority and one-party rule in the South to lock down control of key committee chairmanships. The sooner the party could crush its Dixiecrat wing, he argued, the better. Burton organized his liberal colleagues and reformed the process for selecting chairs, replacing it with a secret vote, which was the beginning of the end of Southern dominance of the House Democratic caucus.
In 1976, he fell one vote short in a bid for majority leader in a three-way race he had been expected to win. The progressive vote was split between Burton and Richard Bolling, allowing Texas populist Jim Wright to speak through. Had Burton been in leadership during the rise of Reagan, the Democratic response may have been far different and more effective.
In Pelosi, Burton had a ready student. If your knowledge of her comes from Republican attack ads, you know her as a “San Francisco liberal” or even “radical,” but she was raised in Maryland by her father Thomas D’Alesandro Jr., the boss of the Baltimore political machine, who was by turns a congressman and mayor of Charm City. D’Alesandro’s operation, like most big-city machines of the era, was linked in public to local Mafia figures, according to his FBI file.
Burton rightly saw in Pelosi that rarest of breeds, a liberal born to fight. In Burton, Pelosi found someone who knew how to make progressive change actually happen. His list of legislative achievements was long — Supplemental Security Income, a higher minimum wage, compensation for black lung, food stamps for striking workers, the abolition of the House Un-American Affairs Committee — despite or, in part, because of his legendary ruthlessness and rage.
Jim Shoch, a prominent radical activist in the 1970s, told me about the first time he met 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!”
John Burton, Phil’s brother and himself a former congressman, said that Phil never quite mentored Pelosi. “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.”
They differed greatly in their outward demeanor, but internally had much the same drive. “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 said that her Baltimore education made Burton easy to handle. “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.
“Even though she was an amateur at the time, she was still a pro” — meaning, as my Chicago background says it, a Richard J. Daley–type pro. See Mike Royko's wonderful book Boss for the full definition.
I strongly suggest listening to the segment above, and if it interests you, read the full post at Substack. Perhaps it will open your eyes to the true key to Pelosi’s power, and why, to these eyes, though she’s drifted far from the liberal goals she had, she’s always remained the party boss she is.
This may go far to explaining the Party today, and why Hakeem Jeffries, hater of the left, is the next anointed.