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After Nancy Pelosi: A San Francisco Race ‘That Shall Not Be Named’


SAN FRANCISCO — Nancy Pelosi has made two very different, almost irreconcilable statements about her political future.

In 2018, she pledged that 2022 could be her last 12 months as House Democratic leader, acceding to a term limit to quell an rebellion and secure a second stint as speaker. In January, she announced she was running for an additional two-year term within the House.

With the House’s passage of the sweeping measure to handle climate change and prescription drug prices on Friday — “an excellent day for us,” Ms. Pelosi beamed — and her China-defying trip to Taiwan serving as a diplomatic profession capstone, the query of what comes next for Ms. Pelosi is simply intensifying.

Will she press to remain on as speaker if Democrats one way or the other hold the House? Or, if Republicans take control, will she simply retire?

She could break her 2018 pledge and seek to stay Democratic leader within the minority. Those near her describe just one option as inconceivable: a demotion to the backbench.

Ms. Pelosi, 82, has avoided discussing her plans past November and declined to be interviewed. A spokesman, Drew Hammill, issued the identical, terse statement he has offered previously: “The speaker just isn’t on a shift,” he said. “She’s on a mission.”

Some clues to Ms. Pelosi’s future could also be found closer to her home in San Francisco — where the tantalizing possibility of town’s first open congressional seat because the fall of the Soviet Union has turn into the political talk of the town.

Would-be candidates, labor leaders, political strategists, donors and activists are already busily plotting what a race to succeed her would appear to be — albeit almost entirely in secret, to avoid antagonizing Ms. Pelosi, who has made plain she desires to retire on her own terms.

“This may be very much the campaign that shall not be named,” Dan Newman, a San Francisco-based Democratic operative, said of the early jostling. “Nancy Pelosi is a force of nature, and nobody wants to seem in any way disrespectful or dismissive.”

In interviews, greater than a dozen officials said local Democrats were preparing for the likelihood that Ms. Pelosi could resign reasonably than stay and hand the gavel to a Republican. That might trigger a snap special election in San Francisco, held inside 150 days — a sprint for what, given town’s politics, could amount to a de facto lifetime appointment to Congress.

Adding to the intrigue: One potential successor is Ms. Pelosi’s daughter Christine Pelosi, a celebration activist and Democratic National Committee executive committee member who serves as an adviser to her mother, has written a book about her and sometimes accompanies her to local union halls, speeches and parades. She slings her opinions online from a Twitter handle, @sfpelosi, that would at a look be confused for one her mother might use.

Wrapped up within the elder Ms. Pelosi’s decision and its timing are intertwined questions of power, legacy and dynasty, and the way fully a barrier-breaking, notoriously competitive public figure can stage-manage her exit.

There’s also Washington politics: Ms. Pelosi called herself “a bridge to the subsequent generation of leaders” 4 years ago, signaling her desire that her departure coincide with those of her fellow-octogenarian lieutenants, Representatives Steny Hoyer, 83, and James Clyburn, 82. Neither has agreed.

In San Francisco, similarly, the Pelosi name stays beloved, but there is no such thing as a guarantee of a controlled succession.

A preferred state senator, Scott Wiener, whose district overlaps Ms. Pelosi’s, is widely seen as laying the groundwork for a campaign. Mr. Wiener spent nearly $2.5 million on his re-election and has been wooing supporters under the guise of fine politics, though his ambitions to turn into San Francisco’s first openly gay congressman are an open secret.

In an interview at a Brazilian pastry shop, the 6-foot-7-inch Mr. Wiener refused even to broach the opportunity of a post-Pelosi era. “The longer she stays, the higher for our country,” he said. “I’m on Team Nancy.”

It was a comment befitting what Tony Winnicker, a longtime local Democratic strategist, called “the primary rule of wanting to run for Nancy Pelosi’s seat.”

“You never speak about it in a way that implies Nancy will ever leave,” he said.

Christine Pelosi, too, declined to comment.

As former chair of the ladies’s caucus of the state Democratic Party, the younger Ms. Pelosi, 56, has been outspoken in fighting sexual harassment.

Increasingly, she and Mr. Wiener, 52, are crisscrossing at local events, like a Pride breakfast where he and the elder Ms. Pelosi each delivered speeches. “This has been a family affair for us for greater than 30 years,” Nancy Pelosi said, recognizing her daughter’s presence. (She also acknowledged Mr. Wiener.)

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Just as she has in Washington, where she has outlasted a generation of potential male successors — Rahm Emanuel, Chris Van Hollen and Joseph Crowley amongst them — Ms. Pelosi has kept an array of ambitious local officials on ice since 1987.

Willie Brown, the previous San Francisco mayor, said that those planning House campaigns were smart to start, even when somewhat premature. In an interview over lunch, he speculated that Ms. Pelosi would prove a robust ally to her daughter, eventually.

“If her mother just isn’t around, Christine could be a formidable candidate,” Mr. Brown said. “Because her mother would make her a formidable candidate.”

Few expect the speaker to disclose her intentions until November. Doing so any sooner could reduce her sway over the razor-thin House Democratic majority, not to say her power as a fund-raiser. She hosts a serious fund-raiser in Napa next weekend, including a cocktail reception at her home.

Each time her House seat opens up, it is going to be a probability to not only succeed the primary female speaker in United States history but to also represent a city that has long punched above its weight in national politics, despite a population smaller than that of Columbus, Ohio.

Today, the No. 2 and No. 3 officials within the presidential line of succession — Vice President Kamala Harris, once town’s district attorney, and Ms. Pelosi — each cut their teeth politically in San Francisco. Democrats who emerge in town’s notoriously cutthroat liberal politics, from Gov. Gavin Newsom to Senator Dianne Feinstein to Ms. Pelosi, have found ways to placate the oft-warring factions of the Democratic Party.

“The fight gives you muscle,” said Debra Walker, an artist and activist who has served because the president of the Harvey Milk L.G.B.T.Q. Democratic Club. Ms. Walker was appointed in June to the San Francisco Police Commission, as Mayor London Breed sought to defuse a blowup between the police department and town’s annual Pride Parade organizers, who had sought to bar officers from marching in uniform.

Even amongst Ms. Pelosi’s friends and allies, some have wondered if Christine Pelosi, who wrote a book on campaigning but has never run for office herself, is sufficiently prepared.

“I might reasonably see Christine start at a state level reasonably than Congress,” said Joe Cotchett, a serious Democratic donor and family friend.

Mr. Cotchett expected Nancy Pelosi to support her daughter, up to a degree. “Do I feel that Nancy will push her? Emotionally, she’s her daughter,” he said. “But I don’t think Nancy is the variety of one that would step in and try to block anyone from running.”

If the elder Ms. Pelosi is thought for her deft relationship management, that has been less true for Christine, whose years as an activist have included pressing for D.N.C. resolutions — attempting to ban corporate contributions, demanding a 2020 climate debate — sometimes to the exasperation of party officials.

Her last name has insulated her from public criticism, but hidden frustrations have mounted, in accordance with a half dozen officials on each coasts.

She antagonized the Newsom team, as an example, when she suggested through the 2021 recall that Mr. Newsom should step down if he looked more likely to lose. Publicly, she sought to undercut Mr. Newsom’s central strategy of labeling the recall as a Republican power grab. Privately, she was directly texting Mr. Newsom to complain about his tactics, in accordance with two people briefed on the messages she sent.

Mr. Newsom defeated the recall in a landslide.

In a city where politics is usually personal and fractious, Mr. Wiener has collected critics, too.

“People speak about it on a regular basis,” Mike Casey, president of the San Francisco Labor Council, said of the race to succeed Ms. Pelosi. “But mostly, like, who don’t we would like. Like Scott Wiener has really gotten on the trades’ and quite a lot of our bad side.”

And while Mr. Wiener and Ms. Pelosi are progressives by any national metric, neither would necessarily satisfy town’s ideological purists, a wing that would field a candidate, too. “I haven’t ruled it out,” said Jane Kim, a 45-year-old former supervisor and executive director of the California Working Families Party.

Jen Snyder, a San Francisco-based strategist who works with progressives, could summon little enthusiasm for a Pelosi-Wiener contest.

“It can be Mothra versus Godzilla,” Ms. Snyder said. “I suppose I shall be on the sidelines eating popcorn.”

One other possible candidate is Ms. Breed, the primary Black woman to function mayor. She has indicated she is tired of a congressional run, in accordance with people near her.

“I can inform you as a friend of hers, she’s not,” said Lee Housekeeper, a neighborhood public-relations veteran, who joined Mr. Brown for the lunch interview.

“I can inform you as a friend of hers, she higher be,” Mr. Brown interjected.

Clint Reilly, who managed Ms. Pelosi’s 1987 congressional campaign and has known her family since, declined at first to speak. “Leave me alone!” he insisted. “They won’t be completely satisfied with anything I say!”

But Mr. Reilly, an investor who now owns The San Francisco Examiner, agreed to speak, including about how Ms. Pelosi won that first race, defeating a gay rival, Harry Britt, who ran to her left, in a multicandidate scrum.

Her prophetic slogan: “A voice that shall be heard.”

If Democrats lose in November, Mr. Reilly said, “most individuals would call it at the moment.” But not necessarily Ms. Pelosi. “She loves the sport,” he said. “She hates to lose.”

“The way it ends?” he mused. “I don’t think even she knows the reply.”

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