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A "Thug," Nancy?

So Hugo Chavez comes to the United Nations and calls George Bush "the devil" and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco responds that not only has the Venezuelan President "demeaned" himself, but while "he fancies himself as a modern day Simon Bolivar ... all he is an everyday thug."

Now, there's a lot of criticisms you might lay on Chavez after a speech like that. You might call him a "clown," for instance – press accounts did note a certain amount of "giggles" in the audience after he claimed he could even still smell the sulphur because the devil had spoken to the General Assembly from that very location the day before. But "thug"? 

Sure, even though Bush himself has gone pretty far out-there in calling America's presumed enemies an "axis of evil," a lot of people might agree with his predecessor Bill Clinton in thinking "Chavez would be much more effective if he would say something that's true ... ‘I disagree with President Bush,' instead of calling him the devil." Many might even go along with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's assessment that Chavez's comment "is not becoming a head of state." But not "thug."

Pelosi, it seemed, wanted to make a statement, presumably seeing an opportunity to show that she really isn't one of those "San Francisco Democrats" the Republicans try to frighten the nation with when they raise the prospect of her becoming Speaker of the House as an argument against voting Democrat in congressional elections. And actually, she's got a point in that she probably does stand to the right of the typical "San Francisco Democrat."

It isn't like she's going to be defeated in a Democratic primary any time soon, or anything like that. Indeed she has faced no serious primary challenge since her first election, and there probably isn't really anyone around who'd beat her if they did run. Like everywhere else in these United States, incumbency counts in San Francisco in a big way, and the prospect of her becoming Speaker – and particularly of her becoming the first female Speaker – has placed her above criticism in certain party sectors. But all of this is not the same as saying that her politics and those of her party base are a tight fit. In fact, a couple of elections suggest that isn't the case at all.


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Pelosi was first elected in 1987 to replace the terminally ill Sala Burton, who herself had replaced her late husband Phil after his death. As Pelosi had never held office before – she was a party fundraiser and had lost a bid for national chair of the Democratic Party two years earlier – her endorsement by the dying Burton was widely seen as decisive in her 36-32% win in the April primary over the better known candidate of the left, Harry Britt. Britt, who had succeeded the assassinated Harvey Milk as San Francisco Supervisor, ran a campaign based on his advocacy for the city's non-monied interests. 

But there was something else too. The primary was "open," that it to say candidates of all parties ran in the same field and it would become a "partisan" race between the leading vote getters of each party if and only when no one took 50% of the primary vote. When no one did, Pelosi defeated Republican Harriet Ross 63-31% in a June runoff. Yet Ross had received only 3% of the vote in the April primary, trailing five significant Democrats. Where had the Republican vote gone in the race that really mattered? Logic suggested, then as now, that it went to the front running "moderate" Democrat standing in the way of the election of Britt, the type of "San Francisco Democrat" that most Republicans really didn't want to see go to Washington.

All of this, of course, might be dismissed as ancient history were it not for a ceratain similarity in much more recent election. When Gavin Newsom defeated Matt Gonzalez by a 53-47% margin in the 2003 mayoral election, it was quite clear that the 17% of the city's voters who are registered Republicans had put the Democrat Newsom (endorsed by Pelosi) over the top in order to block a candidate running a campaign far less congenial to the city's corporate leadership. 

Today Newsom may be every bit the untouchable incumbent that Pelosi has apparently become, but the fact that Gonzalez' own Green Party accounted for only 2% of the electorate suggests that the bulk of the city's Democratic voters had actually supported the mayoral candidate to the left of the one Pelosi backed just as they had originally preferred the candidate to her left. In other words, the city's more establishment Democrats like Pelosi and Newsom ultimately win by the sufferance of its Republicans.

The San Francisco Democrats of the sort that Pelosi wants to assure everyone that she's not are not looking to Hugo Chavez, or any other foreign leader, for leadership. But her decision to call a man whose overthrow was supported by the White House a "thug" reminds us why we see the occassional "Barbara Lee speaks for me" bumpersticker in San Francsico – even though the Congresswoman who voted against the war in Afghanistan represents the East Bay and not the city – but no one has yet printed up any that read "Nancy Pelosi speaks for me."

Tom Gallagher

Tom Gallagher

Tom Gallagher is a former Massachusetts State Representative and the author of 'The Primary Route: How the 99% Take On the Military Industrial Complex.' He lives in San Francisco. He can be reached at

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