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Among Democrats in Washington, Pelosi became popular for her prodigious fund raising on behalf of colleagues and her gracious manners; she's often the first person to send flowers if a member's spouse is sick. Staffers also enjoy her largesse. After a lavish meal, she will sometimes say, "Thank God for Paul Pelosi," her investment-banker husband, whose real estate holdings make up much of the couple's $16 million in assets.
Once in Congress, she was embraced especially by liberal Democrats. She opposed the Gulf War and in a 1996 interview with the San Francisco Chronicle said, "I pride myself in being called a liberal" and "I don't consider myself a moderate." In 2001, on the strength of the votes of party progressives, Pelosi won an intense battle with Maryland's Steny Hoyer, who is more centrist, to be the No. 2 Democrat in the House. A year later she defeated another moderate, Martin Frost of Texas, to become the party's leader in the chamber.
In both contests her opponents argued that Pelosi was too liberal, and she hasn't forgotten. Her relationship with Hoyer is tense, and when Pennsylvania Representative John Murtha said he would run against Hoyer for House majority leader if Democrats won this fall, Pelosi did little to dissuade him. When Frost, who is now out of Congress, unsuccessfully ran for chair of the Democratic National Committee last year, Pelosi repeatedly rebuffed his attempts to get her support. While she declines to discuss those conflicts, Pelosi told TIME, "Anybody who's ever dealt with me knows not to mess with me." Pelosi carries a chip on her shoulder, believing that fellow Democrats and media élites have constantly underestimated her political ability, dating back to her unsuccessful effort to become head of the Democratic National Committee in 1985, when she was called an "airhead" by a labor-union official. She will talk about those political battles only vaguely but told me the Democratic establishment in Washington "couldn't control me, so they needed to take me down" and "They can't even believe the fact that I'm going to become Speaker, but they're getting used to it."
Like DeLay, who was also known for bruising rivalries within his party, Pelosi has embraced hard-knuckle partisanship, even if it means standing still. When Bush announced his Social Security plan last year, Pelosi told House Democrats they could never beat him in a straight-ahead, policy-against-policy debate because he had the megaphone of the presidency and was just coming off re-election. So the Democrats would thunderously attack Bush and argue there was no Social Security crisis and therefore no need for them to put out their own proposal. Some members were leery, concerned that Pelosi would make the Democrats look like the Party of No. As the spring of 2005 wore on, some pestered her every week, asking when they were going to release a rival plan. "Never. Is never good enough for you?" Pelosi defiantly said to one member. When Florida Democrat Robert Wexler publicly suggested raising Social Security taxes as the solution, Pelosi immediately chewed him out over the phone. Only one other Democrat signed on to his plan.