Pelosi and San Francisco's Loony Left

In the days before YouTube and Comedy Central, a politician's debut on "Saturday Night Live" was The Breakthrough Moment: a pol worth spoofing was a pol worth paying attention to. While the appearance of a prim, wide-eyed Nancy Pelosi look-alike on last week's SNL didn't get as much attention as it once might have, a few cultural truths did emerge.

First, the nation's first female Speaker is relentlessly, maddeningly poised. Whether embracing her one-time rival Steny Hoyer with a pained smile—as she was forced to Thursday on Capitol Hill after fellow Democrats elected him majority leader over her candidate, Rep. Jack Murtha—or, as her look-alike did on SNL, shooing away a male couple in leather bondage gear who kept stumbling into her congressional office, Pelosi is becoming known to the public as the woman who smiles through it all, as if posing for her family's Christmas card photo while the kids pinch each other and the dog chases the cat around the tree.

Secondly, San Francisco, home of the congressional district Pelosi has represented since 1987, is as ripe for satire as the new Speaker-elect. While GOP attack ads in the final days of the campaign warned darkly that a Pelosi speakership would mean the imposition of "San Francisco values" on the rest of America, there is little evidence voters took the bait. (NEWSWEEK polls several weeks before the election showed that most Americans didn't even know who she was.) But Pelosi's ascension to Speaker means a whole new level of scrutiny for her, and the city she has lived in for the past 40 years.

The latest round of San Francisco-bashing started on Election Day, when San Francisco voters—80% of whom re-elected Pelosi—also got a chance to approve Proposition J, a measure calling for the impeachment of President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. Not surprisingly, in a city where Bush won only 15 percent in 2004, nearly 60 percent of San Francisco voters thought impeachment was a good idea. Never mind that the measure was politically meaningless: the San Francisco city council has no more power to impeach the president than it does to require the immediate withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Iraq, as voters demanded in another sense-of-the-people initiative in 2004. Then this week, the San Francisco school board voted to eject the junior ROTC from the city's high schools, after activists complained the military training program promoted homophobia and militarism.

While events like these cement the city's image as the place where the loony left is in charge, there's little to suggest that Pelosi is their captive. San Francisco is a liberal, western city to be sure, but it is far more defined by its vibrant culture of technology and innovation than people who picket school board meetings (or, for that matter, scamper around in leather harnesses). Those looking for clues as to how Pelosi will manage her party's fractious majority would do better to look beyond the absurdly narrow spectrum of San Francisco. "I think 20 years in Congress have let her rise above the fray," says San Francisco City Supervisor Bevan Dufty, who represents the same district on the San Francisco city council that Pelosi does in Congress. "People are always underestimating her. They don't seem to realize how incredibly pragmatic she really is."

The Speaker-elect came up through the ranks of the Democratic Party not as a rabble-rouser, but as a prodigious fundraiser. A devout Catholic, she routinely bats away questions about "San Francisco values" with a homily about St. Francis, the city's patron saint. Now 66, she missed the counterculture by a mile: while everyone else was at Woodstock, Pelosi was a stay-at-home mom herding her uniformed children to parochial school, in a clear reprise of her own childhood in Baltimore, where her father was mayor. (Both cities that made Pelosi, San Francisco and Baltimore, are remarkably alike in some ways: insular, ethnic, Catholic.) "They try to make her out to be a wild-eyed kook," says John Burton, the former congressman whose family has close ties to Pelosi. "She's no kook. She's an Italian-Catholic grandmother who goes to church every f-----g Sunday."

The alternative San Francisco Bay Guardian routinely scolds Pelosi for being a sellout; for supporting the Patriot Act; for criticizing Bush, but never failing to approve war appropriations; for buddying up to Rep. Jack Murtha; for being rich (her husband, Paul, a retired investor, made a real estate fortune that allowed Nancy time to dabble in politics while raising the couple's five children); and other unpardonable mainstream sins. Had she popped in to this week's meeting of her hometown school board, with hippie parents and gay activists squaring off against veterans over the ROTC, she may have found herself scarcely more popular than Donald Rumsfeld. "By my 'San Francisco values' she's not a liberal or a progressive," said anti-war activist Tommi Avicolli Mecca of the Speaker-elect. "Democrats seize power and the first thing she does is kiss Bush's a-s." Despite pleas from veterans, parents and students, many from poor, minority neighborhoods, the school board voted 4-2 to phase out the ROTC.

Episodes such as these pain Mayor Gavin Newsom, a Pelosi protégé, who, of course, generated his own share of headlines from the city by the bay in 2004 by granting marriage licenses to same-sex couples in violation of state law. These days, the mayor, still young at 39 but showing the first flecks of gray in his famous pompadour, wants San Francisco known not only as a bastion of tolerance and eccentricity, but as a pro-business, high-tech haven, and until the 49ers bolted town this week for a better stadium deal elsewhere, as a contender for hosting the 2016 Olympic Games. When I caught up with Newsom, he was dedicating a new hotel offering housing and social services for the homeless. Asked about the school board decision, Newsom buried his face in his hands. "Here we go again," Newsom responded, obviously exasperated. "This is exactly the kind of thing that is fun for people outside the city to cover, but it does generate a terrible message."

As he railed against peace activists for robbing the city's teens, many underprivileged, of a vital after-school activity, Newsom sounded like any of the conservative cable talking heads tut-tutting yet another example of San Francisco excess. (Though none of it rose to the level of Bill O'Reilly's taunt last year on FOX News to Al Qaeda sympathizers to "go right ahead" and blow up Coit Tower, one of the city's landmarks.) Newsom says Pelosi's newfound prominence will give San Francisco a chance to rebrand itself in the eyes of the country as the home of brilliant scientists and creative leaders. "We have to work through the clichés," he admits. "But then I can't wait to showcase the real virtues of this city. The rest of the country should be so lucky."