Call her Madam. Madam Speaker, that is.
Nancy Pelosi was one of the big winners in this week’s dramatic midterm elections, as the five-term San Francisco Congresswoman is set to become the next Speaker of the House come January, the first woman in U.S. history to assume the post.
That makes her one of the most important politicians in the world. But San Franciscans that know her best still think of her mostly as a dedicated mother, friend and champion of the Jewish community.
Naomi Lauter is the national community consultant for AIPAC, the Israel lobby based in Washington, D.C., and was the organization’s first regional director here. She’s worked with AIPAC for 25 years, but she’s known Nancy Pelosi even longer.
“We were neighbors in Presidio Terrace in 1970,” remembers Lauter. “We were moms together. Our kids played together, and we sat and watched them. The Pelosis would come to our house for Passover and we would go to theirs for Christmas.”
It was clear to Lauter early on that this daughter of Baltimore mayor and congressman, Thomas D’Alesandro Jr., was born for the political arena. “You couldn’t be with her and not recognize how intelligent and politically astute she was,” says Lauter, “and how much feeling she had for people. That was obvious.”
In the early 1980s, when Lauter worked for the Jewish Community Relations Council, she remembers Pelosi serving on the committee to build San Francisco’s Holocaust Memorial. “That old saying, ‘Some of my best friends are Jewish’ — some of Nancy’s best friends are Jewish,” Lauter says.
Sam Lauter, a pro-Israel activist in San Francisco and Naomi Lauter’s son, has known Pelosi for nearly 40 years. He was 5 years old when the Pelosis moved into his San Francisco neighborhood.
“She’s one of the classiest,” most “straightforward people you could ever meet,” Lauter says. “As far as the Jewish community is concerned, she feels our issues in her soul.”
To illustrate his point, Lauter tells a Pelosi story that has become almost legendary in the Jewish community.
At an AIPAC members’ luncheon in San Francisco right after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, Pelosi was speaking when an alarm sounded.
“Everybody started getting nervous, scrambling toward the door,” Lauter recalls. One person, though, was reading the words of Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem, above the din. It was Pelosi.
“It actually calmed the crowd. You could see people smiling, saying ‘Wow.’ This wasn’t something done purposefully to show everyone that Nancy Pelosi supports the Jewish community. It actually came from inside her.”
Amy Friedkin, past president of AIPAC and a member of its board of directors, is a longtime friend. “I’ve known Nancy Pelosi for 25 years,” she says. “I’ve heard her say numerous times that the single greatest achievement of the 20th century was the founding of the state of Israel. She has been a great friend of the U.S.-Israel relationship during her time in Congress and is deeply committed to strengthening that relationship.”
Friedkin also noted that there is even a soccer field in Haifa, Israel, named for Pelosi’s family (the D’Alesandros).
Philanthropist and Jewish community leader Richard Goldman has worked with Pelosi for decades, and though he is a registered Republican, he has great respect for the incoming speaker.
“We’re just very good friends,” he says. “I feel as close to her as anyone in politics. She knows what she’s getting into; she’s a very wise political person.”
In 2003 Pelosi was a guest at the Goldman Environmental Prize ceremony in San Francisco, delivering the keynote address. The prize is a major project of the Goldman Fund.
Rabbi Doug Kahn, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council in San Francisco, has known Pelosi since she started representing his district in 1987. Kahn says his group has always had an excellent relationship with her, and he praises her passion for issues that relate to equal opportunity, social justice and peace.
Kahn says that Pelosi, coming from a city with a liberal political reputation, will face challenges from the liberal segments of the Democratic Party that have criticized Israeli policies. But he is confident that she will be effective in persuading people of the importance of maintaining bipartisan support for Israel.
Community leader Roselyne Swig counts Pelosi among her closest friends, and believes she’s a natural for her new job. “She’s done a wonderful job of being sensitive to a very diverse population in San Francisco,” she says. “She’s garnered tremendous respect from her peers and built loyalties with people who have worked with her over the years. She’ll bring unity.”
Tom Dine is another local Jewish leader who knows Pelosi well. The former AIPAC executive director and current CEO of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, Dine has nothing but praise for his friend.
“When I would see her in D.C. about the pro-Israel agenda,” he recalls, “her first question was, ‘Tell me how I can help you.’ She considers herself kin.”
Not every San Francisco Jew is so sanguine about Pelosi’s rise. Norman Epstein of the Northern California chapter of the Republican Jewish Coalition saw the election as a referendum on Iraq, but he doubts Pelosi will improve the situation.
“I’m tremendously concerned about her policies,” says Epstein, “given that she and her fellow Democrat leaders have no clue about the nature of the Islamo-fascist enemy. They want to wipe out the free world and Israel. My hope is that as an Israel supporter, she will support John Bolton as U.N. ambassador. He’s been steadfast in supporting the USA and especially Israel. That’s one step we can all agree on.”
Another thing most observers agree on: Pelosi’s new job will not be a walk in the park.
“She’s has to lead a party of varied predilections and policies,” says Dine, who understands well the ways of Washington. “She’s going to be the No. 1 Democrat. All eyes will be on her and how she gives direction to the party, and for 2008.”
Says Lauter: “She’ll be fantastic because she understands where the country is politically. She’s a person who brings people together.”
Lauter admits that at moments she’s still amazed that her old friend and neighbor is now one of the most powerful women in America.
“I would look in the window sometimes passing by,” recalls Lauter, “and there she had fed, bathed and put to bed the five kids and then made dinner for her husband. I don’t think people understand what a traditional person she is. Her husband, kids and grandkids are the most important thing to her. She believes in making the world better for her grandchildren.”
Jennifer Jacobson of JTA contributed to this story.