House Democrats today elected their first new leadership team since 1994, installing U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in the top post in a bid to win back control of the House in 2004.
Pelosi, who hails from San Francisco and has served as minority whip since January, was cheered by her colleagues as she trounced centrist Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.) by 177-to-29 votes en route to becoming the party's first woman leader. She vowed to work with President Bush and Republicans when possible, but also emphasized that Democrats will not be afraid to oppose the GOP.
"We will work together with the Republicans on terrorism and we shall seek common ground on domestic issues and on the economy," she said. "But where we cannot find common ground, we will stand our ground."
Pelosi also talked about the party's need to fertilize its grass roots and increase voter turnout, as well as to promote civility within its ranks. By stressing issues important to the party's base, Pelosi hopes to spur Democratic turnout at the polls in 2004 and avoid another disappointing election like the one on Nov. 5.
In other elections, the caucus overwhelmingly chose Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) as whip, and Rep. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) won the caucus chair race by a single vote over Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.).
Pelosi, meanwhile, announced that she plans to nominate Rep. John Spratt (D-S.C.) as assistant to the minority leader. Spratt, the ranking member of the House Budget Committee, is also a senior member on the Armed Services panel.
The votes, held in the Cannon caucus room, had the feeling of a high-school student government election. Lawmakers sported candidates' buttons on their lapels; Pelosi donned a red power suit and a sparkling American flag pin.
Several of her family members, including her husband, Paul, were there to support her. Her daughter, Alexandra -- whose documentary of the 2000 presidential campaign, Journeys with George, aired on HBO last week -- filmed her mother's acceptance speech to colleagues and the press.
As Pelosi prepares to take the minority leader post now held by Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), she faces a tough task ahead: motivating a party that lost seats on Nov. 5 and steering it back to its liberal base. Her skills as a fundraiser, campaigner, organizer and communicator are likely to help her. Many Democrats frustrated by Gephardt's support of President Bush on the Iraq resolution are expecting that Pelosi will oppose the White House more, and that she'll seek to articulate a positive agenda for the party. Her victory is the first sign that Democrats are embracing a liberal message for 2004 and do not plan to fall in line behind President Bush.
At today's press conference, Pelosi didn't hesitate to remind those present that she was making history as the first woman to be chosen as party leader. "I'm not finished yet," she said to a reporter who tried to interrupt her. "I've been waiting over 200 years." If she helps Democrats take back the House in 2004, Pelosi could make history again as the first female speaker. That would be truly something to celebrate.
Mary Lynn F. Jones is senior editor of the Prospect.