Pelosi runs for 20th term insulated from concerns over age

September 11, 2023 11:48 AM

Former Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) announced on Friday that she would run for a 20th term in the House, largely unencumbered by the scrutiny over age that has vexed her octogenarian colleagues.

At 83, Pelosi is older than Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who is dealing in very public terms with the lingering effects of a fall he suffered earlier this year. The age of President Joe Biden is at the center of conservative mockery, and quiet Democratic concern, as he vies for a second term he would begin at 82.

Nancy Pelosi
Former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) arrives for a closed-door Democratic caucus meeting at the Capitol in Washington on July 18, 2023.

(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)


Pelosi is not immune from that scrutiny. She agreed to relinquish her 20-year reign atop the House Democratic Caucus last year under pressure to make way for a new generation of leadership, and her reelection plans have revived debate over the “gerontocracy” running Capitol Hill.

But her decision to stay in Congress as a rank-and-file member, now with the honorific title of speaker emerita, has in some sense neutralized those concerns, allowing her to remain a power broker behind the scenes without the consternation her age had caused.

Pelosi, who has represented her San Francisco district since she won a special election in 1987, said her decision to run for another term was a matter of unfinished business.

She wants to use her clout to deny former President Donald Trump, twice impeached under her watch, a second term in the White House. More importantly, she has a vested interest in helping Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), her successor as the top Democrat in the House, retake the majority and become speaker, a position she held twice.

Pelosi is an informal adviser to Jeffries and, tapping into the deep pockets of the California donor class, has helped him raise tens of millions in his first months on the job.

The role is unusual — most congressional leaders retire after passing the baton — but it’s something of a middle ground for Pelosi. She can influence the future of the caucus without herself being at the helm.

The ability to manage her own exit is, in part, a byproduct of her relative health. Pelosi’s San Francisco colleague, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), decided to retire at the end of her term next year amid immense pressure from Democrats concerned by her perceived mental decline. She turned 90 in June, weeks after a nearly three-month absence from the Senate caused by a severe case of shingles.

Republicans have largely stood behind McConnell, 81, following two episodes this summer in which he froze in front of the cameras, but the incidents have raised questions about his ability to continue leading the Senate GOP conference.

Pelosi had a brush with her own mortality last year when a hammer-wielding man broke into her San Francisco home searching for her. He instead found her husband, who continues to recover from a skull fracture and injuries to his hands and right arm.

But Pelosi has kept questions over her fitness to serve at bay. She remains mentally sharp in interviews and maintains a busy schedule.

It was the tight grip on her caucus, not her fitness, that created friction within her party. She led House Democrats for almost two decades without a serious threat. Her leadership was tested, however, in 2016 when a third of her caucus voted for then-Rep. Tim Ryan after Democrats again failed to reclaim a majority they lost in the Tea Party wave of 2010.

It wasn’t just Pelosi sitting atop the caucus. Her two deputies, Reps. Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and Jim Clyburn (D-SC), had served alongside her for roughly as long. Her tenure, in effect, was blocking any meaningful change in the leadership ranks.

Pelosi nevertheless won reelection as speaker in 2016, but she agreed to a number of concessions, among them allowing members, not leadership, to select who will lead the House Democrats’ campaign arm. She again won in 2018 but, facing public opposition from more than a dozen House Democrats, committed to step down in four years’ time.

She honored that promise in November, coordinating a changing of the guard that also saw Hoyer and Clyburn step back, albeit reluctantly.

Pelosi simultaneously made clear, however, that she would not be riding into the sunset, even as a rank-and-file member.

“There are all kinds of ways to exert influence. The speaker has awesome power, but I will always have influence,” she told CNN last year as speculation mounted about her next steps.

She declined to take any committee assignments in the new Congress yet remains a fundraising powerhouse for Democratic candidates and causes. In May, Biden tapped her to lead his reelection campaign’s national advisory board.

Neither has Pelosi shrunk from the public eye. She vocally defends Biden from criticism of his age and has denounced calls for Feinstein to step down as sexist.

The age of the nation’s leaders has long been a critique of those agitating for change. GOP presidential candidate Nikki Haley, 51, has called for term limits and mental competency tests for politicians older than 75.

But it has taken on increased importance with government so narrowly divided. Feinstein’s absence from the 51-49 Senate left Democrats with only marginal control and held up confirmation of the party’s more controversial judicial nominees.

Pelosi’s continued sway extends to Feinstein. She is credited with helping stanch calls for her to step down, and her daughter has emerged as Feinstein’s caretaker on the Hill. Their families have long been close, but the arrangement raised speculation that Pelosi has ulterior motives — keeping Feinstein in her seat through the end of her term was seen as a way of aiding Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), Pelosi’s preferred candidate to succeed Feinstein.

Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-CA) has promised to appoint a black woman to Feinstein’s seat if she steps down early, a move that could hand Schiff’s 2024 rival, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), the advantage of incumbency as they compete for a full term. Newsom made clear on Sunday, however, that he would not appoint Lee to the seat.

Even before Feinstein announced she would retire, her would-be successors were announcing their candidacies.

Pelosi is being shown more deference. She has faced only marginal challenges for her seat during her 36-year tenure in the House. Although the candidates angling to replace her, chief among them Scott Weiner, who represents San Francisco in the state Senate, have been making preparations in the event Pelosi retires, none would dare challenge her. Christine, another of Pelosi’s daughters, is thought to be considering an eventual run as well.

“Defeating an incumbent in San Francisco is virtually impossible,” Steven Maviglio, a Democratic strategist in California, said.


That leaves Pelosi, insulated from criticism in Washington and still a towering figure in San Francisco politics, firmly in control of her own destiny as she runs for another term.

“Any candidate who’s dreamed of succeeding her is going to be running in place for the next two years,” Maviglio said.