December 02, 2002 12:00 PM

Early on, Nancy Pelosi learned that the trick in politics is scoring a seat at the table. In 1957, when she was 16, she begged her father, “Big Tommy” D’Alesandro Jr., then mayor of Baltimore, to let her accompany him to a black-tie banquet. He agreed, and she found herself seated next to a rising senator from Massachusetts named John F. Kennedy, who chatted with her as dignitaries paid their respects. “When members of a local youth group asked her to join them in a distant corner, she demurred. “I said to myself, ‘Do you think I’m going to leave sitting here?’ ” she says with an impish grin.

These days, Pelosi, 62, doesn’t worry much about being on the sidelines. On Nov. 14, when she was elected House Democratic leader, the San Francisco legislator became the highest-ranking woman in congressional history. But Pelosi already has her eye on another job, provided she can avenge her party’s recent losses and regain the majority in 2004: Speaker of the House. Is she daunted by the task? “No,” she says. “I’m very comfortable with it.”

Pelosi’s liberal views—she supports abortion and gay rights and voted against using military force in Iraq—have given GOPers confidence too. “If she is true to her past and her district,” says Ohio Rep. Deborah Pryce, “the Democratic caucus will be far too liberal for the country.”

Still, even her foes concede that Pelosi is, as Majority Leader-elect Tom DeLay (R-Texas) puts it, “a worthy opponent.” Admired for her courtesy in the often rough-and-tumble House, she is also a huge fund-raiser, having brought in around $8 million in the last election cycle. “People have always underestimated Nancy,” says CNN commentator Bill Press. “I believe that if she had been in charge, the Democrats would be in the majority. She knows how to recruit the best candidates, and she knows how to win.”

Growing up in Baltimore’s Little Italy, the youngest of Thomas and Annunciata D’Alesandro’s seven children and the only girl, Pelosi learned politics early. Her father, an eighth-grade dropout, was a five-term congressman and mayor from 1947 to 1959 (Pelosi’s brother Thomas J. D’Alesandro III held the post from ’67 to ’71). Her mother cooked for constituents who came to the door.

For Pelosi, who was kept under strict supervision by her Catholic parents, leaving at 18 for all-female Trinity College in Washington, D.C., was “the equivalent of going to Australia with a backpack.” Yet she hardly ran wild. She shelved plans to go to law school after meeting Paul Pelosi, a San Francisco native, while taking a class at Georgetown University. The two married in 1963, shortly after her graduation. “They’ve been devoted to each other from the start,” says Pelosi’s college roommate, Alexandria, Va., homemaker Rita Meyer.

While Paul pursued a banking career, his wife had five children in six years. In 1969 the family moved from New York City to his hometown, where Pelosi honed her organizing skills on Nancy, now 38 and a homemaker; Christine, 36, chief of staff to Rep. John Tierney (D-Mass.); Jacqueline, 35, a homemaker; Paul Jr., 33, a San Francisco banker; and Alexandra, 32, a filmmaker in New York City. Pelosi was a hands-on parent, baking birthday cakes and ironing her daughters’ Catholic school uniforms. “With five of us, she was a car-pool mom for somebody every day of the week,” says Paul Jr. Adds Alexandra, who made the documentary Journeys with George about her experiences covering the Bush campaign for NBC News: “We were like the kids from The Simpsons-she couldn’t get anyone to babysit.” But Pelosi never lost her passion for politics, and once the kids were in school, she began volunteering for the local Democratic party.

In 1976 Pelosi helped pull off a Maryland presidential-primary victory for California Gov. Jerry Brown by using her Baltimore connections. A stint as chairman of the California Democratic party followed, and in 1987 U.S. Rep. Sala Burton, dying of cancer, persuaded her to run for the soon-to-be-vacated seat. “She was fabulous at promoting other candidates but never herself,” says her husband.

Pelosi won—and she has remained in near-constant motion ever since. Downtime is spent at a multimillion-dollar home in Pacific Heights, a getaway in Napa Valley or an apartment in Georgetown. A confessed chocoholic, she decompresses by tackling the New York Times crossword puzzle. In fact, that may be the one thing that can stand between the congresswoman and her constituents. “I’m happy to talk to anybody, except when I’m doing my crossword,” says Pelosi. “Then, please, please, don’t bother me!”

J.D. Heyman in Washington, D.C.

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