Speaker V. Speaker: The Life and Times of Nancy Pelosi and Kevin McCarthy

Both were elected to represent California; both have a long history in politics; both have been known to preside over a somewhat unruly congressional caucus.

New House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) almost saw his fellow Republicans come to blows over his January 2023 election to the Speaker’s chair.

Former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) was once forced to warn her fellow Congressional Democrats not to accuse their House colleagues on Twitter of accepting bribes.

“Think twice,” then-House Speaker Pelosi said during a press interview. “Better yet; think once.”

But aside from California and a willingness to manage the unmanageable, how much do America’s 117th and 118th House Speakers have in common?

Nancy Pelosi: The Political Legacy

Before her election to congress in 1987, Pelosi’s political trajectory was defined by family legacy, activism, fundraising, and party leadership.

“Pelosi grew up in Baltimore, the daughter of the Democratic Mayor Thomas D’Alesandro Jr.,” reported Business Insider on January 2, 2023. “As a young girl, she managed her father’s book of people who owed him political favors.”

Growing up, the Mayor’s daughter learned about political life from a very young age.

During his long political career, Thomas Alesandro, Jr. served on the Baltimore City Council, as a member of the Maryland State house of delegates, as a U.S. Congressman, and as Mayor of Baltimore, Maryland.

Young Nancy and her five brothers worked on their father’s political campaigns and she attended the Democratic Party convention at age 12.

“Her father was a congressman from Baltimore and then became Mayor of Baltimore,” biographer Molly Ball, who wrote Pelosi in 2020, told NPR’s Fresh Air in an interview about the book. 

“He came out of the machine politics of Baltimore, a Democratic city,” said Ball. “She was born in 1940, when her father was already in Congress. So literally from the day she was born, she was part of this very Catholic, very Democratic, very Italian family that was involved in the political life of the city and the nation.”

After attending college, Pelosi married and moved to San Francisco. While raising a family, she was involved in local political issues related to women’s rights, health care, and education. 

She also served as a Democratic Party activist —  working on political campaigns, and advocating for Democratic candidates. Unsurprisingly, she held several leadership positions within the California Democratic Party and was an avid and highly prolific fundraiser.

Her list of pre-congressional titles from 1977–1987 is impressive: Chair of the Northern California Democratic Party, Chair of the California State Democratic Party, San Francisco Democratic National Convention Host Committee chairwoman, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee finance chairwoman.

In contrast to Pelosi, who seemed destined for high office from the outset, Kevin McCarthy’s success story is a bit more unlikely.

Kevin McCarthy: The Long Shot

McCarthy’s early career was defined by entrepreneurship, service, and a farmer’s work ethic.

Unlike Pelosi’s metropolitan upbringing in Baltimore, Maryland, Kevin McCarthy hails from stolidly rural, working-class Bakersville, California. 

McCarthy’s dad was a firefighter, his grandfather worked on the railroad; his great-grandfather was a cattle rancher. They weren’t registered Republicans, let alone Republican politicians.

McCarthy wasn’t even voted “most likely to succeed” by his classmates in school, though he did shine on the football team: “The Drillers”.

“A Bakersville native, he has said his path toward politics was influenced by a stroke of luck,” reported ABC News back in January. “As a young man, he won $5,000 after playing the lottery with a friend, which he parlayed, along with money from flipping cars, into a business selling sandwiches.”

“He worked the deli successfully for a year, then sold out and used the proceeds to put himself through Cal State Bakersfield,” wrote the Los Angeles Times in a November 2003 article about McCarthy’s unlikely rise in California politics.

“I’d gotten interested in politics at the deli,” McCarthy told the LA Times. 

It wasn’t just the taxes.

“If I just tried to put a sign outside my shop, a little guy would pull up from the city and give me a note saying I had to get a permit,” McCarthy explained his motivation for entering politics.

In 1987, the year Nancy Pelosi was elected to Congress, Kevin McCarthy started volunteering at the local office of Republican Congressman Bill Thomas.
McCarthy was soon on the payroll where he stayed for 15 years, eventually becoming district chief of staff.

In 2002, McCarthy was elected to the California State Assembly and began his career in public service.

During his time in the state legislature, McCarthy established himself as a fiscal conservative, advocating for lower taxes and limited government. He also became known for his expertise in water and environmental issues, and he was appointed to the state’s Water, Parks, and Wildlife Committee.

When his former boss, Bill Thomas, retired from Congress in 2007 McCarthy successfully ran for his seat.

Once in Congress, Rep. Kevin McCarthy built on his successes in California state politics, establishing himself as a strong conservative voice in the House of Representatives and quickly rising through the ranks of the Republican Party. 

Kevin McCarthy and Nancy Pelosi may share the state of California, but their districts are as different as the elected officials themselves.

McCarthy’s district, California’s 20th, has a population of 748,911 people spread out over 4,875 square miles. Pelosi’s district, Congressional District 11, CA, has a population of 771,855 spread over only 489 miles.

McCarthy’s district is agriculture, energy production, and defense; like much of California, it is mostly rural. Pelosi’s district is tech-heavy and comprised mainly of the San Francisco metropolitan area.

The vast differences in their respective districts are part of what makes comparing the two so challenging.

A comparison of the legislative priorities of each during their respective time as House minority leaders may offer some insight.

As the House Minority Leader, Kevin McCarthy’s key priorities included:

  1. Jobs and Economic Growth: He emphasized the need for policies that would create jobs and support economic growth, including tax reforms and reducing regulations.
  2. National Security: McCarthy prioritized strengthening national security and ensuring the safety of American citizens, including supporting the military and intelligence communities during his time as Minority Leader.
  3. Healthcare: He worked towards a healthcare system that provides affordable, accessible, and high-quality care for all Americans, particularly those with pre-existing conditions.
  4. Immigration: As Minority Leader, McCarthy advocated for a strong border security policy and a modern immigration system that prioritizes the needs of American workers and families.
  5. Energy: He supported an “all-of-the-above” energy strategy that would increase domestic energy production and reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil.

During her time spent as minority leader in the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi’s priorities were very different. Some of these reflect the key philosophical differences between the two leaders:

  1. Civil Rights and Social Justice: Minority Leader Pelosi prioritized issues related to civil rights and social justice, including measures to protect voting rights, support equal pay for equal work, and address systemic racism and discrimination.
  2. Environment and Climate Change: She supported policies to address the impacts of climate change and promote clean energy, including measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and invest in renewables.
  3. Healthcare: She was a strong advocate for the Affordable Care Act and worked to protect and expand access to affordable healthcare.

How well will House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s legislative priorities translate in service of the American people, as compared with his predecessor? 

Only time will tell.

(Written by Brooke Bell)

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