‘People Think of Pelosi as a California Liberal; No, She’s Like a Baltimore Boss’

Yves here. This post reviews how Nancy Pelosi, whose father was a political boss, honed her family-imbued skills under the tutelage of California’s Phil Burton.

It’s also worth noting that the Democrats, despite the fantasies of New Yorkers otherwise, have become a California party. California leftism is skin deep, once you get outside Berkeley. It’s a young state where people came to make money. The economy’s dependence on immigrant farm hands means it has turned a blind eye to inequality and labor abuses.

By Thomas Neuburger. Originally published at God’s Spies

This will be a short piece, a pointer to information available elsewhere. I may return to this later, but for now, these are the essentials. Note: This is not to denigrate Nancy Pelosi, but to describe the very high level of her skill.

In light of the news that Nancy Pelosi will step down as leader of the House Democrats, people are asking “What’s her legacy?” The better question is, “What’s her reality?”

People think of Nancy Pelosi as a “California liberal.” According to Ryan Grim, DC bureau chief for The Intercept, she is actually like a “Baltimore boss,” an old-school big city machine boss. I find that this explains a lot about, not just who she is, but how she retained so much Congressional power — to a degree not seen, I think, since LBJ — for so many years.

Listen to his explanation, starting at 4:18 in this clip from the Counterpoints podcast of November 18:

Bottom line: Pelosi is the daughter of Baltimore boss “Big Tommy” Delosantro, she learned the ways of machine bosses from an early age, and she runs the Party in the House by the lessons she learned. She has the old Mayor Daley’s secret weapon, a magnificent memory for personal details, and she uses money to maintain control, which she seems to covet.

As Ryan says at 6:07 in the clip: “People think of her as a California liberal now; no, she’s like a Baltimore boss.” Again, this is not to denigrate her, but to describe the nature and level of her skill.

There’s much more of her history at Bad News, Ryan’s Substack site, in a major piece called “The real story of the making of Nancy Pelosi,” including her transformation by California politician Phil Burton and Tony Coelho.

Here’s a section from Grim’s book We’ve Got People, which he reprinted at Bad News. It will give you a taste of the whole story (emphasis mine):

Burton, who served in Congress for 19 years, was a transformative political figure both in California and in the education of Pelosi. Labor reporter Harold Meyerson once called him “the single most important member of the House of Representatives in the ’60s and ’70s.”

Pelosi is often lauded for her uncanny ability to count votes, something that was also said repeatedly of Burton. He was a role model for Pelosi, someone who was enthusiastic about fundraising and took politics seriously, rather than a purist who stood aloof from what many on the left saw as a corrupt endeavor. “I’m a fighting liberal,” Burton would famously say. His biographer, John Jacobs, agreed: “A ruthless and unabashed progressive, Burton terrified his opponents, ran over his friends, forged improbable coalitions, and from 1964 to 1983 became one of the most influential Representatives in the House. He also acquired more raw power than almost any left-liberal politician ever had.”

Fighting meant getting your hands dirty. Burton pioneered gerrymandering in California (“My contribution to modern art,” he called it; he even drew a district so that his brother John could have a House seat, too) and began what is now a common practice of spreading PAC money around to colleagues in tough races in order to build power within the caucus. He helped shape the House floor process so that lobbyists would have more ability to tweak individual pieces of legislation, uncorking contributions from K Street and helping to create the Washington ecosystem we know today. Burton encouraged Pelosi to run in one of the new districts he had drawn, but she demurred.

First elected in 1964, he took on the power of the Southern bulls, who had used seniority and one-party rule in the South to lock down control of key committee chairmanships. The sooner the party could crush its Dixiecrat wing, he argued, the better. Burton organized his liberal colleagues and reformed the process for selecting chairs, replacing it with a secret vote, which was the beginning of the end of Southern dominance of the House Democratic caucus.

In 1976, he fell one vote short in a bid for majority leader in a three-way race he had been expected to win. The progressive vote was split between Burton and Richard Bolling, allowing Texas populist Jim Wright to speak through. Had Burton been in leadership during the rise of Reagan, the Democratic response may have been far different and more effective.

In Pelosi, Burton had a ready student. If your knowledge of her comes from Republican attack ads, you know her as a “San Francisco liberal” or even “radical,” but she was raised in Maryland by her father Thomas D’Alesandro Jr., the boss of the Baltimore political machine, who was by turns a congressman and mayor of Charm City. D’Alesandro’s operation, like most big-city machines of the era, was linked in public to local Mafia figures, according to his FBI file.

Burton rightly saw in Pelosi that rarest of breeds, a liberal born to fight. In Burton, Pelosi found someone who knew how to make progressive change actually happen. His list of legislative achievements was long — Supplemental Security Income, a higher minimum wage, compensation for black lung, food stamps for striking workers, the abolition of the House Un-American Affairs Committee — despite or, in part, because of his legendary ruthlessness and rage.

Jim Shoch, a prominent radical activist in the 1970s, told me about the first time he met with Burton. “I think he was actually yelling into two phones at the same time when we entered his office,” he said. “Part of our conversation included his recent success in favorably gerrymandering California for the Democrats. With a deeply satisfied expression on his face he exclaimed, We fucked ’em! We fucked ’em!

John Burton, Phil’s brother and himself a former congressman, said that Phil never quite mentored Pelosi. “I mean, Christ, this is a woman who was brought up in Baltimore politics. He wasn’t working with some neophyte that all of a sudden he had to explain, Well, here’s how it works. They got along because even though she was an ‘amateur’ at that time, she was still a pro,’” Burton told author Vincent Bzdek for the book Woman of the House. He acknowledged, though, that Phil helped “hone her skills.”

They differed greatly in their outward demeanor, but internally had much the same drive. “Nancy is tougher than nails, but she’s a gentle person. Phillip was just hard-ass and hard charging. He could be charming sometimes but I can’t quite remember when,” said John Burton.

Pelosi said that her Baltimore education made Burton easy to handle. “Actually, my family really prepared me for Phil Burton. One of the reasons I got along with Phil is because I wasn’t afraid of him. I knew a lot of people like him,” she told Bzdek.

“Even though she was an amateur at the time, she was still a pro” — meaning, as my Chicago background says it, a Richard J. Daley–type pro. See Mike Royko’s wonderful book Boss for the full definition.

I strongly suggest listening to the segment above, and if it interests you, read the full post at Substack. Perhaps it will open your eyes to the true key to Pelosi’s power, and why, to these eyes, though she’s drifted far from the liberal goals she had, she’s always remained the party boss she is.

This may go far to explaining the Party today, and why Hakeem Jeffries, hater of the left, is the next anointed.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. John R Moffett

    Nancy Pelosi represents the PMC and MIC, like virtually all Democrats, and that makes them all more like mob bosses than anything else. Of course the Red Team is just as bad as the Blue Team in this regard, bringing us to the conclusion that our country is run by two waring crime families fighting over turf in DC.

    1. Tristan

      This is correct. I’m not for either party and I’m absolutely exhausted seeing both sides pat themselves on the back for turning this country into a hellhole that runs on misery, death, and making money for already wealthy people, while their citizen supporters act smug.

  2. Tom Stone

    Phil Burton was also Willie Brown’s mentor although he was closer to John and as for Nancy I ran across a pic of her with a young Jack Kennedy from the year Sputnik was launched.
    Jesse Unruh was also part of that group and they did some wonderful things in the early 60’s, like no more racial or religious covenants in deeds.
    That was a very big deal.
    FWIW when she was young she was prettier than AOC, a whole lot smarter and an order of magnitude tougher.

    1. anahuna

      Please. In what way is your statement that the young Nancy Pelosi was “prettier” than AOC (obviously, a matter of opinion) relevant to a discussion of her skills? Do you mean that her looks helped her win political battles? Otherwise, it sounds as if the comment is just a way of dismissing AOC — which many do, but why is “pretty” the criterion?

  3. The Rev Kev

    That Phil Burton was a real piece of work and you can thank him for how Congress works these days. From his Wikipedia page-

    ‘In 1973, Burton allowed a bill to go to the floor without a “closed rule”—a stipulation that there could be no amendments proposed to it—for the first time since the 1920s. The ending of the closed rule created an infusion of federal lobbyists at the Capitol building; the lobbyists targeted members of Congress to add funding for lobbyists’ favorite projects into bills. For this reason, David Frum wrote that Burton “created the modern Congress” more than anyone else.’

    And when Burton died in office in ’83, a special election was held which allowed his wife to finish his term and control his House seat for another four years. And when she died in office in ’87, another special election was held and his House seat was passed on to – you guessed it – Nancy Pelosi. So this tells me to watch carefully who gets Nancy’s House seat when she finally goes. My bet is one of her kids-


    1. Wukchumni

      It’s kinda funny, we have a couple of scoundrel politicians who loomed large in Mineral King, with Burton getting it attached to Sequoia NP in 1978, and Devin Nunes getting perpetual ownership rights for those with cabins on Federal land in MK in 2004, and got the John Krebs Wilderness within MK designated in 2007.

      In 1978, the Carter administration supported adding Mineral King to Sequoia National Park. California congressman Phil Burton had introduced a bill to place Mineral King in the park ten years earlier. Master legislative tactician that he was, he included the measure in the omnibus National Parks and Recreation Act of 1978, and on November 10, 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed the legislation and in Selmi’s words, “The long battle had ended.”


  4. jo6pac

    Still dead uncle Phil did do one nice thing for the Bay Area when he lost the leader battle. The Bay Area got a great park system.

    1. juno mas

      San Francisco was going to have a great park system long before Phil Burton. In the 1860’s the local power brokers were pushing for a large central park similar to Central Park in New York City.

      The result was Golden Gate Park. Larger than Central Park. While the SF municipal (SF County) park system has grown, much of the open space around the City is federally managed. For that you can thank Burton.

  5. David in Santa Cruz

    There is nothing “Left-wing liberal” about Nancy Pelosi or the Baltimore-style money machine she helped create in California. Two examples:

    1) The blatant looting of the CalPERS pension trust by the Democrat establishment via pass-throughs to Private Equity and Real Estate lobbyists (Follow the Money).

    2) Silicon Valley’s abuse of the H1-B visa program to import and exploit hundreds of thousands of low-wage workers from South Asia, accomplished by bribes to Democrat machine.

    People who didn’t grow-up in California can’t seem to wrap their heads around how comprehensively corrupt Pelosi has been and how her corruption has permeated and distorted the political environment.

    1. JBird4049

      I am a child of a California native, have had Pelosi as my representative and I have hard time realizing how corrupt the state is and how much a few families and individuals like Pelosi are responsible. Not for the corruption, which has been in existence since before the Gold Rush, but in supercharging it; by doing so, they not only destroyed much of the economy outside Silicon Valley, they bifurcated the population into the wealthy and everyone else. Thus making the state much like a Banana Republic with a (narrow) tech industry replacing bananas. It is the resource curse as well except for something like oil it is Big Tech.

  6. chuck roast

    Did Bankman-Fried give $6M to Pelosi’s PAC? Seems reasonable. She would have paved the way for an FDIC guarantee. A seat on the Fed? Not out of the question after she and her acolytes sent him to a barber and sartorially spiffed him up. His reputation (formerly) spoke for itself due to the oligarch-adjacents that fawned all over him. We dodged a bullet on that one.

  7. Mark Gisleson

    I wasn’t nearly as skeptical as I should have been when Harry Reid passed the torch to Pelosi. She has been so very much worse than I expected. All the evil hidden behind curtains before is now done openly on the Capitol steps, hands permanently outstretched with palms up, beseechingly accompanied by the mantra, “Please donate now.”

    I’d say that Pelosi is a professional mendicant, and that the only people she bullies are the other members of the Democratic House Caucus, but in that regard she is an absolute gangster, il capo di tutti i politici.

  8. Polar Donkey

    Does anyone think history will be kind to Pelosi, Schumer, Reid, McConnell? It has been disaster after disaster for 20 years. They had power and what did you do with it? Patriot Act, NCLB, Obamacare, Bankruptcy bill, Pay-go. Nor did they do any oversight. Iraq, Afghanistan, global financial meltdown, the defense budget, the state department/intelligency agencies, the rise of China, collapse of American hegemony, opiod crisis, etc, etc, etc. All their “power” just made them rotting fish heads.

  9. Michael

    I have a little different memory of Pelosi. Remember Steny Hoyer in 2006?

    This article from the NYT in 2006 lays out a broader picture of the politics.
    Lots of familiar names and a good photo.

    The 2006 midterms were brutal to Bush and the Rs

    “”The final result was a 31-seat pickup for the Democrats, including the pickup of the Vermont at-large seat, previously held by Independent Bernie Sanders (who ran instead for U.S. Senate), who caucused with the Democrats. Democrats defeated 22 Republican incumbents and won eight open Republican-held seats. For the first time since the party’s founding, Republicans won no seats previously held by Democrats and defeated no Democratic incumbents.””

    1. JBird4049

      ??? Bush and the Republicans were hammered by the Second Iraq War, not by any good work on the national scene by Pelosi. Even if I am wrong about that, my I ask just what good works has she done for liberals, or the left, or the citizens of California, or the citizens of the United States, and not their ruling elites? She has had political power for decades and her efforts seem to have been for the enrichment of the wealthy, powerful, and connected, only; Burton was problematic, sometimes strongly, but his focus seems to have been for all the people and just for wealthy.

  10. Mike Miller

    There is an assumption that building a political organization and being a liberal or progressive are, if not incompatible, antagonistic to each other. Phil Burton built a political organization, so did Vito Marcantonio, the left-wing Congressman from East Harlem who survived a united Republican-Democrat-Liberal Party attack on him to win re-election in 1948.

    That’s a wrong assumption.

    Mike Miller

    1. JBird4049

      I have a book about Marcantonio that I have been meaning to read. He looks to have been both an excellent politician and a real liberal and leftist doing work for the people. It is too bad that he died of a heart attack relatively young.

Comments are closed.