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Politics & Policy

How Nancy Pelosi’s big retirement decision could change 2023

Former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) arrives at her weekly news conference at the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 1, 2022. | Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Will she stay or should she go now? 

It’s the question everyone in San Francisco politics wondered about for months, and Nancy Pelosi remains the only person who can answer it after announcing she would not seek another term as House speaker following the midterm elections.

Fresh off another election victory and now settling into her new role as speaker emerita, Pelosi seems intent on keeping everyone in suspense as to whether she intends to serve out her 19th two-year term. She recently went as far as telling a Chronicle reporter that questioning her political future is a “waste of my time.”

So, on that note—let’s waste some time!

The Standard spoke with current and former elected officials, political consultants and campaign experts across San Francisco to get a better read on what could happen if Pelosi resigns in the next year. That would trigger a special election, and—depending on who wins the speculative race—more elections and appointments could follow. 

Here are the potential butterfly effects of Pelosi calling it a career.

The Relay Race

Christine Pelosi has never held elected office. And yet, the national Democratic Party leader, attorney and activist is an early contender to succeed her mother in an undeclared field. Other likely candidates include state Sen. Scott Wiener and former SF Supervisor Jane Kim.

Christine Pelosi has the connections to launch a powerful campaign on short notice, not only due to her mother’s stature as the first woman House speaker, but also from her own career, which includes stops in the San Francisco City Attorney and District Attorney’s offices. Even her potential opponents acknowledge as much

“Christine is someone who has been a Democratic Party activist and certainly someone who has carved out her own political identity,” Kim said in a phone interview. “I think she would run on her work in the party, and not just as her mother’s daughter.”

Neither Nancy Pelosi’s office nor Christine Pelosi responded to requests for comment, but sources recently told The Standard that the speaker emerita’s daughter has been lining up large donors for a potential run. Her biggest strength as a candidate might be the fact that the Pelosi brand is almost universally respected in San Francisco, and a short campaign cycle favors candidates with recognizable names.

But she would also benefit from her mother serving one last term, which would put Wiener in the tough position of deciding whether to run for Congress or seek another term in the state Senate. He has to declare his intent to run for either seat by December 2023 to participate in the primaries in 2024.

Larry Gerston, professor emeritus for San Jose State University’s political science department and a political analyst for NBC Bay Area, said a passing of the baton between Pelosis could be the most likely outcome.

“We’ve seen a lot of that in politics,” Gerston said. “It wouldn’t be the first time.”

Jane Kim, a former supervisor and mayoral candidate, speaks to The San Francisco Chronicle staff during a meeting on April 5, 2018. | Liz Hafalia/The SF Chronicle via Getty Images

Kim’s Convenience

On election day last month, Jane Kim was overheard at John’s Grill telling people she’s looking into a run for Pelosi’s seat. But in an interview last week, Kim suggested it’s too soon to know how things will shake out.

“The one thing I’ve been very honest with everyone about is that it really is all about timing,” she said. “And that’s something I don’t control because, you know, that’s the sole discretion of the speaker—as it should be.”

Kim has the progressive bonafides to lock up much of San Francisco’s far left, and her recent work as head of the Working Families Party could give Christine Pelosi and Wiener a challenge in courting certain factions of labor. Kim also has the experience of serving as a supervisor and school board member in San Francisco before going on to run two rough-and-tumble campaigns for state Senate (she lost in 2016 to Wiener) and mayor (she finished third in 2018 behind Mayor London Breed and Mark Leno). 

But it might be Kim’s work as the California chair of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign that gives the best window into what she would look like as a congressional candidate. Kim, who could fashion herself as a West Coast addition to The Squad, said San Franciscans are more socially conservative and fiscally liberal than many people realize. She added that the focus on identity politics has been a miscalculation to connecting with voters more concerned with the economy and day-to-day life.

“I think it’s a big mistake for the Democratic Party to have shied away from pursuing a more progressive economic agenda,” Kim said, adding that many city residents are less concerned with identity politics and more supportive of Medicare for All and free college tuition. “Most voters care about issues like abortion. But most voters want to hear about how their government is going to support them every day. Like, can I afford child care to go to work? How am I even going to get to work? Is it public transit? Can I afford gas?”

A victory for Christine Pelosi or Kim would offer contrasting roadmaps in terms of representation, but neither outcome would have a domino effect on other political offices. However, the ascension of another likely contender for San Francisco’s 12th District seat would have major implications for an untold number of elected officials.

State Sen. Scott Wiener speaks at a press conference on affordable housing legislation on Dec. 6, 2022, in San Francisco. | Camille Cohen/The Standard | Source: Camille Cohen/The Standard

The Hot Dog

Scott Wiener, who declined an interview for this story, has a strong base of support from YIMBYs and the city’s LGBTQ+ community, and he would sew up a fair amount of endorsements from moderate political allies like Mayor Breed. Voters who aren’t interested in signing off on a Pelosi dynasty might also lean Wiener’s way.

And yet, Wiener could see Christine Pelosi cut into his base as donors feel the pressure to please mommy. Nancy Pelosi knows a thing or two about whipping up support.

No one in the state Legislature has pushed harder to expand California’s housing stock than Wiener, and he has shown the metabolism needed to serve in the House. Sources agreed that Rep. Ro Khanna in the South Bay seems like a good comparison for how Wiener would operate when it comes to writing bills, making the media rounds and serving as a face of liberal San Francisco. He already has conservatives like Marjorie Taylor Greene attacking him.

If Wiener were to run and win, the fallout would be enormous. 

It would create an opening in the state Senate, and there’s no telling how many people would be interested in that seat. The field would almost certainly include Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, who represents the Castro and has followed the same political path as Wiener.

“I would absolutely take a look at it,” Mandelman said.

So would many of Mandelman’s colleagues on the Board of Supervisors. 

Multiple sources told The Standard that Assemblymember Matt Haney, who won three elections in 2022 to secure the office representing the east side of San Francisco, has expressed an interest in Wiener’s seat. Moving to the other chamber would allow Haney to run every four years instead of every two, and the Senate is seen as the upper house with just 40 members to the Assembly’s 80. Haney declined comment for this story.

State Assemblymember Matt Haney (right) talks with guests at his Ballots and Beignets Election Day event on Nov. 8, 2022. | Ben Fanjoy/The Standard

A Haney victory could kick off another race that attracts numerous San Francisco supervisors. And if one of those supervisors were to win, the city would once again have Mayor Breed in a position to appoint a new supervisor. This would potentially shift the balance of power on the board even closer to her side on particular issues.

Political consultants in San Francisco should be salivating for a special election and Wiener win, as everyone would get paid. Fatigued voters would likely be less thrilled if it all comes to pass.

Only Nancy Knows

Whoever follows in Nancy Pelosi’s footsteps will have some serious heels to fill. Her historic achievements and persona—from helping usher the Affordable Care Act through Congress to going toe-to-toe with Trump—are well known, but many people might not realize just how many federal dollars she has secured for local projects.

A massive hit is coming to San Francisco’s budget, and the city will need serious help from the federal government to tackle its housing and infrastructure goals.

“Does Nancy bring home the bacon? Absolutely,” Kim said. “All of our massive infrastructure projects, love them or hate them, the speaker got funded: Transbay Terminal, Central Subway. She has absolutely brought resources to San Francisco. … I think many people are very nervous about if and when the speaker leaves, what that means for bringing federal dollars back to California, to San Francisco.”

The home invasion and brutal attack on Paul Pelosi a little more than a week before the midterm election might have changed the math on her timeline. But it’s also quite possible Pelosi decides to stay in office like her colleague Dianne Feinstein, who seems firm on remaining in the U.S. Senate until kicking the bucket.

Either way, political observers across San Francisco say Nancy Pelosi’s decision is hers alone—and one that is well-deserved.

“She’s a very smart person,” Gerston said. “And I guarantee you, whichever choice she makes, it will not be whimsical at all. It will be carefully planned.”