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Pelosi Elected as First Female Party Leader in U.S. Congress

By Nick Anderson

Rep. Nancy Pelosi won election easily Thursday as leader of the House Democratic minority, making history for women and reaching out to party moderates wary about the rise of a San Francisco liberal.

When the next Congress convenes in January, Pelosi will become the first woman to head a party in either chamber of Congress, as well as the first top party leader in the House from California.

In another path-breaking selection, Democrats chose Rep. Robert Menendez of New Jersey as caucus chairman, their No. 3 House post. A Cuban American, he will be the highest-ranking Hispanic ever in congressional leadership.

Pelosi, a 15-year veteran in Congress, smothered her lone opponent, Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr. of Tennessee, 177 to 29, in a closed-door meeting of Democrats. Ford, a black, offered himself as a centrist alternative.

Pelosi’s victory was never in doubt after a more prominent centrist, Rep. Martin Frost of Texas, dropped out of the competition last week and endorsed her.

Her margin was nonetheless striking. With 86 percent of the caucus vote, Pelosi outdid the 72 percent won by Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, the outgoing minority leader, when he first won the position eight years ago.

After the vote, Pelosi basked in the gender precedent Democrats had just set. As a reporter attempted to break into her remarks, she cut him off gleefully: “I’m not finished yet. I’ve been waiting over 200 years!”

She added: “I didn’t run as a woman. I ran, again, as a seasoned politician and experienced legislator. It just so happens that I am a woman, and we have been waiting a long time for this moment.”

Pelosi, 62, also quickly displayed the pragmatism that has helped fuel her political ascent, announcing that Rep. John M. Spratt Jr., D-S.C., would serve as her leadership assistant. Spratt is a fiscal conservative and a hawk on defense issues, hailing from a region where some Democrats have expressed concern that Pelosi’s selection could hurt the party.