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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to step down from Democratic leadership

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Well, the suspense is over on two things we've been watching for after this year's midterm elections. Republicans have won narrow control of the House, and across the aisle, the end of an era has come for Democratic leadership.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NANCY PELOSI: My colleagues, I stand before you as speaker of the House.

CHANG: Today on the House floor, Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced that she will step down as party leader after two decades.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PELOSI: With great confidence in our caucus, I will not seek reelection to Democratic leadership in the next Congress. For me, the hour's come for a new generation to lead the Democratic caucus that I so deeply respect.

CHANG: Pelosi became the first woman to serve as Speaker of the House and has been one of the most powerful lawmakers to ever hold that position. Susan Page is Washington bureau chief for USA Today, and she has long covered Pelosi's career. She's here to talk about the announcement and what might come next. Welcome.

SUSAN PAGE: Yes, hi - great to be with you.

CHANG: Hi. So, Susan, you wrote about Pelosi's career in the book, "Madam Speaker." Can you just remind us briefly - like, the 32nd version - what was Pelosi's path to Democratic leadership?

PAGE: Well, she was a political organizer in California and a fundraiser. She ran in a special election in 1987 and came to Washington thinking she'd stay for about 10 years. But she had propelled - she was propelled, really, into the Democratic leadership and has, for the past 20 years, been in that role. So that is a really remarkable history and - somebody who first made her name as the first woman in the job but then kept her name and made more history for what she managed to achieve in the job.

CHANG: Right - homemaker to House speaker, as she put it. Well, Pelosi, of course, has been a polarizing figure. She's been a frequent target of Republicans. She's had plenty of friction with members in her own caucus. But we're hearing people now say that she's going to be remembered as one of the most effective speakers in modern history. First, do you agree with that assessment? And what are the top moments in her career that stand out to you?

PAGE: You know, you think about it. In 2008, during the financial meltdown, she pushed through a bank bailout that economists say kept us from another depression. She helped Barack - she was crucial in Barack Obama's success in passing the Affordable Care Act. That - she says that's her biggest achievement. And then, of course, during the Trump era, she became the face of the Democratic opposition to the most disruptive president in our history and cleared the way, OK'd the path that led to two impeachments of him.

CHANG: Well, this announcement that she's stepping down as House Democratic leader - it came just a few weeks after her husband, Paul Pelosi, was brutally attacked in their San Francisco home. How much do you think that particular incident played into her decision to step down now? Do you think it was critical?

PAGE: You know, it's interesting. She sat down with a few reporters after she made her announcement, and she told us that the attack on her husband made her more open to the idea of staying in Congress even while stepping back from the leadership. She said she didn't want to give them the satisfaction of seeing her leave town.

CHANG: Oh, that's interesting. OK. So maybe it played some role, but she - some role in keeping her in Congress.

PAGE: That's right. It didn't - it's not the reason she stepped down. She had promised to do that four years ago, although there had been a lot of speculation lately about whether she'd deliver on that promise. But it actually made her more likely to continue to represent her California district here in Washington.

CHANG: Very interesting. Well, in her speech today, Pelosi talked about the next generation willing to shoulder the responsibility of leading House Democrats. What can you tell us about who is planning to run for party leadership now in the House?

PAGE: Well, it's increasingly likely that Hakeem Jeffries, the congressman from Brooklyn, will succeed Nancy Pelosi as the leader of House Democrats. He's been in the leadership. He'll be another groundbreaking figure in the job, as she was. He will be the first person of color to lead one of the major parties in either House of Congress.

CHANG: Right. And two other individuals - right? - are emerging among the Democrats.

PAGE: That's right - Kathleen Clark from Massachusetts as No. 2. And congresswoman Aguilar from California would be No. 3 in the new House leadership - big generational change. The three people they're replacing are all in their 80s.

CHANG: Right, because there was some agitation among the ranks that leadership was aging and it was time for there to be younger blood in in the leadership post - right...

PAGE: That's right.

CHANG: ...Among the Democrats.

PAGE: Pelosi told us that her phone was blowing up with members of Congress, Democrats saying, you should stay and lead us. We need you. But the fact is I think there is a sense with Democrats here that it is time to move to a next generation of leadership, really the right time for her to move on.

CHANG: So what do you think, Susan? What do you think Pelosi's legacy will mean for both the party and for her successor in the House?

PAGE: Well, she's - you know, she's demonstrated how effective you can be even when you have a pretty narrow majority. And just in the past two years, she's had a pretty narrow majority and managed to get some big legislation through. She's also demonstrated that women can be in the top positions in government. She's the most - for a long time until Kamala Harris was elected, she was the highest-ranking woman in American history.

CHANG: That is Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for USA Today. Thank you so much for joining us today, Susan.

PAGE: Hey; thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.