On November 17th, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced that she would not seek a House leadership position in the upcoming 118th Congress, passing the torch to a younger generation of Democratic Congresspeople led by incoming House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries. On Now & Then, Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman offered an encore presentation of the October 2021 episode “Speakers of the House: Velvet Gloves and Iron Fists” to honor Pelosi’s trailblazing tenure and the rest of her almost five-decade political career. Near the beginning of her storied rise, Pelosi orchestrated the 1984 Democratic National Convention, a San Franciscan bash that illuminated her unique ability to navigate Party infighting and competing ideologies.
On April 21st, 1983, Democratic Party leaders voted to make San Francisco the site of the 1984 Democratic National Convention. “Whoopee! That’s wonderful!” exclaimed Mayor Dianne Feinstein, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, when she heard the news from national Party Chairman Charles Manatt.
Nancy Pelosi had been in Washington, dispatched for some last-minute lobbying for her city, when the announcement came in. Pelosi, who had recently ended her tenure as California’s Democratic Party chair, embraced San Francisco’s Deputy Mayor, the ruffled former newsman Hadley Roff, when she learned of the Party’s decision. Pelosi and Roff had promised the Party $4.5 million in city funding for the convention, with an additional amalgam of private funds and hotel tax dollars making up the rest of the $8 million budget.
Not everyone was happy with the choice. Coleman Young, the Mayor of recession-hardened Detroit and a major lobbyist for his city in the convention sweepstakes, cursed the choice. “San Francisco is one of the most volatile cities in the nation,” he told the press, before offering a foreboding prediction: “You’ll have all kinds of isms and schisms in the streets. I think it’s an invitation to disaster. There will be blood in the streets.”
Young – a Black man who had pushed for the convention to be hosted by a Black mayor, be it he, Washington’s Marion Barry, or Chicago’s Harold Washington – reserved particular opprobrium for Chairman Manatt. Young accused the massively successful lawyer, who had built his practice primarily in California, of improperly influencing the selection process. “I don’t like a stacked deck and I know goddamn well this was a stacked deck. This kind of bullshit the Democratic Party does not deserve,” Young said.
Pelosi quickly became the central figure in this worsening intra-Party melee. Within weeks, she took on dual roles for the convention. She was the Chair of the Host Committee, with an obligation to raise $2.5 million in private donations to pay for a sizable swath of the overall convention cost and to harness 10,000 volunteers. She was also head of the Compliance Review Commission, which enforced rules for delegates and primaries.
Pelosi soon had a major compliance problem on her hands – jockeying by state Democratic parties to host the first primaries. While Iowa and New Hampshire still had dibs on the first two contests, Vermont had sneakily attempted to schedule a “non-binding popularity vote” for March 6th, 1984, the same day as the New Hampshire primary. The move led New Hampshire to threaten moving its primary back to February 28th, which in turn triggered Iowa to threaten moving its event to February 20th. “Everyone wants to be first,” Pelosi told the Chronicle on May 7th, 1983.
Pelosi continued to negotiate with the competing Iowa, New Hampshire, and Vermont delegations for the rest of 1983. In November – after threats of lawsuits and several near-compromises, Pelosi and Manatt threatened to give the first primary to Maine. The ultimatum and other bureaucratic jockeying got the combative states and the Party brass to stop warring, and Iowa and New Hampshire secured their desired early dates without too much further incident.
As Pelosi diffused the primary controversy, she also had to contend, in her role as Host Chair, with further Coleman Young-esque fears about San Francisco’s safety and political identity.
In late May 1983, Pelosi and Mayor Feinstein met with concerned Party leaders in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with iced crab legs and California wines in tow. Pelosi and Feinstein’s charm offensive came after negative reactions to a 60 Minutes report that focused on colorful San Francisco drag nun Sister Boom Boom’s long-shot mayoral challenge to Feinstein and which referred to the city as “a theater of the absurd.”
The Party had also received a defiant letter from two San Francisco Police officers arguing that convention attendees could contract AIDs – which was only beginning to receive widespread attention – and end up “spreading this disease nationwide.” The San Franciscans reaffirmed to the Party that they felt safe in their city and that the virus was not spread through casual contact.
By the meeting’s end, the Party leaders were reassured. Marcia Duffy, South Carolina’s Chair, told the Chronicle of California, “We understand the whole state is nutsville. But our life is so dull in South Carolina that we want to come there and participate.”
In addition to fears of AIDs and drag nuns, one area of particular concern was rising homelessness around the Moscone Center, the massive convention complex. The site, which opened in 1981, was named for Feinstein’s slain predecessor Mayor George Moscone, who former City Supervisor Dan White killed alongside LGBTQ+ icon Supervisor Harvey Milk in 1978.
Pelosi was thus thrust into a morally fragile dynamic with outreach groups, the Police, and her volunteer base to address the spike. If this were the Soviet Union, there’d be no problem,” Chronicle staff writer Blake Green cynically opined in December 1983 on the homelessness crisis. “A week or so prior to the convention, the unfortunates would be rounded up, dispatched to the boondocks and the streets scoured clean.”
Pelosi even told the press that she hoped to present San Francisco as “an all-American, family-oriented city” during the convention.
To get the necessary private funds to help spruce up the city, to reconfigure the Moscone Center, and craft the celebrations – the most anticipated of which was State Assembly Speaker and future Mayor Willie Brown’s “Oh What a Night” bash at the sprawling Bay-side Pier 45 – Pelosi turned to real estate magnate Walter Shorenstein, the most prolific landlord in the city. Shorenstein had been rewarded for his Party funding by Jimmy Carter with a spot on the negotiating committee for the peace talks between Israel and Egypt in 1978.
“There are a lot of people who’ll want to get involved, and they can, and some may want to take over,” Shorenstein told the Chronicle in April 1984. “But the person in charge will be Nancy.” Shorenstein, meanwhile, set to work spiritedly raising capital from local companies like the Bechtel Group and Levi Strauss.
As Pelosi made headlines for her convention efforts, the local press also began to pay more attention to the rising star. A mostly-glowing January 1984 Chronicle profile breathlessly recounted Pelosi’s upbringing in a political dynasty (both her father and brother served as powerful Baltimore mayors), her marriage to financier Paul Pelosi, and her mothering of five children.
“I’m not afraid of anything,” Pelosi told Chronicle reporter Jane Ferrell about the swirling convention controversies. “I put all problems in the following terms: If they can’t take my children away, then I can handle it.”
Even as the broader Party warmed to San Francisco, Pelosi’s cultural high-wire act in selling the city was viewed with cynicism by many local progressives. Resident and sociologist Jeff Goldthorpe later wrote that Feinstein and Pelosi’s chief concerns were to make sure the city did not “dissolve into an anarchistic, perverted, un-American Sodom-and-Gomorrah-ville, as the conservatives already claimed was true.”
While Pelosi was willing to label San Francisco as “all-American,” however, she was not at all willing to underplay the city’s acceptance of LGBTQ+ people. In a New York Times feature from July 1st, 1984, two weeks before the convention opened, Pelosi addressed criticism of the city’s queer-friendly reputation. “Who are these gays?” Pelosi asked rhetorically. “They’re somebody’s child, brother, sister, friend, that’s who. They’re not from another planet. The fact that they’re here means that the rest of the country is not as hospitable to them as we are.”
Pelosi, a Catholic, also invoked her religion as a further reason for being open-minded about sexual identity and orientation. “This is a city of equal rights and all God’s children, and one of the reasons San Francisco is the way it is is because other places out there don’t practice what they preach.”
During the final pre-convention week, with the money raised, parties planned, and demonstrations negotiated, Pelosi took final interviews with the media. “Having houseguests, unless you have unlimited money and resources, is in some ways an inconvenience,” Pelosi admitted to The Washington Post’s Cynthia Gorney. “It’s also an endless source of pleasure. And that’s what we have — 25,000 houseguests.”
When the convention opened on July 16th, 1984, Pelosi gave one of the first welcome speeches, during which she focused on the increased participation of women in the Democratic Party. In addition to herself and Feinstein, Los Angeles City Council Member Roz Wyman, who was largely responsible for bringing the Dodgers to the West Coast, served as Head of the Convention Planning Commission. And the Democratic nominee Walter Mondale’s running mate, Geraldine Ferraro, was the first woman to be on a major party ticket.
“We ourselves have one of the ablest mayors in America, who in the truest sense of the word brought the convention to this city, and who by her accomplishments has helped to bring us to a day when a woman can be elected to any office in the land,” Pelosi exclaimed.
As the convention progressed inside the Moscone Center, Black country star Charley Pride sang “America the Beautiful.” A very young Bill Clinton offered a brief tribute to Harry Truman. Reverend Jesse Jackson, who had run an unsuccessful campaign for the nomination, talked of the Democrat’s “Rainbow Coalition.” And, in a much-lauded keynote address, New York Governor Mario Cuomo lectured Reagan in absentia, saying, “You ought to know that this nation is more a “Tale of Two Cities” than it is just a ‘Shining City on a Hill.’”
Outside, however, things were a bit dicier. The two largest marches, a 100,000-person mobilization for gay rights and a 150,000-person organized labor happening, were peaceful. But some less sanctioned events caused friction. On the Convention’s final day, the local punk scene hosted “Rock Against Reagan Racism,” a raucous show featuring The Dead Kennedys. A small group of activists left the concert to hold a series of “Democratic War Chest Tours,” protesting in front of skyscrapers housing Defense Department-affiliated corporations, from Bank of America to Control Data. Police arrested 86 protestors, and one 16-year-old activist was seriously injured by a kick from a police horse.
In response, about 1,000 of the concert attendees marched to the Hall of Justice, led by a 12-foot-tall “Trojan Donkey” representing the Democratic Party that, in the words of alternative press reporter Gary Roush, “was fed ballots, money, and a globe and then excreted missiles, tanks, and skeletons.” As police and protestors clashed, the dissenters chanted, of Moscone and Milk’s killer, “Dan White was a cop.” Police arrested more than 200 more demonstrators and scuffled with some, in a moment reminiscent of the notorious 1968 Chicago DNC.
The scene, however, did not descend into the much-feared anarchy. In fact, Deputy Police Chief George Emil commended the collective protestors, telling the press, “Virtually every group – with a couple of exceptions – met with us and agreed on guidelines.”
When the dust had settled, Mondale had nothing but praise for Pelosi’s handling of the myriad, often-oppositional voices at the convention, citing her “masterful handling” of the events.
As the convention had started, the New York Times asked Pelosi whether she saw a future career in politics. She said no, adding, “I’m more into fundraising, but I like the vitality, the disagreements, the advocacy of politics.”
But just over three years later, Pelosi would be heading to the House for the beginning of a 35-year ascent, where she brought a signature set of skills that she had displayed with much aplomb at the 1984 convention.
For more on Nancy Pelosi’s life, check out last week’s Stay Tuned in Brief episode “Nancy Pelosi’s Lessons in Power,” featuring TIME correspondent Molly Ball, who wrote the 2020 biography Pelosi. And for more on another complicated and resonant Democratic National Convention, read the August 2020 Time Machine article, “The Battle of Los Angeles: The 2000 Democratic National Convention and the Search for Better Angels.”
And head to the Twitter account of Now & Then Editorial Producer David Kurlander for supplemental archival threads on each Time Machine piece: @DavidKurlander.
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