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Barabak: The real Pelosi guessing game continues

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and don’t necessarily reflect The Press Democrat editorial board’s perspective. The opinion and news sections operate separately and independently of one another.

Nancy Pelosi’s plan to seek reelection extends one of San Francisco’s longest-running, most-fevered political guessing games: Who will succeed the Democrat when she finally does step aside?

The announcement Tuesday by the 81-year-old congresswoman was utterly predictable. Her decision augurs an election that will be thoroughly pro forma.

Pelosi will attract, as she always does, at least one candidate running to her left, who will insist — in true San Francisco fashion — that she is not a real Democrat. There will also be a Republican opponent or two, who may raise many millions of dollars from Pelosi haters around the country acting more out of spite than good sense.

And then, in just about nine months she will be handily reelected to Congress for an 18th time.

Nob Hill may crumble. Alcatraz may tumble. But Pelosi, who hasn’t bothered running anything remotely resembling a campaign in decades, will not be turned out by her constituents so long as she draws a breath and stands for election.

There was speculation she might step aside and not run again. But Pelosi knows better than anyone the power and influence — not to mention prodigious fundraising capacity — that would instantly diminish the moment she indicated the rest of the year would be spent marking time to her departure.

In an October 2018 interview, while campaigning in Florida ahead of the midterm election that returned her to the speakership, Pelosi allowed as how she didn’t envision staying in office forever. (It was a signal to those impatient Democrats in the House that their aspirations wouldn’t die aborning and helped her secure the votes she needed to retake the gavel.)

“I see myself as a transitional figure,” Pelosi said at a downtown Miami bistro. “I have things to do. Books to write; places to go; grandchildren, first and foremost, to love.”

But, she quickly added, she wasn’t imposing a limit on her tenure. “Do you think I would make myself a lame duck right here over this double espresso?” Pelosi said with a raised eyebrow and a laugh.

She won’t, of course, live forever, and so for many years there has been speculation — and some quiet jockeying — over who will eventually take Pelosi’s place.

To say her seat in Congress is coveted is like suggesting there’s a wee bit of interest in the city in a certain sporting event this weekend. (For those non-football fans, the San Francisco 49ers will be playing the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC Championship Game for a ticket to the Super Bowl.)

In nearly 60 years, just three people have served in the seat Pelosi now holds. Two of them — Phil Burton and Pelosi — account for all but a handful of those years. Burton’s widow, Sala, served about four years before, as she lay dying, she anointed Pelosi as her chosen replacement.

So succeeding Pelosi could be the closest thing to a lifetime appointment any San Francisco politician will ever enjoy. And given all the pent-up ambition, there is no shortage of prospective candidates.

One of the strongest contenders is state Sen. Scott Wiener, 51, who has built an impressive record in Sacramento in a district that roughly approximates the current congressional boundaries.

Another prospect is Christine Pelosi, 55, the most politically visible of the speaker’s five children and a longtime activist in Democratic campaigns and causes. If she ran, to what length — if any — would the speaker go in hopes of handing off the seat to her daughter?

Republicans seem exceedingly likely to win control of the House in November. It seems exceedingly unlikely that Pelosi would happily settle into the role of minority leader, much less fall back as a workaday member of a shrunken, enfeebled Democratic caucus.

Would she time her departure to benefit her daughter by, say, requiring a snap election that would take advantage of Pelosi’s brand name? Or would she avoid choosing sides and allow the election to play out in San Francisco’s typically brutal, free-for-all fashion?

The intrigue continues.

Mark Z. Barabak is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.

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The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and don’t necessarily reflect The Press Democrat editorial board’s perspective. The opinion and news sections operate separately and independently of one another.

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