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Nancy Pelosi talks gridlock, education and equality

The highest-ranking female politician in American history speaks to USC Dornsife students about her journey through the American political landscape

Pelosi and Shrum
Nancy Pelosi speaks with students, flanked by Robert Shrum. (USC Photo/Matt Meindl)

How bad is the political gridlock in Congress? Has it always been this way or is it unique to our moment in time?

USC junior Austin Reagan, a political science and environmental studies major, had the chance to pose that question directly to U.S. House of Representatives Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi on Feb. 9.

In a packed classroom, Pelosi sat near Robert Shrum, holder of the Carmen H. and Louis Warschaw Chair in Practical Politics at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, during an installment of the Department of Political Science’s “Political Conversations” series.

We have to be optimistic; let’s take the issues to the public and prioritize them so it’s not confusing.

Nancy Pelosi

“There has always been a healthy difference of opinion in Congress, which is what you’d want both between and within parties,” Pelosi responded. “But what we’re experiencing now is, I think, worse than what we’ve ever seen. This is a tough time, but you have to leapfrog over it — you’re young. We have to be optimistic; let’s take the issues to the public and prioritize them so it’s not confusing.

“The more the public is aware, the better the chances of people finding common ground,” she added. “And the fact is, [as representatives] it is our responsibility to find that common ground. You just have to be very, very determined.”

Progressive issues

As part of her talk, “Is Progress Possible in this Congress?,” Pelosi spoke on subjects ranging from immigration to the economy and wage stagnation, the education gap and marriage equality. She also talked about how her values motivated her to engage in politics and how she balances her Catholic faith with her support of progressive social issues such as marriage equality and a woman’s right to choose.

Having led House Democrats for more than a decade, Pelosi served as the 60th Speaker of the House from 2007-11, the only woman to have ever done so. To date, she is the highest-ranking female politician in American history.

Established by Shrum after his arrival at USC in the fall, “Political Conversations” hosts prominent figures at the forefront of today’s American political landscape. From headlines and trends to media involvement and campaign issues, the series engages speakers and students analytically, fostering an ongoing dialogue about the state of U.S. politics.

The series reflects the animating idea of the Warschaw Chair — to bring the real world of politics to students and let them engage political leaders and operatives.

Robert Shrum

“The series reflects the animating idea of the Warschaw Chair — to bring the real world of politics to students and let them engage political leaders and operatives,” Shrum said. “I am grateful for the response on campus and the generosity of leaders like Nancy Pelosi who have brought their insights to USC.”

Other guests have included Jess McIntosh, communications director of EMILY’s List; Jonathan Martin, national political correspondent for The New York Times; Joel Benenson, chief pollster and senior strategist for Obama; and political correspondent Alex Castellanos.

Real people

“I really appreciated the opportunity to have heard leader Pelosi speak,” Reagan said. “Because you hear about them so often in the news, it is easy to stop thinking of prominent political figures as people and start thinking of them as symbols for ideologies and viewpoints. I find that attending events like this one humanizes these public figures.”

When asked if she had been underestimated or overlooked as a woman in politics, Pelosi responded that women are indeed underestimated, but she offered a lighthearted perspective.

“They will try to trivialize everything you have done — but I say to women, ‘you just take inventory of who you are, and if you spent years at home raising your family as I did, going from housewife to House speaker, you just take pride in that!’

“As far as being overlooked, well, once you get the gavel … that makes a big difference in the attitude toward woman,” Pelosi said, invoking laughter from the audience. “People don’t realize that the Speaker of the House is the third highest office in the land. It’s a very big-time thing and a tremendous honor.”

If you are an effective leader, she said, you will be a target regardless of your gender. But, Pelosi believes, this is even more true for women and they need to ready themselves.

“There needs to be many more women in politics,” Pelosi said. “It’s not that women are better — the beauty is in the mix. Women, minorities, it’s just a different approach to the problem at hand from the experience that different people bring to it.”

Encouraging students to engage in the political sphere and pursue goals they are passionate about, Pelosi emphasized the importance of not only authenticity but devising a plan and thinking strategically.

“I guarantee you, if you go and see someone to raise money for a cause or pitch a candidacy, if you demonstrate your vision, knowledge, sincerity, judgment and a plan of action, you will succeed.”

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Nancy Pelosi talks gridlock, education and equality

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