Winfield Coleman is a Nancy Pelosi fan of long standing. He’s voted for her many times.
“Always,” he said, extolling her left-leaning philosophy, support for racial equality and decades-long work on behalf of women and the LGBTQ community.
But when Coleman votes to reelect Pelosi next month it will be, he said, the last time. “There’s the age factor,” he explained.
Pelosi, the speaker of the House, is 82. Coleman, a painter and illustrator, is 78.
“I’m an old man myself,” he said, his gray ponytail marking the years. “I know that I’ve slowed down. It’s just natural.”
As Pelosi strides confidently toward her 18th reelection, there’s a widespread sense the most powerful and consequential politician San Francisco has ever put forth is nearing the end of a long, storied career. Though she bats away talk of retirement, the prospect of her departure summons mixed feelings in a city where the Democrat has become nearly as much a fixture as Coit Tower or the Golden Gate Bridge.
Leo Rivera, 34, a real estate photographer in the Mission District, echoed Coleman’s suggestion that Pelosi call it a career.
“It’s time,” Rivera said. “Politically, I think we need new faces and younger energy. That goes for a lot of the longtime Democratic politicians. I think people are ready to see something new.”
Celine O’Driscoll agreed, at first. “She’s doing a great job,” O’Driscoll said, “but I think it’s probably time for someone new.”
Then, however, O’Driscoll considered the clout this famously liberal city would lose when the House speaker and one of Washington’s most significant figures steps aside.
“That would be a pity,” said O’Driscoll, 58, who owns a Noe Valley tearoom. On second thought, she suggested, it would be best for Pelosi to stick around as long as she’s able. Her departure, O’Driscoll said, is not worth the cost.
Pelosi has sent faint, scattered signals that her time in Congress may be nearing an end.
In 2018, during the last midterm election, she described herself as “a transitional figure” with other things — family, writing, travel — to tend to. After Democrats won back the House, she agreed to serve no more than four years as speaker, which tamped down dissent and allowed her ascension to the post through 2022.
If, as seems likely, Republicans seize control of the House next month, it’s hard to imagine Pelosi finding much pleasure being once again in the minority. There is even speculation she would step down rather than serve another term.
“First we win,” she recently told reporters who asked Pelosi about her plans. “Then we decide.”
The decision to quit Congress, when and if it happens, is entirely up to her. For the last three decades, Pelosi has easily won reelection by landslide margins, dispatching one hapless Republican after another. (Her current opponent, John Dennis, is making his fifth run against the Democratic leader.)
It’s been years since Pelosi felt obliged to air a radio or television ad, hire a campaign manager, conduct a horse-race poll or do any of the election-focused things one does if facing a competitive race.
It’s not as though she’s abandoned the district, which takes in all but a small slice of San Francisco, or expended all her energy pursuing a national agenda. Pelosi is regularly seen at home, and her congressional website is replete with images of the speaker working on local issues.
In one photo, she appears — immaculately turned out, as ever, in hard hat, reflective vest and pearls — promoting a new Union Square-Chinatown subway line alongside Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.
But with victory assured, most of Pelosi’s political attention has been on contests being waged hundreds, even thousands, of miles from home. She’s campaigned in 16 cities in just the last two weeks and so far raised more than $200 million this election cycle to boost Democrats.
Even when she’s absent, Pelosi’s presence is never far.
In the Castro, amid the adult emporiums and rainbow pride flags, a Democratic Party storefront office is filled with Pelosi iconography — a cutout of her marching out of the Trump White House in red coat and sunglasses, a poster of the speaker flexing as Rosie the Riveter.
While there is endless speculation about Pelosi’s future, and no small amount of backstage maneuvering among would-be successors, public discussion of her exit remains strictly taboo, given the speaker’s tripwire sensitivity and the uncertainty surrounding her plans.
Asked whether there was a feeling among San Francisco political insiders this will be Pelosi’s last campaign, one of them responded — after a promise of anonymity — with an ambivalent email: “Absolutely. Unless it’s not. But absolutely.
“Unless it’s not.”
Peter Steele, for one, would be glad to have Pelosi stick around indefinitely.
“We have a big presence in Washington,” said the 63-year-old hairdresser, pausing as he toted a pile of wet towels past the Castro Street shrine to the speaker. “The next person to come in would not know how it works as well and would not be as powerful.”
Besides, Steele said, any time election season rolls around, “who are they going to throw up against her?”
The answer is no one.
And that, as much as anything, is why Pelosi will stay in office until she chooses not to.