By Cindy George
A career in politics was never the plan for Nancy Pelosi, the first female speaker of the House of Representatives.
But this week in Houston, she used her story — growing up as the daughter of a congressman-turned-Baltimore mayor, becoming an involved volunteer in California and raising five children — to explain how she ended up becoming a political trailblazer in her own right.
Her advice to women who seek careers in public service or other sectors: “When opportunity knocks, be ready.”
Pelosi’s Houston visit included a stop Tuesday evening at Rice University’s Baker Institute to discuss issues ranging from health care and education to foreign policy.
Earlier in the day, she appeared before 500 people with Houston U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee to co-host another installment of the national tour “When America Succeeds, Women Succeed: An Economic Agenda for Women and Families” at HISD’s Young Women’s College Prep Academy in the Third Ward.
Last July, Pelosi and House Democrats unveiled their women’s advocacy plan for pay equity and increased wages, paid family and sick leave as well as affordable access to child care. The engagements have been an opportunity for Democrats to connect with female voters across the country and drum up support for the midterm elections.
Pelosi spoke before about 200 people in a more intimate setting at Rice.
After an introduction by former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker — the institute’s namesake and honorary chair — she fielded questions by moderator Edward P. Djerejian, who has served as the U.S. ambassador to Syria and Israel.
He began by asking about Pelosi’s perspective on women’s priorities.
“In talking to women and listening to women … whatever matters to their children is what matters to women — it’s about their health, their education, their economic security,” she said, adding that comprehensive immigration reform would be “transformational to society,” just as she believes the Affordable Care Act has been.
During an hour of remarks, the former speaker — who served from 2007 to 2011 and is now House minority leader — touched on several issues.
What would attract more women to politics? Reduce the influence of money and increase civility, she said.
What about the cost of higher education? Fund Pell grants, research and community colleges while containing the burden of student loans, she responded.
What about nuclear negotiations in Iran? Pelosi said she is optimistic that “there’s a framework and there is a path” for those talks, adding that “one of the pillars of our national security is to stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction.”
More than once, she decried the decision of Texas leaders not to expand Medicaid to include a larger share of the state’s poorest residents.
“You’re still covering them,” she said. “They’re going to the emergency room later, more ill, at greater cost, and it’s not good for the quality of their lives or their health, and it’s not saving any money.”
Raj Salhotra, who teaches pre-calculus at YES Prep Southwest — a public charter school on Houston’s south side — brought four students to his alma mater to learn about political issues and “let them know that anyone can achieve anything in this country.”
He asked Pelosi what can be done about the cost of college so that hard-working students aren’t restricted from attending because they lack resources.
“The last place we should be spending money on college education is on high-interest payments to banks for student loans,” she said. “That really is crippling, and there is no value added to the education that young people receive.”
The Rice alumnus said he was impressed with her response.
“This country was founded on the ideals of equality of opportunity, and we’ve got to figure out a way to ensure that those students who have the drive, have the dedication and have the aspirations are not priced out of an education,” Salhotra said. “I really like the fact that she said we’ve made progress, but we’re not there yet.”