WASHINGTON — The morning after the midterm election, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi slipped on a sterling silver whistle given to her by her husband, who was attacked last month by an intruder at their San Francisco home.
The whistle was similar to those worn by coaches or drill sergeants, and she wore it at her office after a long night of watching election returns. Staff members were assembled for a pizza party lunch in the same conference room where she has led her party through some of the most tumultuous times at the U.S. Capitol.
She blew the whistle as she entered, and the staff cheered. With the races close and many votes still being counted, it was time for the waiting to begin. The final results will determine which party controls the House — and Pelosi's own future.
The Democratic leader, whose plans are uncertain, has arrived at a crossroads: The nation’s first, and only, female speaker could be forced to relinquish the gavel if Republicans win majority control, a potential defeat coming just weeks after the chilling assault that fractured her husband's skull.
This could be the end of Pelosi’s long tenure in Congress. Or not.
Many expect her to retire rather than lead Democrats in a shrunken minority. The attack on her husband, Paul, made her exit seem even more likely. He was assaulted less than two weeks before the election, when a man invaded their home searching for his wife.
And yet after rising to become perhaps the most consequential House speaker in decades, Pelosi is not one to simply step aside. When asked ahead of the election if she had decided to stay or go, she said only that the attack on her spouse of nearly 60 years would be a factor.
"I have to say my decision will be affected about what happened,” Pelosi said on CNN.
The response became something of a Rorschach test on Capitol Hill: Some believe Pelosi will retire to spend time with her family — she and her husband are both 82. Others sensed her driven determination to stay on the job.
A cohort of younger Democratic lawmakers, some who have spent years in Congress, are waiting for Pelosi and other top House leaders to pass the baton. She had once said this would be her last term in leadership, but that was four years ago, and she no longer mentions it.
“That's a conversation for another day,” Pelosi said on election night on the PBS “NewsHour.”
Pelosi’s rise instantly established her place in history — not only as the first female speaker, but as the only speaker in 70 years to have won the office twice, in 2007 and again in 2019.
But it’s what Pelosi did with the gavel — steering the Affordable Care Act into law with Barack Obama and twice impeaching Donald Trump — that seals her legacy as one of the strongest political figures in America.
The day after the election, she arrived in Egypt for the international COP-27 climate change conference as she works to project U.S. influence abroad. One of her first pieces of legislation as a new lawmaker 35 years ago was climate-related.
For years, Pelosi has been ridiculed by Republicans, her image lampooned more than any other in endless GOP campaign ads.
Top Republicans, including former President Donald Trump, downplayed the attack on her husband and spread misinformation about it. A vulgar fringe theory quickly made its way into the mainstream at a time of rising threats against elected officials.
“A lot of people would wither under the pressure that she’s under,” said Douglas Brinkley, a professor of history at Rice University.
Brinkley said it would be sad if Pelosi's career ended after “such a grotesque moment.” But he compared her to other powerful figures, including Coretta Scott King, who continued in public service after the assassination of her husband, Martin Luther King Jr.
“I see that spirit in her, that no-quit — the grit," Brinkley added, saying it reminded him of Theodore Roosevelt.
“She takes slings and arrows by the second, from all different corners, but she constantly keeps a kind of political courage, personal integrity, and no-nonsense demeanor about her,” he said. “She’s legendary.”
It’s possible that Pelosi will relinquish the gavel but stay in office for some time. After easily winning another two-year term representing her California district, she is eligible to be sworn in with the rest of the new Congress on Jan. 3.
She has called serving as the representative from San Francisco her “greatest honor" since first being elected to public office in 1987.
Paul Pelosi was struck in the head with a hammer, suffering the skull fracture and other injuries, authorities said. He was released after nearly a week in the hospital following successful surgery. His wife has said that his recovery will be “a long haul.”
The intruder, 42-year-old David DePape, broke into the couple's home demanding “Where is Nancy?” She was in Washington at the time. DePape has been charged with attempted murder.
DePape told police he wanted to talk to the speaker and would “break her kneecaps” if she didn't satisfactorily answer his questions. His idea was for Pelosi to be wheeled into Congress to show other Democrats there were "consequences" to their actions. He is being held without bail.
The attack carried echoes of the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol when Trump told supporters to “fight like hell” for his presidency on false claims that the 2020 election was rigged.
A mob loyal to Trump stormed the Capitol trying to stop Congress from certifying Joe Biden's victory. Some called “Where's Nancy?” as they roamed the halls.
Asked on CNN about those who made light of the attack on her husband, Pelosi said: "It’s really sad for the country that people of that high visibility would separate themselves from the facts and the truth in such a blatant way."
But she also said that this is a time for healing — for her, the Congress and the country.
“This institution is a great institution,” Pelosi said, recalling her father, a former congressman and mayor, teaching her about the Capitol as a young girl.
A portrait of Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, hangs on the wall of the conference room of her Capitol office.
“To see the assault on Jan. 6 on this Capitol was something that was so devastating and traumatic for many of us,” she said, noting the echoes in the attack on her husband. “So I think it’s really important for us to find a way to restore unity in the Congress of the United States.”