SPEAKER OF the House of Representatives is a constitutional position. Party floor leader was not created till 1899, party whip till 1901.
Ever since then there was at least one Southerner in the Democratic leadership as speaker of the House, floor leader or whip -- until June 6, 1989, when Speaker Jim Wright of Texas resigned. The leadership trio became Tom Foley of Washington, speaker, Dick Gephardt of Missouri, floor leader, and Bill Gray of Pennsylvania, whip.
Now Gray has resigned. Tomorrow House Democrats will vote to replace him. Steny Hoyer of Maryland and David Bonior of Michigan are the candidates. Hoyer is believed to be the candidate of a majority of Southerners, and Bonior is believed to be the candidate of a majority of the rest of the Democrats.
Hoyer is a Southerner only in the sense that his political career has all been spent in a district below the Mason-Dixon Line. His district is Washington suburbia. It is not Southern in its political philosophy. It is liberal. He votes with the non-Southerners much more often than not when there is a regional split among Democrats.
In 1990, for example, there were 54 House roll calls in which a majority of Southern Democrats and a majority of all Republicans voted one way and a majority of non-Southern Democrats voted the other. Hoyer voted with non-Southern Democrats 77 percent of the time, with the Southerners-Republican coalition only 23 percent of the time.
But relatively speaking, he's a Dixiecrat! Bonior only voted with the coalition 6 percent of the time.
It is entirely possible that Hoyer's voting record will become less liberal, more Southern, in the years ahead, whether he wins the whip's job with Southern support or not. That is because he might be representing a district after next year's election that will be relatively Southern. The state has to be re-districted to conform to the new Census figures. One idea being kicked around is to merge the lower part of Prince George's County, the lower part of Anne Arundel County and all of Calvert, Charles and St. Mary's counties into a new district. The three southern counties are still pretty Southern in history, tradition, politics and lifestyle.
Give Hoyer a district like that and he'll revive the Southern tradition in the House Democratic leadership.
The whipship may not sound like that big a deal, but the stakes are pretty high tomorrow. Four of the last five speakers of the House were previously whips. Given that the average tour of duty as speaker over the past 30 years has been eight years (less than that counting Jim Wright and his brief aborted tenure), and given that Gephardt, the Democratic floor leader, may well quit the House to run for president, it is entirely possible -- even likely -- that the next whip will become speaker in this decade.
There's never been a House party leader from Maryland before. So, Steny, good luck, y'all.