Hoyer hears harsh words in heartland Democrat, voters spar at meeting

February 28, 1993|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Staff Writer

LEONARDTOWN -- For a congressman making his first official foray into a region that heavily favored someone else in the fall elections, President Clinton's economic plan was not a great peace offering.

Many of the nearly 200 people who showed up for Democratic Rep. Steny H. Hoyer's town meeting in this Southern Maryland town yesterday afternoon couldn't wait to get at him.

Before Mr. Hoyer could finish his opening presentation, members of the audience began flailing away at this symbol of a spendthrift government so out of control all it could think to do was raise their taxes to avoid financial disaster.

Federal employees in the group complained they were being unfairly burdened by a salary freeze in addition to the taxes.

Private business people said they shouldn't have to pay the freight for federal employees.

The congressman, who has already gotten some flak in Washington for pledging to seek a substitute for the federal pay cut, said he would be a "damn fool" if he didn't try to look out for 57,000 of his constituents. But he said he's prepared to tell them he can't find it, rather than vote against the Clinton plan.

Whenever there was a break in the action from the fiscal talk, servicemen in the audience challenged Mr. Hoyer on his support for the president's move to end the ban on gays in the military.

"Only 5 percent of the people here agree with that," asserted one man. "Why don't you support us?"

Mr. Hoyer, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, gave as good as he got, telling the audience, "We're going to have a little education session both ways."

He said he believed people should be judged on the basis of their performance and that if he had to put his "brain on hold," he didn't want to be in public office anymore.

"It's so easy to talk about simplistic things, like everything would be better if we just get rid of these damn members of Congress," he said. "We always assume somebody is doing something wrong. . . . One of the reasons Social Security and Medicare costs are so high is that people are living longer. What should we do, kill them?"

In the end, he seemed to earn at least grudging respect from the gathering made up not only of critics but Republicans who laughed at the suggestion that they might have voted for him.

About the only recent hot topic that didn't come up during two meetings Mr. Hoyer held in St. Mary's and Calvert counties yesterday was "nannygate," the national re-examination of hiring practices launched when Zoe Baird lost her bid to become attorney general because she employed an illegal alien as a baby sitter.

That just proves his point, says Mr. Hoyer, who has refused to answer press surveys about whether he has ever hired an illegal alien or employed household help without paying Social Security taxes.

"I think that it is a junk question," he told a reporter for The Sun two weeks ago. "Every time something comes up, anywhere in the world, particularly in Washington, something wrong, we get these questionnaires: Have you done. . .? I think it is a distraction, which the press unfortunately loves. The issues before the public are jobs and opportunity, and getting our economy moving."

Even so, what Mr. Hoyer heard yesterday was dicey stuff for a politi

cian still trying to woo four of the five counties in his district.

The new fifth district was drawn by the General Assembly to accommodate Mr. Hoyer as much as possible while still carving a new, predominantly black district out of the heart of his Prince George's County constituency.

But only the voters in his remaining portion of Prince George's, where Mr. Hoyer has held public office almost nonstop for more than 25 years, chose him over Republican challenger Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.

The congressman takes heart that the voters who know him best provided such a hearty boost that he was able to overcome defeats in Anne Arundel, Charles, Calvert and St. Mary's counties.

He can tell you from memory that he defeated Mr. Hogan, whose father served as Prince George's county executive and a three-term congressman, by the precise tally of 53.7 percent to 44.3 percent.

But that victory came after an exhaustive campaign during which the six-term congressman spent 12 hours a day door-knocking for months while Mr. Hogan remained largely out of sight.

HTC The new Southern Maryland turf full of Republicans and conservative Democrats was only part of Mr. Hoyer's problem. What nearly doomed him was a general public outrage at incumbents sparked by the House bank scandal and fueled by billionaire Ross Perot.

Those bad old days seem long gone in the swirl of Democratic excitement generated by Bill Clinton's assumption of the White House.

In the painted marble corridors and ornately decorated chambers where Mr. Hoyer spends most of his days. talk focuses on policy and politics and the legislative maneuvering that have always been his forte.

But out here, the fourth-ranking member of the House is still vulnerable.

Maybe more so because of the great hopes and potential for crashing disappointment that accompany Mr. Clinton's plans.

Even in an area loaded with federal workers, the distrust of government is almost palpable.

Jean Hatch, a retired school teacher from North Beach, who attended Mr. Hoyer's town meeting in Prince Frederick yesterday morning observed: "If I could summarize what you're hearing today, I would say it in three little words: 'Cut spending first.' "

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