Hoyer tries to win over new 5th District constituents

January 02, 1994|By John B. O'Donnell | John B. O'Donnell,Staff Writer

CHARLOTTE HALL -- It was quite a display of the power of congressional seniority.

Last month, Postmaster General Marvin Runyon spent two hours in this St. Mary's County town patiently listening as 50 business people complained about late mail, lost mail and uninformed postal employees.

With a $49 billion budget and 700,000 employees, Mr. Runyon normally doesn't act as a customer service representative. But he was there at the behest of Rep. Steny Hoyer, who has been pulling out all the stops to convince skeptical con

stituents in Southern Maryland that it pays to have a powerful incumbent represent them in Congress.

So far, his efforts have won him some converts, but not enough to guarantee his re-election at a time when an anti-Congress mood and his loyal support of President Clinton could be liabilities.

Mr. Hoyer, the fourth-ranking Democrat in the House, used to win elections by a wide margin in liberal Prince George's County. But in 1992 he was forced to run in a newly drawn, more conservative district that includes Charles, St. Mary's and

Calvert counties and a part of Anne Arundel County.

Southern Maryland voters promptly delivered the majority of their votes to his conservative Republican opponent, Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. Only the loyal support of Prince George's voters saved Mr. Hoyer's congressional seat.

Though he wound up beating Mr. Hogan by 9 percentage points, the election was uncomfortably close for an incumbent accustomed to winning 70 percent or more of the vote. So Mr. Hoyer has been waging a determined campaign since last No

vember to win over his new 5th District constituents.

When local business people complained about their mail service, Mr. Hoyer, who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the Postal Service, arranged for the gripe session with Mr. Runyon, who brought along 25 subordinates.

Electoral politics didn't come up at the meeting, but there was an unstated and unmistakable message for those who attended: Could Larry Hogan (or any freshman Republican) have brought the postmaster general to Southern Maryland to hear routine mail service complaints? The answer, also unstated, was equally clear: No.

A week after the Runyon meeting, Mr. Hoyer brought Erskine Bowles, head of the Small Business Administration, to Prince George's County to discuss with business people Mr. Clinton's health care proposal and its potential impact on them. And, recently, he met with John Dalton, the new secretary of the Navy, to press the case for retaining the naval installations in Southern Maryland during the consolidations of military facilities.

"I've worked my rear end off on that," Mr. Hoyer said.

His efforts to prevent the loss of Navy jobs in Southern Maryland win him substantial credit in the district.

"He saved all our bases," said the Rev. Stanley N. Beall, pastor of the Hughesville Baptist Church in Charles County, which Mr. Hoyer sometimes attends. "He's a man who knows how to get stuff done."

While some jobs have been moved out, the Navy presence in Southern Maryland will be beefed up by roughly 4,000 jobs as a result of base closing and realignment decisions.

Mr. Hoyer's seniority may help him get a lunch with the Navy secretary, but incumbency is often used as a campaign weapon to flay members of Congress. Mr. Hogan did just that in 1992, accusing Mr. Hoyer of being a "liberal extremist" out of touch with his constituents.

With 65,000 federal employees in his district, the chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that controls their fate has a much different view of seniority. "You can get things done, proper things done, that you could not otherwise get done," says Mr. Hoyer. "I think that I can be a more effective representative on the 5th District's behalf than any possible opponent."

But he still encounters the kind of skepticism that sees Capitol Hill longevity as a sure sign of a pampered existence insulated from the worries of ordinary Americans.

Take the reaction of Rayner Blair,a businessman who told Mr. Hoyer and Mr. Bowles at the SBA meeting that he has "zero faith in government."

"After that meeting," Mr. Blair said later, "Hoyer's car was waiting for him at the door. Was yours?"

But Mr. Hoyer's intense effort to prove his effectiveness is not going unnoticed.

"It seems so much of the time that he is doing the right thing," concedes Vivian Castello, who chairs the Republican central committee in Charles County. "He seems to appear in the right spots at the right time."

Adds Mr. Beall, the Hughesville pastor, "I think people are learning to understand him a little bit better as he gets things done for us."

In other words, he suggests that Southern Marylanders will be less inclined to vote against Mr. Hoyer as they see him producing economically for his district. But his voting record -- or the perception of that record -- remains a problem for Mr. Hoyer in Southern Maryland.

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