Md. lawmaker gathers support for House post

Democratic gains could give Hoyer shot at majority whip

March 13, 2000|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NORRISTOWN, Pa. -- In a windowless courthouse basement in this depressed Philadelphia suburb, Steny H. Hoyer was holding forth on the threat to life posed by fake antique firearms.

An unlikely issue and an unlikely setting for Hoyer, a congressman more easily found roaming the halls of Capitol Hill. But the Southern Maryland Democrat traveled here to help Rep. Joseph M. Hoeffel, who's battling to save his congressional seat in the fall elections.

By aiding Hoeffel, Hoyer was trying to cement votes for his own tough race. After holding a series of senior positions, Hoyer wants to be majority whip, the third-highest post in the House.

His efforts may be a waste of time. First, Hoyer needs to win re-election in November. And the majority whip's job won't come open unless the Democrats, now in the minority, win at least six more seats than they now hold in the 435-member chamber.

Hoyer's not alone in chasing the job. California's Nancy Pelosi and Georgia's John Lewis are after it, too. "I can't believe we're spending so much time talking about a race that may never materialize," said Texas Rep. Charles W. Stenholm, a conservative Democrat who backs Hoyer.

Hoyer's campaign is one waged by a thousand small gestures, such as his recent trip here. And it is bred by an ambition unquenched by his proximity to power over the past 33 years.

"For the most part, I've been in the leadership wherever I've served," said Hoyer, a former state senate president first elected to Congress in 1981.

The whip's primary responsibility is to convince -- at times bully -- wavering colleagues to follow the party's lead on contentious measures. The whip is also expected to recognize when it's time to sound the retreat.

The job, rarely understood outside government, requires the listening skills of a psychiatrist, the persuasive powers of a drill sergeant, and the predictive abilities of a psychic.

By virtue of those responsibilities -- the nuts and bolts of legislating -- the whip can wield enormous influence, often to the advantage of his or her home district or state.

Hoyer, in maneuvering for the post, is trying to leverage his experience as fund-raiser, party tactician and legislative consensus-builder.

For the past six years, Hoyer has been assigned by House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt to single out Democratic candidates who warrant the party's backing. Many new lawmakers, such as Hoeffel, remember Hoyer as one of their first friends in Congress. Now, he is counting on them.

With his appearance in Norristown, Hoyer sought to bolster Hoeffel, a former county commissioner who defeated a weak Republican incumbent in 1998. This year, Hoeffel expects to spend more than $1 million to try to repel a strong Republican challenge.

To people elsewhere, the idea that antique firearms -- let alone phony ones -- can become a political issue may seem odd, if not comical. But the subject carries tragic overtones here. Last June, a man armed with a working replica of an antique gun killed one nurse and wounded another at a state hospital in Norristown.

Hoeffel, with an eye toward regulating the sale of functioning antique guns and reproductions, found himself rebuffed in efforts to get the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to study crimes committed with such weapons. But Hoyer, the senior Democrat on the House panel that sets spending levels for the agency, slipped Hoeffel's request into a compromise budget bill last year.

Out of such favors are alliances born. On this day, Hoeffel enthusiastically introduced Hoyer to a throng of reporters in the courtroom basement and later at a dinner with donors. "He has reached out to me and other freshmen in a really unique way," Hoeffel said. "A lot of senior members don't show nearly that level of involvement."

Linda Chapin, a Democratic county executive who is running for a Florida congressional seat, said Hoyer offered invaluable advice. "He said politics is a bit like a business: A lot of it is about the bottom line," Chapin said.

And Hoyer is only too willing to help elevate that bottom line. At a recent reception held by the New Democrat Network, a group supporting moderate Democrats, Hoyer pointed out Chapin's business-friendly record to a group of industry and health care lobbyists considering whether to contribute to her.

So far, in preparation for the 2000 House elections, Hoyer has traveled to 19 states and Puerto Rico recruiting Democratic challengers and raising money. He has given away $115,000 to Democratic candidates from his own campaign fund and from AmeriPAC, a political action committee that he controls. He plans to contribute another $400,000 to Democrats through the two funds this year.

Hoyer has also generated $200,000 for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which doles out money to the party's House candidates. Most of the money he raises comes from lobbyists, lawyers and union and corporate political action committees, records show.

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