Public scolding a departure for Hoyer

Behind-the-scenes player surprises some with strong pitch for Townsend

September 20, 2002|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer has made a career working both sides of the aisle in Washington, but when it comes to Maryland elections he is a strict partisan, staunchly behind the party's candidate.

And given his comments this week to state Democratic Party leaders and supporters - when he told them to "stop apologizing for our candidate" - it is clear that the senior member of Maryland's congressional delegation wants everyone to take the same strong stance in supporting Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's campaign for the state's top job.

Such frank comments, aimed at getting Democrats united behind a candidate, are rarely heard publicly. But Hoyer, sensing a need for urgency, told his colleagues exactly how he felt.

"What I was doing was like the coach in the huddle. `OK. It's the second half. The primary is over. It's time to hitch up our pants and get going and blow away the other side,'" Hoyer, 63, said yesterday.

Though the intensity and passion of Hoyer's remarks might have surprised some, they were in keeping with the style of the man who has been a part of state politics for almost 40 years. What is different this time around is the congressman's public and vocal support. Hoyer, who represents Southern Maryland, has been more of a behind-the-scenes player in state politics.

"It's not bold. It's his persona," Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said of the congressman's recent remarks. "I think his anger ... shocked Democratic partisans into action."

Recent polls showing Townsend trailing her Republican opponent, Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., have caused concern among the party faithful. Maryland's electorate is overwhelmingly Democratic, and the party has controlled the governorship for more than three decades. The state's last elected Republican governor was Spiro T. Agnew, who won the office in 1966.

Hoyer said he had recently noticed a pessimistic tone creeping into some of his conversations with people about the gubernatorial campaign. That sentiment had to be turned around, he said.

"There's a contest now. The campaign has tightened up. That was going to happen, but we're going to win this race because our candidate is by far the best candidate for the state," he said. "My remarks were not just to [Baltimore Mayor Martin] O'Malley but to all of us in the same vein to say we've got to get energized."

O'Malley, who has been viewed by some as a less-than-enthusiastic supporter of Townsend, said that the congressman called him Wednesday and that they engaged in a frank conversation about the gubernatorial campaign. The mayor said he strongly supports Townsend and feels he has made it clear to her staff "that whenever she comes to Baltimore, I will be happy to stand next to her." O'Malley also said he hopes Townsend's campaign will begin to stress the substantive issues that concern the electorate.

"We need more substance and less cheerleading, frankly, and I think we need to draw contrasts over differences rather than setting up contests over who's most loyal to the Democratic Party," he said.

Still, O'Malley said, he had no problem with Hoyer rallying the troops.

"I think that's good and proper, and he is a state leader," said O'Malley. "He's a good man, and he is in a leadership position in the Democratic Party and very respected on Capitol Hill, and he has been a good friend of Baltimore."

Hoyer began his political career in 1966 when, fresh out of Georgetown University Law Center, he was elected to the state Senate. He was 27 years old.

At the age of 36, he was elected president of the state Senate, making him the youngest ever to hold that office. He was the state's rising political star, a product of the Democratic Party organization in Prince George's County.

A failed run for lieutenant governor in 1978 on the ticket of Blair Lee III put him on the political sidelines, but not for long. Three years later, he won a special election in the state's 5th Congressional District and headed to Washington.

Since then, he has worked his way to a coveted position as a senior member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee. That position, coupled with his ability to bring home dollars to Maryland, has led state leaders to protect him during the past two rounds of redistricting.

His district includes Calvert, Charles and St. Mary's counties along with portions of Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties. Hoyer is completing his 10th full term and is the longest-serving congressman in Southern Maryland history.

Hoyer has been on the stump for Townsend, driving home the need to set aside concerns about the lieutenant governor's toughness.

"Women have a problem running for major office," he said during a teachers union rally this month in Prince George's County. "Some of them overcome it, like Barbara Mikulski, because they are tough fireplugs, and everybody knows they are tough. ...

"Kathleen Kennedy Townsend," he said, "has the genes of toughness."

Some of the personality concerns that have dogged Townsend's campaign were brought up again this week in comparisons with Ehrlich, who is gaining in the polls.

Hoyer has been telling voters around the state that Democrats need to look beyond style.

"Basically," said Miller of Hoyer, "his message was personality was nice, but that doesn't put bread and butter on the table."

Hoyer's comments to party leaders this week also a revealed a colloquial, earthy side many might not have known, particularly when the congressman told a gathering of politicians and lobbyists "to stop shucking and jiving."

"I use that phrase from time to time to say, `Let's get down to it,'" he said.

Hoyer's wife, Judith, died in 1997. She was a Prince George's County school official. The congressman has three daughters and four grandchildren.

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