Life on Hill, two years at a time

SUN JOURNAL

Aide: Steny Hoyer's young chief of staff makes the 12-term Maryland congressman's goals his own.

December 16, 2004|By David Schoetz | David Schoetz,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - When Steny H. Hoyer met Cory Alexander, the veteran Southern Maryland congressman had no idea that Alexander would be his chief of staff one day. In fact, according to Hoyer, the 8-year-old kid was a pain in the neck.

But over the past 10 years, Alexander, now 32, has grown invaluable to the No. 2-ranking House Democrat. Moving through a range of positions before taking over the top staff job in 2001, Alexander is described as reliable, effective and intensely loyal.

He also has a clear understanding of his duties: know Hoyer's goals and run the nearly 40-person office smoothly enough to achieve them.

"Cory's exactly what a staff person should be," said Hoyer's Maryland colleague, Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin. "Probably no one in the outside world has any idea who he is, but he knows everything that is going on in that office."

Which is a lot, given Hoyer's leadership role at a time when many people think the Democratic Party is on the ropes. Republicans in both the House and Senate will return in January with increased majorities, and building unity and cohesiveness among Democratic members - a primary task of the House whip, Hoyer's leadership post - will be critical to the party's success.

"There's some soul-searching going on," said Alexander, whose boyish cheeks and dark curls belie the importance of his post. "But if you're doom and gloom, there's no point in showing up on Jan. 1."

Alexander first worked for Hoyer as a field director in 1993 during his re-election campaign. Some feared that redistricting might threaten Hoyer's seat that year, but Hoyer won, as did Parris N. Glendening, who eked out a 6,000-vote win against Ellen R. Sauerbrey in the gubernatorial race. The two Democrats threw a joint victory party in College Park, and while Alexander was happy with Hoyer's success, he remembers a bittersweet drive home.

That night, Republicans took control of the House for the first time in 40 years. Hoyer, and the office Alexander would soon join, would have to start learning how success is defined by the minority party in Congress.

"Winning the House back at this point is the end-all, be-all," Alexander said of the emphasis Hoyer's office puts on regaining the majority, a mission he said Hoyer spent $600,000 of his own campaign money to help support. "All of us have so many ideas and so many goals in what we would want to do with the majority. To not be able to do them is a very frustrating reality."

He has helped recruit House candidates since 1996, and Cardin said Alexander has an intimate knowledge of congressional districts across the country, sometimes knowing them better than members themselves. He keeps a hawk's eye on the weaker Republican seats and said he is optimistic about the midterm elections in 2006.

It was while working for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee that he met his wife, Stacy Alexander, who is now chief of staff to Utah Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson. The two married in 2001, live in Northwest Washington and are expecting their first child in March. According to Cory Alexander, the pregnancy was one of few bright spots in a fall that saw Democrats fall short across the board.

In some ways, Alexander was born into the job. As a child in Prince George's County, he knocked on doors to help his father, Gary R. Alexander, now a well-known Annapolis lobbyist, win a seat in the state House of Delegates. Hoyer, the former president of the state Senate, was a friend of the family and vacationed with the Alexanders on Nantucket Island when Alexander was a boy.

After his sophomore year at Hamilton College in New York, Alexander earned a fellowship helping the 1992 Clinton-Gore campaign. Like a star athlete, he left college early, launching his political career instead of returning for his junior year. Later, he would complete a political science degree by taking night classes at the University of Maryland.

But chief of staff to Maryland's longest-serving congressman is no handout job, and Alexander earned the position by succeeding in each role he has had since joining the staff as a full-time legislative assistant after the 1994 race. Alexander said Hoyer, unlike many House members, "will give his staff a lot of rope," a reliance that forced him to excel.

"If you're going to be chief of staff to one of the most effective politicians in the country, you have to know what you're doing," said another Maryland Democratic congressman, C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, who credited Alexander with helping him acclimate to Capitol Hill during his first term.

Of course, Alexander had a learning curve of his own.

Between 1999 and 2001, Hoyer was running a heated intraparty campaign against Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, a colleague jockeying for David E. Bonior's minority whip spot. When Bonior retired, Pelosi beat out Hoyer. The loss left Alexander deflated.

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