Hoyer's work in trenches pays off big

Years of hard work helping colleagues pay off for Hoyer

November 17, 2006|By Matthew Hay Brown and Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Matthew Hay Brown and Julie Hirschfeld Davis,Sun Reporters

WASHINGTON -- When Steny Hoyer got into politics at the tender age of 27, his goal was to become a big man in Annapolis. But after rising through the legislative ranks and then losing a bid to become Maryland's lieutenant governor in 1978, he suddenly found himself out of office and out of a job.

Instead, Hoyer turned his attention to Washington, winning the seat of disabled Rep. Gladys Noon Spellman in a 1981 special election that sent him to Capitol Hill.

And there he stood yesterday afternoon, his hand raised in triumph after winning a fierce internal fight to become the highest-ranking Marylander ever in the House of Representatives.

"I am proud to have been selected by my colleagues as the majority leader," Hoyer, 67, said after noting that he had become a great-grandfather two weeks earlier.

Then he grabbed the hand of Pelosi, who had described herself moments earlier as his "fellow Marylander -- well, that's where I was born," and the two put on a smiling display of unity for reporters who had spent the past week chronicling the bitter relations between the two.

Speaker-to-be Pelosi, a Baltimore native who has known Hoyer since they were Capitol interns about 40 years ago, had staged a last-ditch effort to block her one-time rival and install a loyal backer as her No. 2.

It didn't work, Democrats said, because Pelosi's campaign was no match for the years of politicking, fundraising and doling-out of advice that Hoyer had provided for his colleagues.

A career politician entering his fifth decade in that line of work proved too much for the daughter of Thomas J. D'Alesandro Jr., mayor of Baltimore from 1947 to 1959. She broke a cardinal rule of politics: Don't pick a public fight you're not sure you can win.

The final tally was 149 votes for Hoyer to 86 for Rep. John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania.

Praise for Murtha

Hoyer, who heaped praise on Murtha, minimized the friction between himself and Pelosi, and tried to assure Democrats, in Congress and around the country, that they would be able to work together effectively.

"In my opinion, it was not that somebody was rejected today; it was that a team that had been successful was asked to continue to do that job on behalf of the American people," he said. "Nancy, I look forward to doing that with you with great pleasure."

In the end, Hoyer supporters said, the personal relationships Hoyer developed over years of working to bolster the party -- with an assist, perhaps, from the revival of ethics concerns that have dogged Murtha for decades -- made the difference.

"People voted for Mr. Hoyer because they knew him, he's paid his dues, he's demonstrated that he can take a licking and keep on ticking," said Rep. Maxine Waters of California. "He deserved this."

Marylanders of both parties said Hoyer's election would boost the state's influence.

"It can't mean anything but good news," said Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, a Republican from Western Maryland who has served 14 years alongside Hoyer.

Hoyer achieved his latest victory four decades after his first successful run for the state Senate. The University of Maryland graduate earned his law degree from Georgetown University in 1966 and won election to the state Senate the same year.

He is a native New Yorker of Danish heritage whose first name is a variant of Steen, his father's name.

As party whip, he plotted floor strategy in weekly huddles with senior Democrats. In the well of the House during late-night -- sometimes early-morning -- sessions, he was the vote-counter assigned to make sure Democrats weighed in decisively against Republican initiatives while keeping tabs on moderate members who might need to defect on certain issues to protect vulnerable seats.

Centrists recruited

His work recruiting centrist Democrats capable of unseating vulnerable Republicans, then campaigning, strategizing and raising money on their behalf, paid off. Insiders estimated that he won the votes of at least two-thirds of incoming Democratic freshmen.

Hoyer made campaign visits to 80 congressional districts in 33 states in the past two years, raising or contributing more than $8.2 million for colleagues, aides said.

His supporters called his selection yesterday an acknowledgement of that hard work, after several years during which he and his closest allies were denied key posts by a caucus heavily swayed by Pelosi.

The chilly relations between the two weren't one-sided. Last year, when Pelosi called for a rapid withdrawal of troops from Iraq, Hoyer issued a statement warning of the effects of a precipitous pullout.

Rep. James P. Moran of Virgina, a Murtha backer, suggested that Hoyer had boxed in new lawmakers by getting commitments from them without explaining that they could be jeopardizing their chances for coveted committee slots.

"Nearly all the freshmen voted for Steny," he said "They knew him, they have expectations of what committees they want to be on, and they came here not being aware of the leadership contest that was taking place."

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