Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) paused during his whirlwind tour across Southern Maryland to walk his dog in a Giant grocery store parking lot.
"She goes to work with me every day," he said, grinning as he climbed out of his Capitol Police-guarded SUV with Charlotte's leash in hand. He said the 13-year-old English springer spaniel even has her own bed in his Washington office.
It's a new side to the minority whip of the House of Representatives.
Hoyer, who is seeking reelection in November, has represented the 5th Congressional District since 1981 and has been the House minority whip since November 2002. He has spent nearly all of his professional life in public office, winning a seat in the Maryland Senate in 1966, the same year he graduated from Georgetown University Law Center. Later he became the youngest president of that body in the state's history.
Hoyer has won handily in recent elections. This year Brad Jewitt is his Republican challenger.
Jewitt is waging a vigorous campaign calling for federal policies that will promote small-business expansion in Southern Maryland. He calls Hoyer a "national Democrat," who owes more allegiance to his party's line than to his district.
For his part, Hoyer says his positions as minority whip and as a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee benefit the 5th District.
"The longer you're there the more seniority you have, particularly in the appropriations," he said.
Called a "city slicker" by some of his southernmost constituents in a district that encompasses all of Southern Maryland and parts of Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties, Hoyer spent his teen years just outside of the District and has made Washington his workweek home since his wife, Judith, died in 1997. On weekends, he stays at his house in St. Mary's County near Mechanicsville, where Charlotte rolls in nearby marshes and comes home smelling like oysters, he said.
He spends entire days touring Southern Maryland several times a month, he said. On his most recent such excursion 10 days ago, Hoyer -- decked out in bluejeans and a button-up long-sleeve shirt -- trailed a handful of farmers on their Calvert County properties to learn about ways to reduce cattle waste runoff and pollution. He also made stops in St. Mary's.
"We're amazed by how much territory he covers," said St. Mary's County school Superintendent Patricia M. Richardson. Hoyer visited Green Holly Elementary to participate in a roundtable discussion on child immunizations and to mark the end of the school's first year of an experiment with an 11-month school year. "We see him at least every couple of months," Richardson said.
To Hoyer -- whose granddaughter just graduated from Northern High School in Calvert County -- education is a priority, in addition to protecting federal jobs and the environment. Without a strong education system in the region, middle class residents and businesses will not move here, he told a Prince George's County business roundtable, which was another stop on his trip.
"If we don't get education right in Prince George's County . . . nothing else is going to matter," he said.
Many in the 5th District say Hoyer's most important role is as a defender of the Patuxent River Naval Air Station in St. Mary's County and the Naval Surface Warfare Center at Indian Head. The future of both could be affected in the upcoming base realignment and closure process, the Pentagon's periodic review aimed at trimming military installations.
"There are significant pressures to reduce infrastructure," he said. "We must be vigilant."
As minority whip, Hoyer plays a central role in maintaining unity and direction within the Democratic Party. But he said that role does not interfere with his work for the district: He has separate whip and Maryland staffs, with the latter dedicated to the district's issues, he said.
He said one of the most troubling federal issues is what to do about the nation's ballooning debt and shortfalls in Social Security programs.
"I think this is the most fiscally irresponsible administration in history," he said of the Bush administration's tax cut policies. "We have undermined our ability to invest in things that have a big payoff."
He said that although the United States recovered after large budget deficits were racked up in the 1980s, the recovery was not accomplished at a time, as is the case today, when the baby boom generation is nearing retirement.
"We have not done much this year," he said of Congress, citing a lack of bipartisan partnerships on Capitol Hill. He said Congress has not passed transportation or energy bills, both of which are needed in Southern Maryland.
Hoyer originally supported U.S. military action against Iraq with a goal of bringing about an independent democracy. But now he says President Bush has followed a faulty war plan. "I think the execution of the policy has been bad," he said. "It alienated our allies."
He said the president did not deploy enough troops to accomplish the mission and should have worked to garner U.N. support. He is also critical of the United Nations.
"The U.N. is a body that has shirked its own responsibility," he said. "Had the U.N. been willing to act in a multilateral way, the U.S. wouldn't have gone in as it did."
Hoyer has a personal connection to the services. His stepfather served in the Air Force -- it was the reason the family moved from New York to the Washington area when Hoyer was a high school sophomore.
Hoyer went to the University of Maryland in College Park, where he joined the ROTC and tried to volunteer for service but was rejected because of asthma, he said. He has three grown daughters, Susan, Stefany and Anne, and five grandchildren.
Hoyer -- whose parents made up his name from the Danish "Steen" -- says he's the only Steny he knows, except for a man he met in Milwaukee with the name "Stenerup."