Capital News Service
WASHINGTON - Steny Hoyer is standing on a playing field at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Beltsville, exhorting a group of eighth graders to stay physically fit. He is, as ever, eloquent and impeccably dressed, not a sleek, silver hair out of place. With the thermometer pushing 80 degrees, he hasn't even rolled up his sleeves.
As he finishes his speech, one of the 13-year-olds surrounding him raises her hand and calls out: "Who are you?"
The No. 2 House Democrat doesn't miss a beat.
"I'm your congressman," he said. "I'm Steny Hoyer."
If voters in Maryland's 5th District don't always recognize Hoyer, it may be due to a chronic case of entrenched incumbency syndrome. The Mechanicsville Democrat, running for his 13th term in the House, has not faced a serious challenge in over a decade.
In 2002, Hoyer beat Republican business consultant Joseph T. Crawford with 69 percent of the vote. In the 2000 race against Thomas E. "Tim" Hutchins, now state police secretary, he won with 65 percent.
This year's election is running pretty much true to form. The playing field is clearly tilted in Hoyer's favor, despite a spirited but underfunded grassroots campaign by Republican Brad Jewitt and token opposition from Green Party candidate Bob Auerbach and Steven Krukar of the Constitution Party.
Although the district covers Southern Maryland, it is largely dominated by the 113,000 registered Democrats in its Prince George's County portion.
Hoyer's war chest dwarfs the resources of his challengers, as usual. Hoyer, who was elected House minority whip after the last election, has raised $1.6 million, about $600,000 more than he did in 2002.
The lion's share of those contributions come from political action committees, with unions, financial institutions and real estate interests leading the list. Out-of-state individual donations are up, from 36 percent two years ago to 43 percent today.
Jewitt's $120,500 looks puny by comparison, but actually represents a breakthrough. Republicans in the 5th District typically get no support from the national party. None in recent memory has come within shouting distance of $100,000.
At least part of Jewitt's success can be attributed to his military connections. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, hosted two fund-raisers for him, and AOL founder Jim Kimsey, a veteran, has been a major contributor.
The Maryland Republican Party has even helped with mailings and print jobs, said John Kane, party chairman.
"We know he's been working it," Kane said of Jewitt's nonstop campaign schedule, which has him out in the district seven days a week, 12 to 15 hours a day.
"Win or lose, that will win the respect and admiration of Democrats and Republicans," he said.
The last time anyone even came close to unseating Hoyer was 1992, right after redistricting added four counties to what had been a Prince George's-only district. Larry Hogan, the son of the last Republican to hold the seat, edged out Hoyer in four of five counties.
As Hogan remembers it, all the newscasters were calling the election for him when late returns from Prince George's tipped the election to Hoyer by a very slim 51 percent.
Perhaps because it almost worked then, the Republican line on Hoyer has remained virtually unchanged ever since: He has "national ambitions" and spends too much time traveling and raising funds for other Democrats, especially since he was elected House whip. He has lost touch with his constituents, and his views on social issues are too liberal.
Sitting at a card table in the basement of his Berwyn Heights home -- currently doubling as campaign headquarters -- Jewitt repeats the time-honored refrain, then adds a few twists of his own.
Southern Maryland has become the state's fastest-growing area, he says. Population is up close to 12 percent in the last five years, according to the Maryland Office of Planning, and the region is expected to fuel the state's economy for the next decade.
What's driving that growth, Jewitt claims, is not the multimillion-dollar defense contracts Hoyer brings home with clocklike dependability. Small businesses now supply 60 percent to 80 percent of the nation's new jobs, Jewitt says. He is trying to position himself as "the small business candidate," repeating the Republican mantra of less government regulation and lower taxes.
Born in Media, Pa., outside Philadelphia, Jewitt was class president in high school. He enlisted in the Marine Reserves after his freshman year at York College of Pennsylvania and was called up during the first Gulf War in 1991, but was still in training at Camp Pendleton, Calif., when the conflict ended.
After graduating from York, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant and spent almost a decade on active duty, mostly in financial management positions.
He left the service in 2001, took a government job and landed in Berwyn Heights, where he went from head of parks and recreation to city councilor to mayor in less than a year. He left office in January 2003 when he was recalled to active duty, spending eight months stateside as a major in the Marine Reserves.
A man of medium build, Jewitt has a direct gaze and fashionably shaved head. On the stump, he is likable and engaging, dressed business casual in sports shirt and slacks.
At a small Greenbelt strip mall, he walks into every storefront, from pawnshops to Papa John's Pizza, shaking hands, passing out fliers, and talking about easing regulatory burdens and providing tax incentives for small business.
He shifts gears quickly when few of the people he meets actually live in the 5th District. "Well, your business is here," he says to the shop owners and managers, "and I want to help it grow and be successful."
People listen, but their top concern seems to be safety. They say there have been several holdups in the area recently.
When Hoyer makes a campaign swing through Greenbelt the same week as Jewitt, it is to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the federal district court house there, one of the projects he has personally shepherded through Congress in the last 24 years.
A new annex is needed for the bankruptcy court and Hoyer tells the judges, lawyers and court employees gathered for a brief ceremony in the building's four-story-high atrium, "We'll get that money."
A few minutes later, he is outside for a make-your-own-sundae social, eating ice cream and schmoozing happily with old friends or anyone else who stops by to buttonhole him.
Hoyer wears his power easily, like one of his perfectly tailored Jos. A. Bank suits. He is simultaneously formal and down to earth and -- usually accompanied by his 13-year-old Springer spaniel, Charlotte -- comfortable in almost any situation.
He is also the real deal, according to just about any Maryland Democrat: a natural born leader and consensus builder who, even after two decades of power games in Congress, still has his integrity intact.
Maryland Delegate Joanne Benson, D-Prince George's, a political protege, calls Hoyer a "rare breed."
"He has not forgotten to look back and reach back," she said. "He is clearly focused on the needs of the citizens, the little people."
Born in New York City, Hoyer grew up in Suitland, did his undergraduate work at the University of Maryland -- where he was voted "Outstanding Male Graduate" in 1963 -- and got his law degree at Georgetown. He was literally fresh out of law school when he won his first election to the Maryland Senate in 1966. Nine years later, he became the youngest president of the Senate in state history.
Former state Sen. Catherine Riley, a Harford County Democrat, called Hoyer a "skilled and dynamic leader," but said he was "too nice."
"He believed in comity and sometimes people used it against him," she said. "Steny brought a higher standard with him. He seemed to think the best of everyone."
After an unsuccessful run for lieutenant governor in 1978, Hoyer went into private practice for a few years. He came back in 1981, winning a special election for the 5th District seat after his predecessor, Rep. Gladys Noon Spellman, suffered a stroke.
Hoyer's rise through the Democratic ranks has been slow but steady. In the late 1990s, he was chairman of the Democratic Caucus and its chief candidate recruiter. He lost a hotly contested run for Democratic whip to Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., in 2001, before his unanimous election to the No. 2 spot a year later.
By all accounts, he's been effective in the position. Even old foes, including Hogan, admit he "brings home the bacon" for the district, keeping the military bases at Indian Head and Patuxent River open and well-funded with defense contracts. His most recent coup: $40 million for relocating the presidential helicopter to Patuxent River.
Looking back over his 23 years in Congress, Hoyer said his darkest moment was in 1994, when the Republicans, led by Newt Gingrich, took over the House. For the best times, he reels off a list of landmark legislation he helped pass, including the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Federal Employee Pay Comparability Act and the Help America Vote Act.
Most say he has even developed a bit of much-needed edge as whip. But this year's 5th District race has been mostly a civilized affair, the two main candidates running parallel but very separate courses.
Hoyer, Jewitt and Auerbach did participate in a candidates' forum sponsored by the NAACP in September, which was as close as district voters have come to seeing a real debate.
Not that a debate would change the outcome. The only question is whether the increased turnout expected for the presidential race will increase Hoyer's margin of victory or help Jewitt score a more respectable second-place showing.
Kane, the state GOP chairman, is already hoping that Jewitt will take a second run at Hoyer in 2006. But even he is realistic about Republican prospects in the district.
"If Steny Hoyer didn't run, and some other person named Hoyer was on the ballot," Kane said, "they'd elect the other guy named Hoyer."
(Copyright 2004 by Capital News Service. All Rights Reserved.)