The Washington Post
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Shortly before he won a House seat in a special election Tuesday, Democrat A.B. "Ben" Chandler hosted a horse country fundraiser with a rare Washington guest, Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland.
Democratic Congressional leaders seldom draw a warm embrace in Kentucky's bourbon-and-bluegrass belt, where Republicans rule and George W. Bush carried 57 percent of the vote in 2000. Maybe it was the friendly crowd of trial lawyers, or the $39,500 in checks that Hoyer delivered, that had Chandler beaming as he introduced the House's number two Democrat.
"Steny Hoyer is someone we feel comfortable with," said Chandler, a former state attorney general. "We feel comfortable when he is in Kentucky, and he feels very comfortable in Kentucky."
These days, Hoyer, from La Plata, the 64-year-old dean of Maryland's delegation, finds himself in a comfortable spot almost everywhere he goes.
With his first year as whip under his belt, he heads into a national election year having rallied dispirited House Democrats, stung the GOP majority and consolidated his standing as the centrist half of a leadership team headed by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
Despite his past rivalry with Pelosi and concerns that he might be too soft for the job of chief vote-counter and disciplinarian, Hoyer has demonstrated a steely focus and collegial touch, in contrast with the famously abrasive style of Majority Leader Tom Delay (R-Tex.) aka "The Hammer."
"Steny was made to order for this job. He's exceeded all our expectations," said ranking Democratic Budget Committee member and moderate Rep. John M. Spratt Jr. of South Carolina, in comments echoed across the Democratic caucus.
"He's done a superb job in his whip organization," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman of California, ranking Democrat on the Government Reform Committee and a prominent liberal. "He's been very effective and a good whip."
As a white, male Democrat from south of the Mason-Dixon Line, with free-trade and pro-war positions, Hoyer is a favorite of conservative Southern Blue Dogs and centrist New Democrats.
While Republicans never tire of labeling Pelosi a San Francisco liberal, Hoyer has reached out to GOP-leaning business groups, culturally conservative swing districts in the South and West and, most recently, Jewish voters, a bedrock Democratic constituency being courted by Bush and House Republicans.
Hoyer also is displaying a new skill -- going for the jugular. As both parties brace for an election year, the whip has kept a smoldering GOP House ethics controversy on the screen.
The combative approach is a change and a challenge for Hoyer, a bred-in-the-bone institutionalist who would rather operate behind the scenes than push from the outside. With national polls showing rank-and-file Democrats frustrated with congressional leaders and hungry to take back the House, Hoyer's newfound taste for confrontation is gaining attention.
Led by Pelosi and Hoyer, House Democrats cite a string of small but encouraging victories. With Chandler's 11 percentage point victory Tuesday, Democrats picked up a GOP-controlled seat in a special election for the first time in 13 years. Both national parties invested heavily in the race, seen as a potential bellwether for this year's congressional elections. Hoyer and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) campaigned here.
With the House polarized along party lines at historic levels, House Democrats voted in greater unison in 2003 than in any year since 1960. That party solidarity pushed Republicans to the edge on several close votes over the federal budget and tax cuts. Most damaging was the decision of GOP leaders to hold open a 15-minute vote for two hours and 53 minutes to twist arms to win passage of a major Medicare prescription drug bill in November.
Rep. Nick Smith (R-Mich.) said afterward that GOP leaders offered "bribes and special deals" if he would vote for the bill, with other lawmakers saying Smith told them he was offered $100,000 for his son's congressional campaign this year. Smith, who voted nay, later retracted the bribery allegation, but the ensuing uproar has fueled Democratic demands for an ethics investigation.
Hoyer has led the charge, writing Hastert this month that until one was concluded, "the House will operate under a cloud of public suspicion."
Hoyer said Democrats' backbones had stiffened on ethics issues, but they are not imitating former speaker Newt Gingrich, who led the 1994 Republican takeover on the back of House scandals, because they would not attack individual members.
"We have not demonstrated the same kind of killer instinct that was demonstrated on the other side," Hoyer said. "I don't want to become my enemy, I don't want to replicate tactics I don't agree with . . . but if the consequence of [not acting] is that we turn a blind eye to misconduct, then we don't serve the interests of the country. I don't think that can be tolerated."
Hoyer's aggressiveness angered GOP leaders, with DeLay accusing Democrats of planning to "burn down the House" in a politically motivated strategy to win back control.
Democrats cheered the development. "The challenge for a Steny Hoyer is, how do you regain power without being someone who basically knows how to cut your heart out? That's his challenge," said former Clinton chief of staff Leon E. Panetta, who worked for six years in the White House with a GOP Congress and served 16 years in the House from California.
Hoyer has walked the line, maintaining a reputation as an opponent Republicans must reckon with, yet still can deal with. Hoyer lunches monthly with Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), works closely with members on appropriations matters and has teamed with GOP leaders on election reform, congressional pay raises and other close-to-home matters.
"I expect to beat them every day, and we do. But I think Steny has created a higher level of strategic thinking maybe than we've seen in recent years on the other side," Blunt said, in rare praise between whips. "Steny . . . makes us work harder than we otherwise would have."
For now, Hoyer is relishing his role, which fulfills a lifetime of ambition that began when he became state Senate president at age 27.
Hoyer is "relentlessly enduring about the detailed work of acquiring power and managing power," said Steve Champlin, a former aide and now vice president of the Duberstein Group. He added that Hoyer's strongest point is an overall lack of arrogance and self-criticism.
Chief candidate recruiter for three elections in the 1990s, Hoyer travels regularly, enlisting House challengers and raising funds in more than 15 states. He has headed the Democratic panel that doles out committee assignments; the appropriations subcommittee that funds Congress; member pay and staff budgets and the administration committee that oversees everything from office space to parking spots.
Hoyer's political action committee, Ameripac, raised $944,000 in 2003, placing him second only to Pelosi among House Democrats.
He also has worked closely with Pelosi to build a solid working relationship, despite losing a grueling, two-year fight for the whip's job to her in 2002.
"Whatever apprehensions that may have existed [between them] have been extinguished," said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Robert Menendez (N.J.), the party's third-ranking leader. Menendez dismissed questions about intra-leadership rivalry, saying the team's ultimate fortunes depend on one thing: winning elections. "All we need is to win the majority, and everyone will have a place."