WASHINGTON -- House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, already the highest-ranking congressman in Maryland history, became the longest-serving yesterday.
"I guess if one lives long enough and stays put ... , " the Southern Maryland Democrat said with a chuckle over the telephone from New York, where he was helping a pair of freshmen raise money for re-election in 2008. "It's surprising because it doesn't seem that long to me."
It was 26 years and a day, in fact, since Hoyer was sworn in to replace the ailing Rep. Gladys Noon Spellman. That put him past the mark established by Rep. George Hyde Fallon, a Baltimore Democrat who served 13 terms from 1945 to 1971.
For the one-time boy wonder of Maryland politics - elected to the state Senate at age 27 and Congress at 41 - these past few months have been among the busiest and the most satisfying of his political career, he said. As majority leader, he controls the House schedule, deciding when and how measures come to a vote. He has emerged as a key spokesman for the Democrats on issues ranging from the war in Iraq to voting rights for the District of Columbia, his days now in stark contrast to those when the Republicans controlled Congress.
"It's the difference between getting up in the morning and saying, 'What's going to be done to me?' and getting up in the morning and saying, 'What am I going to do?' " Hoyer said.
It also has made him an inviting target for critics left, right and center.
The antiwar group MoveOn.org aired radio advertisements last month condemning his vote to fund operations in Iraq without a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops. House Republicans have accused him of shutting them out of the legislative process. And the Center for Public Integrity, an independent nonprofit based in Washington, has criticized his prowess at bundling, a legal but controversial way of raising cash for candidates.
Hoyer said such criticism "comes with the turf."
"When you're simply an observer, you're not a target," he said. "When you're an actor and a decider, as the president would say, obviously you take positions or you take actions with which people disagree and you're the target of their opposition and/or disappointment."
Hoyer, 67, silver-haired and smooth-talking, doesn't give the impression that he minds. In a sense, he asked for it.
Two years ago, when Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes said he would not be seeking re-election, Hoyer had a decision to make. The most senior of Maryland's congressmen and a formidable fundraiser, he could have entered the Senate race as frontrunner. Then-Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a friend dating back to their arrival together in Annapolis, told him that he would not run if Hoyer wanted the job.
Hoyer said he gave the idea no more than a few minutes' thought. Then the No. 2 Democrat in the House, he opted to seek re-election to his Southern Maryland seat and campaign nationwide for a Democratic majority.
With the party victory last fall, Hoyer pivoted to fend off a challenge from Rep. John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania, who was backed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for majority leader.
In the end, Hoyer's work raising money for his Democratic colleagues paid off: He routed Murtha. Colleagues say he and Pelosi - rivals since they worked in the office of Sen. Daniel B. Brewster of Maryland - appear to be working well together.
"This is perfect for him," Cardin, now Maryland's junior senator, said of Hoyer's new role. "He's absolutely found his love and is using his extraordinary talent in the most effective way."
Cardin called Hoyer "the greatest legislator Maryland's ever had, from the point of view of respect for the system, effectiveness and just commitment to the legislative branch."
Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, who was encouraged by Hoyer to run for his Baltimore County seat in 2002, called him a mentor. Both are centrists, with reputations for being able to work with Republicans.
"He's a very good communicator," Ruppersberger said. "He reaches out. He tries to find a way to resolve issues. Part of the science of politics is that you can't always get whatever you want. And you have to reach consensus and you have to find solutions for issues. And Steny's very good at that."
Hoyer expresses surprise that he has stuck around this long. For a 41-year-old, he said, "thinking 26 years forward is tough." His first five years, he didn't bother to invest in the congressional retirement program.
"I bought back into it after a while," he said. "I thought, maybe I'll be here for some period of time."
A father of three, with three grandchildren and a great-grandchild - his wife, Judy, died 10 years ago - Hoyer says he's not done yet.
"I look forward to serving some additional time," he said. "I don't know how much time, but some additional time."