Just 36 hours after ending a dozen years of GOP control in Congress last November, Reps. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) sat with President Bush and Vice President Cheney in the Oval Office for photographs that would be transmitted worldwide.
The favorite camera angle was the shot over Cheney’s head, capturing Pelosi between Hoyer and Bush. All three smiled uncomfortably and spoke the language of cooperation. But all three knew that Pelosi had tried to leave Hoyer out of the high-powered lunch.
According to knowledgeable sources, when Bush called Pelosi at home to invite her to lunch she noted that, since there was a race for majority leader and Hoyer might no longer serve in the leadership in the next Congress, Bush may not want to include him. Bush ignored Pelosi’s suggestion and invited Hoyer anyway.
As the Democrats left the White House Hoyer stopped Pelosi briefly in the driveway to say he had the votes for majority leader, and had earned the position through hard work and loyalty to her and the team. While he knew that out of loyalty Pelosi would back her friend Rep. John Murtha’s (D-Pa.) challenge, he hoped she would not do so publicly. Pelosi told Hoyer she planned to do just that.
Within days, a power struggle unfolded as Pelosi, Murtha and their allies used strong-arm tactics to take Hoyer down. The family feud became front-page news around the country and behind the scenes many Democrats found their elation tempered by awkwardness, discomfort, and for some even anger.
But one week after their talk in the White House driveway it was Hoyer who triumphed because of loyalty — amassed in meetings, fundraisers, phone calls and conversations, airplane rides, and even airport meals, over many years. The faces and hours could never be counted, but the votes told Hoyer’s story. His smashing 149-86 victory fell only one vote shy of the whip count he had tallied long before Election Day, a test passed that had finally cemented his standing with his colleagues.
Five months later, Hoyer and Pelosi continue to lead the Democratic team, together. Hoyer’s friends say Pelosi has not interfered with his job and that he is as happy as they have ever seen him. Even allies of Murtha and Pelosi concede Hoyer has helped to keep Democrats organized and unified as they wade into life in the majority; an unprecedented political battle with the president over the Iraq war, and a presidential election the party wants badly to win. On more than one occasion, Hoyer and Pelosi – who first met 40 years who while interning for Maryland Sen. Daniel Brewster — have even taken to dancing together.
Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass.), a close Pelosi ally who led her transition to Speaker, said Hoyer “has become a very good majority leader at the moment. I have to give him credit for that.”
Republicans, who have also stayed unified, agree that Hoyer has been running a tight ship and only cite one occasion – their motion to recommit on the DC Voting Rights bill on March 22 – when Hoyer betrayed a rare display of anger on the floor. Members of both parties have observed that Hoyer hasn’t transitioned completely from his former role of whip but with several close and critical votes his counting has paid off.
Indeed, on their most important fight yet, passing a supplemental Iraq war funding bill that included a controversial timeline for withdrawal, Hoyer managed to corral his nervous centrists to support the bill while Pelosi’s wavering progressives threatened passage up to the end.
Next month, Hoyer will celebrate 26 years in the House, from his powerful perch as leader. In June he will turn 68, a widower and father of three grown daughters, a grandfather and great-grandfather who has spent 41 years winning and losing elections in a marathon career in public office.
For Hoyer, an only child named for his Danish father “Steen,” the drive to be in charge came early in life and has never left him. Dubbed the ‘boy wonder’ as a kid politician in Maryland, Hoyer was elected to the State Senate at age 27 and became Senate president at age 35, the youngest ever in Maryland.
His persistence and resilience are legendary — he possesses his own interpretations of defeat when he loses elections, and of the word “no” when colleagues rebuff him. Through the decades Hoyer has built a substantial power base while evolving from what some considered an over-eager student body president persona to that of a shrewd and respected elder statesman.
Hoyer belongs to the strange category of uber politician. While many love the game, few thirst as he does for the next problem, the next plea from colleague or constituent, the next dissenter whose mind needs to be changed, or the next sudden development that changes everything. Hoyer has an easy smile and is blessed with a quick sense of humor. Sometimes a slightly southern accent can make his voice sound eerily close to that of Bill Clinton. Colleagues use words like “upbeat” and “comfortable” to describe him but he admits to the bouts of stress and frustration that come with the job.
Hoyer wrestles with a tendency to procrastinate, particularly when the laundry basket is stuffed with clothes in need of folding. He loves mowing the lawn on his John Deere tractor, playing golf and cards, and is partial to the game of hearts. He is a loyal customer of the nation’s top fast food chains — even managing to dine at McDonalds in Egypt over recess – and he has a fondness for Dinty Moore stew.
With Republicans, many who are his friends, Hoyer has earned a reputation as an institutionalist and he has earned their respect. It was Hoyer’s idea, in the GOP majority, for lawmakers to stand united in song on the Capitol steps on the night of Sept. 11, 2001.
Now as majority leader, he is the anti-Tom DeLay: dining monthly with Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) strolling into a GOP fundraiser at Bobby Van’s one night in March to chat with his friend, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), and while visiting the GOP cloakroom recently, causing the whole room to erupt in laughter when he offered a witty retort to Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.).
In his own party Hoyer is a bridge between the conservative and liberal factions, a friend to both big business and labor who voted for the Iraq war but earned the support of anti-war progressives like Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), head of the Out of Iraq Caucus, in his bid for leader. Because he is the only member of the Democratic leadership who is welcome in all four regions of the country, his friend former Rep. Tony Coehlo (D-Calif.) calls Hoyer “the protector of the House majority.”
For Maryland, Hoyer has been an expert appropriator, so successfully caring for the needs of his district, state and region that he has earned the scorn of Citizens Against Government Waste, which gave him a 9 percent favorable rating in 2005.
With hard work, Hoyer transitioned through a significant redistricting in 1991, losing 48 percent of his solidly Democratic African American voters in Prince George’s County and gaining more conservative, rural Calvert, Charles and St. Mary’s counties in southern Maryland. Though it has trended Republican, Hoyer is handily reelected there.
It was Hoyer’s bid for lieutenant governor of Maryland in 1978.
that ended his rapid rise in state politics and sent him down his only, and brief, exit ramp from politics to practice law. In 1981, when former Rep. Gladys Spellman (D-Md.) fell into a coma and her seat was vacated, Hoyer jumped at the mid-year special election at the height of President Reagan’s popularity. Hoyer surpassed Spellman’s husband in the polls to win a 19-way primary and then 45 days later to beat a well-funded Republican.
Hoyer flexed his legislative prowess early in the House. While still the second most junior member on the appropriations committee he took on the more senior cardinals in a fight to get Beretta, the firearms company from Prince Georges County, awarded a contract for handguns with the army. It was a direct challenge to the Massachusetts Company Smith & Wesson, whose handguns were used by the Army and whose interests were represented by Speaker Tip O’Neill, and other powerful members. One former staffer remembers worrying that Hoyer’s push would fail and marginalize him, but Hoyer prevailed on Beretta’s behalf.
“He took on the entire power structure,” said the staffer. “If you said that could be won the odds were 500-1, but he didn’t let the odds scare him.”
In addition to his work on appropriations, Hoyer became chief House author of the Americans with Disabilities Act, sponsored the Help America Vote Act and joined the Helsinki commission, spending eight years working to champion the human rights of refusniks and dissidents in Russia. But after years in the House he yearned for a leadership role, and beyond a stint as Caucus Chair, his colleagues weren’t ready to give him one.
He lost his race for whip against former Rep. David Bonior (D-Mich.) in 1991 by 26 votes. He was perceived by some as wanting it all too soon, and lacking in the patience required of waiting one’s turn, Democrats said. Again Hoyer tried running for whip in 2001 but Pelosi beat him by 23 votes. Both times Hoyer’s counts were wrong. Instead of trying to take out Pelosi, Hoyer worked to join her and cautiously plotted for a future race. In 2002 when the opportunity presented itself Hoyer was ready with the votes and was elected whip in a unanimous victory. He took on the role of Pelosi’s complement, and their team eventually managed to produce the best unity the caucus had experienced in half a century.
Hoyer stuck with his methodical approach, and applied himself in recent years to helping find the best candidates, helping them win and helping them once they were in Congress. In the 2006 cycle Hoyer traveled to 80 districts in 33 states, for 15 House members and 49 candidates, which amounted to 316 events and 97 days on the road. The amount of money Hoyer gave and raised totaled more than $8 million.
Rep. Tim Mahoney (D-Fla.) who won former Rep. Mark Foley’s (R-Fla.) seat, said Hoyer backed his candicacy from the beginning and never waivered though the rest of the party wrote him off until Foley suddenly bolted his seat in scandal. Mahoney was just one of many newer Democrats in whom Hoyer had already inspired unflinching loyalty, a block Murtha could not hope to overcome.
“I don’t think the political leadership understood how strong the loyalty is between the freshmen and Steny,” said Mahoney. “Jack helped but Steny lived with me. Steny was with me all the time.”
Hoyer is eager to help and has an eager way of asking for help that colleagues say leaves them struggling to say no. Rep. Darlene Hooley (D-Ore.) was recovering from foot surgery when she first blew Hoyer off for a recruiting meeting with him at an airport in 1996. Though she cancelled 15 minutes before, Hoyer kept calling her, soon every other day. The two of them would start laughing as soon as Hoyer said hello. Other congressmen started calling at his urging and then one day it was Vice President Al Gore on the other end of the line, telling Hooley her country needed her. Hooley relented, filing at the last minute and winning her primary.
A few weeks later when Hooley came to Washington and went to meet Hoyer for the first time she got to his office and found him, arms outstretched and smiling, wearing a red Darlene Hooley for Congress T-shirt.
Though he resists taking no for an answer, Hoyer has earned a reputation for being very good at saying no and for telling people exactly what can and cannot be done. The first time Rep. Jim Matheson (D-Utah) met Hoyer was early in the morning for breakfast at the Salt Lake City airport. It was the summer of 1997 and Matheson was mulling a run for Congress. He hoped Hoyer was ready to offer his help. Instead, Hoyer graciously told Matheson, he had come to ask him not to run. Matheson took his advice, stayed out of the 1998 race, which the Democratic candidate ultimately lost. The first thing Matheson did, in deciding to push ahead in 2000, was call Hoyer, who this time offered his full support.
“He was the advocate when I had none,” said Matheson.
Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), a former friend who became one of the most outspoken backers of Murtha last November, said Hoyer has always been comfortable in taking positions and defending them, no matter the outcome. After Moran and Hoyer both voted for NAFTA and took heat from labor groups Moran recalled, “I didn’t know how to deal with it.” But Hoyer rented a suit of armor and wore it to a labor meeting in Maryland where he managed to make everyone laugh to and to smooth things over, said Moran.
“He has a masterful touch with the care and feeding of his constituency groups. He’s smart, clever and very hardworking,” said Moran. “I don’t begrudge him, I admire him.”
To close friends, Hoyer is also gifted with knowing what to say when there is nothing left to say. John Berry, a former legislative director of Hoyer’s who lost his partner to AIDS in the middle of one night in 1996, remembers Hoyer calling at 6 a.m. to console him from his car phone. For Berry it was his first moment to cry, and Hoyer stayed on the phone for more than an hour, parked on the side of the road. “How could you ever thank somebody for that?” asked Berry, now director of the Smithsonian National Zoo.
Berry got a chance to repay Hoyer months later when his wife Judy was diagnosed with cancer. After her death, which Hoyer called “a wrenching experience,” he threw himself into 7 day work weeks, working up to 14 hours per day for the next 18 months. But the truth is, friends say, Hoyer has never let up on the work since. He has filled the void in his life by making the House his life.
“I think he enjoys this more than anything else in life,” said Rep. Al Wynn (D-Md.).
Judy, who didn’t love politics, shared a love of policy with her husband, particularly early childhood education. Following her death Hoyer worked to establish child development centers called “Judy Centers,” throughout Maryland that serve disadvantaged children.
What also happened after Judy died, as she had predicted, is that Hoyer grew much closer to his three daughters, Susan, Stefany and Anne. He also started bringing her dog Charlotte, his daily link to Judy, to the office everyday. Charlotte, who Hoyer often described as “the woman I live with,” died at age 15 several weeks ago. At a time of new beginning for Hoyer, it is an especially poignant and painful ending.
As he settles in to his new job, Hoyer looks forward to the many opportunities ahead. He doesn’t know what they will be but he knows they’re out there. The most important advice Hoyer said he could impart to his children and grandchildren is to trust that opportunity keeps knocking. Hoyer cited the first line of a poem called “Opportunity,” which goes, “they do me wrong who say I knock but once.”
“I think we have opportunities every day, every week, every month,” said Hoyer. “Sometimes those opportunities don’t pan out but new opportunities come, and I think you have to be ready for them and seize them when they come. And when you don’t seize them you can’t let that defeat you. You have to get up the next morning and say, ‘Well, here’s another day that I can do something I want with.’”
For Hoyer, the knocking is a comforting, recurring theme of his life — opportunity has never let him down.