News & Politics

Steny Hoyer’s Nine Lives

His setbacks would have ended the careers of most people. But the veteran Maryland pol and new House leader has always found ways to move on.

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It’s the early 1970s. Richard Nixon is president. The war in Vietnam is raging, and Democrats are the “party of the people.” A young Maryland state senator, Steny Hoyer, is plotting an ambitious future. He is a JFK Democrat who was elected to the state senate at 27. When he becomes senate president in 1975, he is the youngest person ever to hold the job, a fact featured in his biography over the next three decades.

Ask Hoyer today about being senate president at 36 and he corrects you: “I was 35.”

Hoyer made an early impression, showing the savvy and doggedness that would make him one of the most durable political figures of his time, and, three decades later, majority leader of the US House of Representatives. But in the early days as Steny Hoyer was beginning his climb, Glenn Harrell decided to get in his way.

“Everything was always right with Steny,” says Harrell, now a judge on Maryland’s Court of Appeals. “He always presented himself perfectly. His clothes, his hair—everything.”

Hoyer and Harrell were among a group of young Democrats in Prince George’s County who represented the ascendant political powers. They were ambitious, sometimes too ambitious.

Peter O’Malley Sr., Hoyer’s closest political ally back then, admitted later that they were “dilettantes,” unsure of what they really believed or what they really wanted. But they knew how to play the game.

Each weekend they played pickup basketball, and Harrell decided to try to take the perfect young senator down a peg. “At this time I am about 270 pounds, six-foot-one,” Harrell recalls. He conspires with another player to maneuver Hoyer into a hard collision with Harrell, the point being to knock Hoyer out of the game. “We run the pick, and it works perfectly,” Harrell says. “Steny’s going for the ball, and I stand there. He runs right into to me, and he goes down, right on his ass.

“And I tell you, nothing happened. He got up and kept playing like nothing happened. That’s when I said, ‘Steny, you are truly one of God’s children.’ ”

After 40 years in public life, 25 of them on Capitol Hill, Hoyer’s rise to House majority leader is a testament to his ability to keep on going as if nothing has happened. Hoyer is now the longest-serving member of Congress ever from southern Maryland, with an impressive record of delivering federal dollars to his district and state.

A $12-million laboratory addition for the Agricultural Research Service in Beltsville. A $300-million storage facility for the National Archives in College Park. An $88-million new FDA laboratory in White Oak. A $15-million National Wildlife Visitor Center at the Patuxent Research Refuge in Laurel.

Throw in a federal courthouse in Greenbelt, bridges, space telescopes, naval bases, wider roads, the new weather-forecasting center in College Park, an unclogged sewer here and there, and it’s easy to understand the basis of his political endurance.

He has gone from young tiger to grand eminence. Along the way, he has survived close calls that would have ended the careers of lesser pols.

He lost a race for Prince George’s county executive in 1971, backed away from a race for governor in 1978, lost a race for lieutenant governor in the primary that year, lost two races for whip of the House Democratic caucus, got redistricted after the 1990 census, and had to fight off a challenge for the majority leader’s job last November.

Each time, Hoyer pulled himself out of a political hole and advanced his career. He has turned the cycle of defeat and resurrection into political art, and his career, maybe more than any other in national politics, proves that survival and success often have the same DNA.

At 67, Hoyer comes to work early—often bringing his dog, Charlotte—and leaves late. “His idea of a perfect day was to get to the office at 7 in the morning and get home at 11 at night,” says a former staffer.

These days, Hoyer meets with the powerful committee chairs in the House to talk tactics and strategy. It is a long way from the Sheraton-Lanham, where Hoyer and a small group of Democratic Party activists would meet to talk strategy in Prince George’s County politics back in the mid-1970s. Every decision—from who should run for what office to whom should be appointed to judgeships—got worked out over eggs and coffee in the Sheraton dining room.

The group was led by Hoyer, O’Malley—the county kingpin who would later become president of the Washington Capitals—and attorney Tom Farrington.

Later, it would include County Executive Winfield Kelly, party committee head Lance Billingsley, and state senator Tommie Broadwater, whose inclusion signaled the growing influence of African-Americans in the county. They were known as the Breakfast Club.

Although the group hated being tagged a political machine, it had all the features of one. It is where Hoyer learned about party discipline. It is also where he learned that losing doesn’t kill you unless you let it.

“It’s been my experience that if I just keep working, applying my talents, things work out in the end,” he says. “We all get depressed. We all have our ups and downs. But you can’t let the downs defeat you because you won’t be around for the good times.”

The first time Hoyer’s career was thought to have ended was in 1978, in the wake of Governor Marvin Mandel’s convictions for mail fraud and racketeering. More than a year before the election, Hoyer, then state-senate president, had launched his campaign for governor on the first day of the new session in 1977. But it was hard to run the senate and a gubernatorial campaign at the same time; Hoyer had trouble passing a state budget and keeping Democrats in line, even with a 39–8 majority.

Eventually, he abandoned his bid for governor and joined the ticket of acting governor Blair Lee III as the candidate for lieutenant governor. Lee had been Mandel’s lieutenant governor and became acting governor when Mandel was forced to relinquish his duties. Hoyer tried to extract a promise from Lee that, if they won, Lee would not seek reelection, giving Hoyer a clear shot at the governor’s mansion in 1982. He didn’t get the promise, but it was moot because they lost—in the primary.

“That race for lieutenant governor was disappointing,” Hoyer says now. It was more than that. He was depressed for months about having been rejected by his own party, a rejection that was based in part on a perceived link to the disgraced Mandel. Suddenly Hoyer was out.

“You’re 39 and you’re out of office and people are saying, ‘Well, there goes Steny Hoyer,’ ” he recalls.

He went back to practicing law. But Hoyer is all politician, and as senate president he had had a taste of the big time. He declined to run for Prince George’s County Council and kept practicing law.

Hoyer is tall, angular, trim for a man of his age. The blond hair is now mostly white but still all there. He laughs loudly, and no matter what he says, he sounds reasonable.

“He is a reasonable partisan,” says California Republican David Dreier.

Hoyer has remarkably few political enemies. The harshest criticism of him is that he is a cautious, establishment pol who takes care of the home folks and plays the game but who, in the words of one Democratic strategist, “is not very progressive.” His vote in support of bankruptcy reform—making it harder for people to declare bankruptcy—was seen by some as a caving-in to the credit-card companies, and his support of the Iraq war in its early stages angered some Democratic Party insiders.

Those who say Hoyer is cautious—a trait he denies—point to the 1978 election loss as the genesis, as it imperiled everything he had dreamed about.

Hoyer’s Lazarus moment came two years later when the incumbent congresswoman Gladys Noon Spellman suffered a heart attack and slipped into a coma. There were 19 primary candidates in a special election to replace her, including Spellman’s husband, Reuben. Hoyer won handily and faced Bowie mayor Audrey Scott, a Republican, in the general election.

Spellman remained in a coma for eight years before she died in 1988. Hoyer won his election and was back in business as a member of Congress.

The next time his career faltered was in 1991. After ten years in Congress, he challenged David Bonior of Michigan for majority whip. “I know why I lost to Bonior,” he says. “He was from a bigger state, and he was more senior.”

But the perception was that Hoyer was jumping the line, that he wanted it too much. As one Bonior supporter told the Washington Post, Hoyer came off “like the rush chairman of a second-rate fraternity.”

That stung, and Hoyer went to work. He was a lead sponsor of the Americans With Disabilities Act. He became chair of the Helsinki Commission, where he worked on getting Russian Jews out of the Soviet Union. He became serious.

In the midst of this, his wife of 35 years, Judy, fell ill with cancer. When she died in 1997, Hoyer was so shaken that some wondered whether he’d leave politics.

“He was just devastated,” said Andrew Quinn, a lobbyist who worked for Hoyer for seven years. “He was not himself for a while.”

Even now, Hoyer takes a deep breath before he talks about that time. “You know, we met in high school when we were 16,” he says and stops. “My wife . . . Judy Hoyer was just a good human being. Lincoln was thinking about her when he talked about the ‘better angels of our nature.’ ”

The year after Judy’s death, Hoyer was out getting schools named for her in Prince George’s County and making plans for another whip race in 1998, this time against California’s Nancy Pelosi and, for a while, Georgia’s John Lewis.

They all assumed the Democrats would retake the House, allowing then–minority leader Dick Gephardt to become Speaker and Bonior majority leader, leaving the majority whip’s office up for grabs.

Democrats did not take the House in 1998, or 2000, but the Hoyer and Pelosi camps remained on a war footing.

In 2001, Bonior retired to run for governor of Michigan, and the three-year battle finally came to a vote. Pelosi won 118–95. The prognosis for Hoyer was that the defeat was fatal and, according to the Washington Post, would show that his “moment has passed.”

The rancor of that contest helps explain the uneasy relationship Pelosi and Hoyer still have. “That kind of fight takes on a life of its own,” says California lawmaker Henry Waxman, who thinks that despite their differences, they work well together.

After the loss, Hoyer went back to work. He recruited new candidates for the party and campaigned for incumbents. He raised big cash and gave advice to younger members. “He’s a member’s member,” says Congressman John Lewis. “He helps people, and people don’t forget that.”

With the House still in GOP hands, Gephardt decided to run for president in 2004 and left his job as minority leader. Hoyer didn’t challenge Pelosi for the spot and was elected unaminously to replace her as whip. Together they unified the Democrats and finally took control in 2006.

Knowing that he might face opposition for majority leader, Hoyer campaigned for Democrats in 33 states and 80 districts. He attended more than 300 events.

It paid off when Democrats chose Hoyer as majority leader. He beat back a challenge by Pennsylvania’s John Murtha, whom Pelosi supported. This time Hoyer won.

Now Hoyer sits in his new hideaway just off the House floor. It is a stately room with deep-blue carpeting, a monumental mirror in a gold-leaf frame, and busts of Washington and Jefferson. The view out the back window stretches down the Mall past the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial. It is majestic in the gathering dusk.

The door opens, and a staffer tells him it’s time to vote. He leaves. Older, more powerful, moving on as if nothing has happened.

“I am a firm believer in ‘one door closes, another one opens,’ ” he says.

This door has his name on it, and it’s stenciled in gold.

Terence Samuel is the former chief congressional correspondent for U.S. News & World Report. He is writing a book on the 2006 freshman class in the Senate to be published by Random House in 2008.