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Political Pragmatism Carried Hoyer to the Top

By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 17, 2006

Steny H. Hoyer is a practical moderate and Nancy Pelosi is a liberal idealist, and for more than 40 years they have competed like siblings, all the way to the pinnacle of politics.

Hoyer's rout yesterday of Rep. John P. Murtha (Pa.), Pelosi's handpicked candidate for majority leader, validated the methodical, no-frills approach that the congressman from Maryland has taken throughout his long career, from his rapid ascent in state politics to his somewhat bumpier climb through the House.

As a number of Hoyer supporters put it, there was simply no good reason to deny him the job. Even Pelosi had to concede that the result was convincing. "Steny came out a big winner today," she declared after the 149 to 86 vote. "It was a stunning victory for him."

Congenial and diligent, Hoyer scored big points with his colleagues by laboring in the trenches throughout the 2006 campaign season. He raised money, helped recruit candidates and appeared at events across the country. When Congress was in session, he was a fixture on the House floor as the Democratic whip, cajoling colleagues to stick together on tough votes. And when Democrats won a House majority last week, Hoyer received a large share of the credit.

"He's worked hard for a very long time," said Rep. Mike Ross (Ark.).

"He's very, very effective," said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (N.Y.).

"We've never had a whip operation like this one," said Rep. David E. Price (N.C.). "He's just been a model leader, and people appreciate that."

One of Hoyer's assets is that he has worked successfully alongside Pelosi. "There was a consensus in the caucus that the team is working, and they wanted to keep it, by a very large margin," Hoyer explained. Given the duo's strong record, many House Democrats questioned why Pelosi would turn to Murtha, a veteran Appropriations Committee member who had not shown much interest in House leadership before he emerged as a prominent Democratic war critic a year ago.

By rejecting Hoyer, Pelosi may unwittingly have elevated him, particularly among moderate members who are nervous about her liberal views, particularly on social issues. Now, even before the Democrats take over in January, they can claim to have bucked the boss, by voting against Pelosi's candidate for her second-in-command. That may prove particularly useful for freshman Democrats who won in conservative districts and will presumably have to fend off tough challenges in two short years.

"They campaigned on a theme of independence," said Rep. Allen Boyd Jr. (Fla.). A vote for Hoyer, he said, "will help them to demonstrate it."

Hoyer, 67, was elected to the Maryland Senate 40 years ago, becoming the youngest Senate president in state history during the mid-1970s. In 1981, when Rep. Gladys Noon Spellman (D), who represented Maryland's 5th District, fell into a coma, Hoyer battled through a primary against her husband and then beat a better-financed Republican opponent in the general election. He was called the "boy wonder" of Maryland politics.

The congressman won a coveted seat on the Appropriations Committee and became a champion purveyor of funding for his Prince George's County-based district.

Just this August, Hoyer appeared at a celebration marking the completion of a jetty project in Deale. "This is pork," Hoyer told the crowd. "But there is good pork and bad pork. Good investment and bad investment. This is a good investment."

Known as a business-friendly Democrat, Hoyer is a free-trader and a balanced-budget proponent, with strong ties to lobbyists. He champions many liberal causes and was a leading sponsor of the Americans With Disabilities Act. Hoyer is widely liked around Washington, regarded as funny and considerate.

For years he served as a senior member of the Administration Committee, a little-known favor bank that oversees the day-to-day operations of the House. Hoyer also has good relations with some senior Republicans. When Congress is in session, he has a monthly lunch with GOP Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.), another pragmatic insider.

Why exactly Pelosi sought to oust Hoyer remains something of a mystery, even to the congressman. The two Maryland natives first met in the 1960s, while serving as interns in the office of Sen. Daniel B. Brewster (D-Md.). Pelosi helped Hoyer in his race for majority whip against David E. Bonior (Mich.) in 1991. Ten years later, Bonior gave up his post, and Hoyer's competition was Pelosi.

The race was long and bitter. Hoyer ran as the more moderate and experienced candidate, while Pelosi portrayed herself as forward-thinking and progressive.

Hoyer saw the race as an election for a leadership job, not a blood feud. "I ran for whip, she ran for whip," as he describes it. He calls her support for Murtha a show of loyalty toward an old friend. "Mr. Murtha asked her to do this, and because she's loyal, she did," Hoyer said. "And we've got to move on."

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