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In Hoyer's Rise, Backers Eye Payoff
New House Leader Known for Promoting Projects at Home

By Philip Rucker and Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Steny H. Hoyer has become such a staple of political life in Maryland's 5th Congressional District that former Prince George's County executive Wayne K. Curry says casting a vote for him there is "almost as natural as renewing your driving permit."

As the Democratic congressman from Southern Maryland prepares to assume the post of U.S. House majority leader, constituents and officials in his district hope that the move will put Hoyer in a stronger position to do what has earned him much loyal support in his 25 years in Congress: bring home the bacon.

Hoyer persistently and successfully has secured federal resources -- some call them "Steny Dollars" -- for major projects in his district, which covers all of Southern Maryland and parts of Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties.

Hoyer has helped to steer billions of federal dollars for several projects, including the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge and the University of Maryland. He is credited with protecting two Southern Maryland military bases through the BRAC process.

"You can't go into any single hamlet in Southern Maryland without seeing somewhere that Congressman Hoyer has visited or made contributions to the betterment of his community," said state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), who has been Hoyer's ally since the 1970s.

Just as Hoyer, 67, has methodically climbed the national leadership ranks, he has focused zealously on projects for his Washington district.

"My concept is that the only reason I can be the majority leader is that the people of the 5th Congressional District have faith in me and elect me to Congress," Hoyer said in an interview this week.

Some critics in his party, however, see Hoyer as the face of a heavy-handed Democratic establishment that backed his friend Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin in his primary run for the U.S. Senate nomination against former NAACP chief Kweisi Mfume. Hoyer's support upset some Prince Georgians, who thought that it shut out Mfume from the Democratic nomination.

Others say that Hoyer can be too liberal for the more conservative parts of his district. But his electoral hold has been impressive. Since first winning the seat in a special election in 1981, his reelection victory margins have never dipped below 14 percent. This year, no Republican mounted a challenge.

Dazzling voters as a blond-haired, blue-eyed boy wonder, Hoyer won a Prince George's seat in the state Senate at age 27. He became Maryland's youngest Senate president at 35.

By 1981, when Hoyer ran for Congress for the first time, he appealed to voters with the slogan "Steny Hoyer is proud of Prince George's, and Prince George's is proud of Steny Hoyer."

The motto said something important both about how Hoyer understood the mentality of his constituents and how he hoped they viewed him, said John McDonough, a Prince George's lawyer who has run Hoyer's campaigns since the 1970s.

"There's always been an issue of pride in this county," he said. "There's always been an 'us against the world.' We had to fight for our fair share of things."

Hoyer's supporters say that his political philosophy has always been built around relationships: He makes friends easily and works hard for them, inspiring loyalty. This probably helped earn him the votes last week to become majority leader, McDonough said.

But Hoyer's relationships sometimes have gotten him into muddy water. Despite Hoyer's campaigning for Cardin, Mfume captured 70 percent of the Prince George's vote in the primary but lost statewide.

Mfume's supporters say Hoyer and other party leaders didn't give Mfume's candidacy a fair chance.

"I would say that you had a number of African American elected officials that were very puzzled about that. I don't think it was so much about Hoyer, but we felt that the party itself was not giving Mfume an opportunity to be a viable candidate," said retiring Sen. Gloria G. Lawlah (D-Prince George's). "He came out early, he backed a candidate and his candidate won. It's vintage Hoyer."

Another Mfume supporter, Del. Obie Patterson (D-Prince George's), said, "I know [Hoyer] and Ben Cardin are longtime friends, and he certainly had that right to support his friends, but at some point the Democratic Party leaders -- and he is a leader of the Democratic Party -- are going to have to be more responsive to the staunch supporters of this party."

Nevertheless, some observers say that Hoyer's success has been built on his ability to adjust his politics to a changing district.

"There are different phases of an evolution of a politician. That reflects ideological maturation as well as the need to represent different and changing political space," Howard University professor Alvin Thornton said. "The interesting thing about Congressman Hoyer is that he's been able to anticipate those changes and adjust."

After the 1990 Census, Hoyer's congressional district, which had included most of Prince George's, was redrawn to cut out part of the county and include all of Southern Maryland, a conservative stronghold. The change by the Democratic-controlled state legislature was designed to create a predominantly black district.

Hoyer devoted himself to mastering the issues that were important in his new district, such as the military, which is the largest employer in Charles and St. Mary's counties. Hoyer fashioned himself as a defense advocate and was an early supporter of the war in Iraq.

"He really began to understand he had a different constituency, and he knew that the defense business was big and strong and important," said J. Frank Raley, a St. Mary's Democrat who tutored Hoyer in local defense issues.

Still, Hoyer has taken criticism for being too liberal for some constituents. Raley said, "He carries the liberal banner very strongly."

"I would like to see him a little bit more to the center than what he is," said conservative Del. John F. Wood Jr. (D-St. Mary's). But some conservatives overlook Hoyer's political stripes and focus on his effectiveness in Washington. "You kind of look the other way sometimes on some things," Wood said.

Two weekends ago, at the height of his leadership fight with Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), Hoyer left Washington to attend a Veterans Day parade in Leonardtown.

"The thing that amazes me about Hoyer is that he's everywhere," said Zach P. Messitte, a political scientist at St. Mary's College of Maryland. "He's out there, talking to people, pressing flesh.''

Staff writer Megan Greenwell contributed to this report.

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