U.S. Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D), the former Maryland state senator elected as the House minority whip last week, said Friday that becoming the Democrats' second-in-command will elevate the visibility of his hometown district's needs.

Chief among those concerns will be retaining Southern Maryland's military bases, said Hoyer, already the area's longest-serving member in the House and now the highest-ranking member of Congress ever to hail from the Free State.

"I expect to continue to vigorously focus on the welfare of our bases and Southern Maryland generally," he said, his voice hoarse after waking up Friday morning with a cold. "I'm proud that I could bring this back to Southern Maryland."

Hoyer, 63, was elected unanimously Thursday to his new leadership post, an anticipated postscript to his recent coast to reelection in Maryland's 5th Congressional District. Working under the newly elected minority leader, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), he will be in charge of his party's vote-counting operation and help develop policy in the Democratic Caucus.

But Hoyer said his heightened national prominence will not overshadow the priorities of his constituents back home.

Local military base employees and elected officials predicted that Hoyer's position, though in the minority party, would bring vital lobbying power for Southern Maryland to the next round of military base closure reviews scheduled by Congress for 2005.

"He's going to be very helpful certainly for the Navy, and more importantly, for defense as well," said Keith Fairfax, president of the Southern Maryland Navy Alliance. "He certainly will look out for us, but he'll look out for the country first."

Hoyer's clout may be needed particularly to keep the Indian Head jobs that some leaders in California are pushing hard to bring to their state, said state Sen. Thomas MacLain Middleton (D-Charles).

But Middleton said the reach of Hoyer's new position also would extend beyond defense issues. The congressman's senior membership on the House Appropriations Committee, combined with his new title, will help Southern Maryland projects get into the budget and stay in it, Middleton said.

"It's hard to imagine it getting any better, but it does," he said.

As one of his first actions as minority whip, Hoyer delivered yesterday morning's Democratic response to President Bush's weekly national radio address. Democrats now must promote an agenda that reflects the country's principles and values, Hoyer said. But he also quoted President John F. Kennedy, who said, "Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer, but the right answer."

Hoyer, known for his ability to make friends across party lines, will have fences to mend on his home turf in St. Mary's County, where he lives near Mechanicsville. During the general election campaign season, he publicly supported the Democratic incumbents for the Board of Commissioners and called the Republican slate "a nightmare." Three members of that GOP team were elected.

Decrying Hoyer's slight, the Republican candidates embraced the mantra that county politics needed to return to local hands. In local newspapers, they criticized Hoyer for becoming "the sixth Democratic candidate for county commissioner."

But at week's end, the three Republicans who won majority control of the board Nov. 5 said they are ready to put campaign criticisms behind them.

"When it comes time to do business, we'll work together," said commissioners President-elect Thomas F. McKay (R), who noted that Hoyer shops at his family's grocery store in Charlotte Hall. "I think it's fantastic for the state, for him and for St. Mary's County."

Hoyer's dedication to Patuxent River Naval Air Station, which accounts for about 18,000 jobs in the county, is aligned with the new board's priorities, said Commissioner-elect Larry Jarboe (R). But he warned that the relationship would have limits.

"His place is Washington, D.C., and not St. Mary's government," Jarboe said. "He will be our friend, our neighbor, but he will not necessarily be at the head of the commissioners' table."

Hoyer, who also seemed ready to move beyond campaign rhetoric, offered his own words of caution to the new commissioners regarding the importance of the Patuxent River base to St. Mary's livelihood.

"I'm sure they recognize . . . it's a critical component of our national defense," he said. "We all have a responsibility to work together to ensure its success."

STENY H. HOYER