The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Hoyer reflects on partnership with Pelosi as Democrats take control of House

Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) sit for a photo with members of the House Democratic leadership team on Nov. 30. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

The ad airing in Virginia Beach this fall showed an image of Democratic candidate Elaine Luria morphing into House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and back again, reinforcing the California lawmaker’s toxic reputation in GOP-held suburban districts.

A visit from Pelosi could have sunk Luria, a first-time candidate in a swing district that voted for Donald Trump.

Instead, Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) stepped in, hosting a reception for Luria on Virginia’s conservative Eastern Shore.

The patrician pol with a cap of white hair and genial demeanor campaigned for more than 90 hopefuls in 31 states in November’s decisive midterms, in which Democrats captured the House majority.

Like Luria, many of them ran against Republicans who voted with the president’s agenda and painted Pelosi as a “San Francisco liberal” who would destroy the nation if given control of the House.

Now, Pelosi has defied her critics and has enough votes to become House speaker in January. To secure support, she promised to endorse term limits for legislative leaders.

Hoyer, 79, will remain her deputy as House majority leader, cajoling and advising Democrats from across the political spectrum as he begins his 20th congressional term.

He easily amassed the support for his leadership role, well before Pelosi navigated her deal, and says he has no intention of supporting term limits.

The man once known as “boy wonder” learned the art of cultivating political allies as the youngest-ever Senate president in Maryland, a blue state where, despite a down-ballot blue wave, progressive Democrat Ben Jealous was soundly defeated this fall by popular Republican Gov. Larry Hogan.

Politicians on both sides of the aisle call Maryland a place “of middle temperament,” and Hoyer, the state’s longest-serving member of Congress, seems equally at home in conservative Southern Maryland and more-liberal Prince George’s County.

It remains to be seen how well his centrist approach will work in the 116th Congress, as the national Democratic Party is increasingly gripped by generational and identity politics, fueled by anti-Trump activists, and infatuated with stars such as outgoing Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.) and Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).

Often extolled as a “member’s member,” critics see Hoyer as an insider’s insider: He has expressed interest in reviving earmarks, is a self-professed “serial gerrymanderer” and makes no apologies for aligning with a PAC that takes corporate donations.

He is the only straight white man in party leadership old enough to quality for Social Security. A woman, Rep. Cheri Bustos (Ill.), chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee; an African American, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.), is caucus chair; and a Latino, Rep. Ben Ray Luján (N.M.), is assistant leader.

Fellow Marylander Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D), 56, who is close to both Hoyer and Pelosi, was just elected to a leadership post representing members who have served five terms or fewer.

Hoyer “got into Democratic politics because of JFK,” said Raskin, an ardent progressive about to begin a second term representing some of Washington’s most liberal suburbs. “A lot of the more junior people got into politics because of Bernie Sanders or Barack Obama or Elizabeth Warren.

“But he makes a conscious effort to reach out to everyone.”

An uneasy partnership

Two dozen cardboard boxes sat in the lobby of Hoyer’s minority whip offices on Capitol Hill in the weeks before Christmas. Next month, he will move down the hall to more-spacious offices for his second stint as majority leader.

As the second-highest-ranking House Democrat, he promises “to be full service.”

He is responsible for setting the legislative calendar, which in 2019 includes a longer-than-usual summer break — a perk Hoyer said is intended to give the many members with young families time to spend at home.

He will lead a weekly meeting with committee chairs and decide, with Pelosi, which bills go to the floor.

Their goal is to unite the fractious Democratic caucus to advance bills that don’t need GOP support to pass the House — a feat that often proved impossible for Republicans during recent years when they were in control.

Democrats want to protect a requirement that insurance companies provide health coverage for people with preexisting conditions, tighten gun laws through background checks and allow police to take guns away from people who are considered a danger to themselves or others. Lawmakers also want an infrastructure package but will grapple with how to pay for it, Hoyer said.

The last time Democrats won the majority, 12 years ago, Hoyer famously defeated Pelosi’s pick for majority leader, John P. Murtha. That battle brought into full view a Pelosi-Hoyer rift that is said to date to the 1960s, when both were interns for Daniel Brewster, the late Maryland senator.

In recent years, Hoyer and Pelosi have remained publicly cordial. Most of the time.

For the junior members, the rivalry is like “the French and Indian War,” Raskin said. It’s simply ancient history.

“I consider Nancy a partner, and I think she considers me a partner, and we represent a broad spectrum of the caucus,” Hoyer said in an interview. “I think I’m credible with all the progressives, but I think the progressives are more comfortable with Nancy’s view. . . . And I think Blue Dogs and New Dems feel a little closer to me.”

A spokesman for Pelosi declined to comment for this article.

Old school meets young caucus

Hoyer’s ability to understand the needs and concerns of members helps explain why he engenders loyalty. After the election, when Washington wondered whether Pelosi would win enough support to become speaker again, Hoyer quietly released a list of 184 Democrats who had his back.

During the debate over the Affordable Care Act in 2009, when Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) was wavering, Hoyer arranged for then-President Barack Obama to personally call and work out the issue.

He helped Rep. Don Beyer (Va.) decide not to run for chairman of the DCCC last summer and to stay on the Science Committee, without — according to Beyer — telling him what to do in either case.

Beyer called Hoyer “the father or uncle all of us need at different times in our careers.”

When then-Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown (D-Md.) lost his campaign for governor in 2014, Hoyer walked him to the stage to give his concession speech.

“Hold your head up high,” Brown said Hoyer told him. “You ran a great race. It’s a tough cycle. You’ve got a lot to contribute.”

Two years later, Brown was elected to Congress in a district that borders Hoyer’s. Once Brown took office, Hoyer put him on a team of whips he created to get newer members involved in the legislative process.

Hoyer’s old-school style is reflected in the group’s Thursday morning meetings, which feature an inspirational story or commentary from Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.). Hoyer calls it the “best five minutes of your week.”

This fall, he has bonded with fellow University of Maryland graduate and Rep.-elect Jennifer Wexton (D), who defeated Rep. Barbara Comstock (R) in Northern Virginia, and gifted the Democrat a fluffy red sweatshirt from their alma mater.

Hoyer, who collects terrapins in honor of the U-Md. mascot, headlined a fundraiser for Wexton this fall as well as a breakfast for Rep.-elect Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.), who unseated incumbent Rep. Dave Brat (R). Brat had compared Spanberger to Pelosi 25 times in a single debate.

Luria and Wexton are supporting Pelosi for speaker and Hoyer for majority leader, but Spanberger has said she will stick to her campaign promise to vote for new leadership. Through a spokesman, Spanberger declined to comment on Pelosi’s promise to support term limits.

Hoyer has escaped millions of dollars in vicious attacks that Republicans have lobbed at Pelosi — in part because he doesn’t have the top job, and in part because it’s easier to demonize a progressive woman than a septuagenarian white man, said Todd Eberly, a political scientist at St. Mary’s College, where Hoyer sits on the board.

Luck has also been on his side. Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.), the House Democratic caucus chairman, could have challenged him for majority leader this year but lost his primary to Ocasio-Cortez. A would-be challenge from the third-ranking Democrat, Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), never materialized.

Hoyer feels empowered enough that he says he will oppose the term-limits proposal once Congress convenes, even as Pelosi supports it.

“I’ll speak against it,” he said, reiterating his view that it is up to voters whether to remove him or anyone else from power. “I’m against term limits.”

The way he sees it, if Pelosi relinquishes her gavel after two more terms, it could open the door for him to be speaker.

That’s not to say he would definitely run.

“It depends upon when she leaves, and it depends on how long I want to stay,” he said. “I think I would be the next logical choice.”

Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.