By Horus Alas
Capital News Service

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Mechanicsville) doesn’t seem especially concerned about his reelection next year.

“My strategy for reelection is to continue to do a job everyday that people will see and appreciate,” he told Capital News Service from his office on the third floor of the U.S. District Court.

Hoyer has represented Maryland’s 5th Congressional District for 38 years. And despite primary challenges this election cycle from two young, progressive women of color – McKayla Wilkes and Briana Urbina – he feels confident that at age 80, he can win reelection and continue to serve his district well.

Hoyer laughed at the prospect of retirement, and said it would happen, “at some point,” when the currently longest-serving member of the Maryland congressional delegation no longer feels he can do “a good job for the people of the 5th Congressional District and our state.”

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Mechanicsville) discusses his life and tenure in Congress at his district office. (Photo by Horus Alas, Capital News Service)

He didn’t act like an octogenarian. Hoyer joked and spoke boisterously, and insisted “people who work with me see me at an energy level that has not changed.” 

His storied career has taken Hoyer from the Maryland State House to leadership in Congress to the chairmanship of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe. Since 2003, he has served as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s second-in-command, both in the majority and minority.

And now, during his second tenure as House majority leader, Hoyer sees an opportunity to focus on legislative priorities like mass incarceration, redistricting reform, voting rights and equal pay for minorities.

“I know how you can get a bill passed and how you can just float an idea, which is not going to pass,” he said of his record. “I’ve served a long time, but I’ve also learned a lot.”

The tale of Hoyer’s path to public service began on a warm spring day in 1959 at the University of Maryland’s campus in College Park.

Then-18-year-old Hoyer was a business major who worked nights as a file clerk at the CIA. He said that before leaving campus for work on the afternoon of April 27, he caught a glimpse of the convocation speaker riding in a convertible with the top down.

“I saw him and recognized him and said, ‘I’m gonna go hear him speak.’” Hoyer recalled. “That’s really cool.”

The speaker was the then-junior senator from Massachusetts and future president, John F. Kennedy, about a month from his 42nd birthday. About eight months later, Kennedy would be announcing his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Maryland’s campus newspaper, The Diamondback, reported that Kennedy “called for more students to enter politics.” That appeal had an immediate impact on Hoyer.

He said he changed his major to government and politics the next week, and “decided I was going to go to law school and go into public service.”

That decision spurred Hoyer’s graduation from Maryland in 1963, and then from Georgetown Law School in 1966. In 1967, he began serving in the Maryland Senate, and became that body’s youngest elected president at age 35.

Instead of seeking reelection there, Hoyer accepted a spot on then-Acting Governor Blair Lee III’s gubernatorial ticket as his lieutenant governor in 1978. The ensuing loss jettisoned Hoyer from politics for a few years.

“You’re 39, and you’re out of office and people are saying: ‘Well, there goes Steny Hoyer . . .’” he told the Washington Post about his loss in a 1985 story.

But when the late Rep. Gladys Spellman was left comatose by a heart attack in October 1980, her seat in the 5th District was declared vacant. Hoyer campaigned for it successfully the next year, and has held it ever since.

Over the next decades, Hoyer climbed into House leadership. He attributes his success in the 5th District in part because he grew up there.

“I went to Suitland High School. I went to the University of Maryland College Park. I’ve lived in this district since I was 15 years of age. I know this district,” he said.

And while his younger challengers claim Hoyer has served too long and should let someone else represent the district, experts and key constituencies don’t think Hoyer is coasting in his job – he’s working.

Sharon Murphy, director of the Charlotte Hall Veterans Home – a nursing home and assisted living center for veterans – called Hoyer “an advocate and champion for veterans throughout his career” and called him “instrumental” in bringing a community-based outpatient clinic to Charlotte Hall in the late ‘90s.

Murphy praised the congressman’s responsiveness to her center’s needs. 

“I can pick up the phone and speak to his legislative aides,” she said. She also noted Hoyer’s support raising $700 million for the State Home Grant Program, which supports the construction and maintenance of veterans care centers like Charlotte Hall.

And Cheryl DeAtley, former Judy Centers Partnerships Specialist at the Maryland State Department of Education, said that Hoyer “reaches out to Judy Centers. He visits on a regular basis – not just the ones in his district.”

Hoyer’s wife, Judy Pickett Hoyer, was a school teacher in Prince George’s County, who established a comprehensive care center for low-income, pre-k children. Her death in 1997 prompted Hoyer to help establish more of these centers – now called “Judy Centers” – in honor of his late wife.

“The death of my wife Judy spurred me to focus on what she had accomplished in her own life, specifically the creation of Judy Centers, and build on it,” Hoyer recalled. He wanted to “continue her legacy of early childhood education.”

In this respect, DeAtley has found Hoyer a steadfast partner. She said that during her time working with Judy Centers, “I talked to (Hoyer’s) staff at least every other week. I always communicated with them about what I wanted to do.”

“Last December, I got a nice note from him saying he had visited a Judy Center in Baltimore City where he thanked me for all the work we’d done together,” DeAtley said. “I still carry the card in my purse with me.”

Hoyer still enjoys widespread throughout his district, according to St. Mary’s College of Maryland political scientist Todd Eberly.

“Hoyer will not be the next Joe Crowley,” – the longtime Democratic congressman from New York unseated by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) – Eberly told Capital News Service in an email. 

Despite the district’s ever-increasing diversity, “there have been precious few indications of dissatisfaction with Hoyer except from the progressive wing of his party,” Eberly said.

Hoyer won the district with 70 percent of the vote in 2018.

Eberly attributed Wilkes’s and Urbina’s entries into this race both to Ocasio-Cortez’s success and Democratic activists’ push for the party to move left.

But despite those factors, Wilkes and Urbina “appeal to that same wing and will likely divide any votes against Hoyer,” Eberly said.

With the prospects of his reelection looking comfortable, Hoyer has also turned his attention to what has become a political hydra for House Democrats this Congress: impeaching President Donald Trump.

“I am appalled by the incumbent president,” Hoyer said matter-of-factly. “Getting rid of Donald Trump is a major priority for our country. He is dangerous to our national security.”

Two articles of impeachment were drafted by the Democratic majority on the House Judiciary Committee Tuesday: one for abusing the powers of the presidency, and another for obstructing the congressional investigation into Trump’s conduct.

The judiciary panel began debating the articles Wednesday night.

Despite Hoyer’s personal feelings toward the president and the impeachment investigation, he said each member of the House Democratic caucus must vote independently.

“I can’t tell them what they ought to do. They’re elected, like me, from 750,00-plus people. They’re independent,” he explained.

And while impeachment marks a major objective for Democrats this Congress, Hoyer insists they have many more issues to tackle: improving the Affordable Care Act, sentencing reform, and ending what he called the unleashing of dark money into American politics.

“There’s just a lot of things I still want to do that I think still need to be done,” Hoyer said.