How Steny Hoyer’s role as House Majority Leader let Md. ‘punch above its weight’


The parade seemed to be inching along as if it were stuck in traffic. Rep. Anthony G. Brown had the honor of marching behind his neighbor in the Maryland congressional delegation, Steny H. Hoyer, and as Brown craned his neck to figure out what the holdup was, he realized: The holdup was Hoyer.

“And I was like, goodness gracious, man, this guy’s got to step it up,” Brown recalled of the parade nearly a decade later.

But it soon became clear why Hoyer was taking so long: He was stopping to shake the hand of every person lined up on both sides of the street.

To Brown, that parade in Greenbelt years ago encapsulated how Hoyer, despite rising to become the No. 2 most powerful Democrat in the House and a face of national leadership, retained close connections within Prince George’s County and Southern Maryland communities in the 40-plus years he has held the seat — both “literally and figuratively,” said Brown, the incoming Maryland attorney general.

Now, as Hoyer prepares to step down as House majority leader, his colleagues and allies at the local level say he’s leaving a legacy of using that clout to bring greater resources to his district and the state — or to bring major federal buildings, as he continues to aggressively pursue bringing the FBI headquarters to Maryland. He’s advocated beefing up funding for federal institutions and military installations. He’s evangelized other members about the value of bringing back earmarks — community project funding as they’re now known — and secured millions of dollars in projects in his district over the years.

And, winning reelection comfortably every year since 1981, he’s remained popular locally, avoiding the fates of others in House leadership like Joseph Crowley (N.Y.), the 20-year incumbent and Democratic caucus chairman who was ousted by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, or Virginia’s Eric Cantor, the Republican House majority leader who lost the support of Republican voters in his district while his national profile climbed.

“It was not just because of the power of that position, but because of the person who held it,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.). “Hoyer was respected by every member of the House, both Democrats and Republicans, for the manner in which he conducted himself and the leadership. And that pays off big dividends in an institution where personal relationships mean so much. And he leveraged that to help Maryland.”

Reflecting on his time as majority leader from his royal-blue office in the U.S. Capitol, Hoyer said rising to leadership created opportunities that could benefit Maryland, like having a direct line to every House committee whose business could be impacting his state. But he said he never wanted national responsibilities to cloud his foremost priority: his constituents.

“[Former House speaker] Tip O’Neill said all politics is local. He was right,” Hoyer said. “You got to take care of your people if you expect them to vote for you. They need to feel that they have your attention.”

Steny Hoyer, a member’s member, leads the effort to get more benefits to lawmakers

He pulled out a list of community projects he secured in a spending package earlier this year, the kind of stuff that doesn’t typically get a spotlight but that revs Hoyer up.

“I’ve got $160,000 to provide wraparound services for residents at the Southern Cross Crossing Transitional Housing Project, where they’ve taken an old motel and they turn it into housing. And it’s wonderful, wonderful,” Hoyer said, going down the list of projects. “And that’s only $160,000. But $160,000 made a real difference.”

Hoyer, who has held some type of leadership position among House Democrats since 1989, steps down as the only Marylander to ever become majority leader — and remains the longest-serving Marylander in the House of Representatives.

After Hoyer and another prominent Marylander, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), interned together in Maryland Sen. Daniel Brewster’s office in the early 1960s, Hoyer launched his own career as a political newcomer in the state Senate.

Cardin and Hoyer entered the Maryland General Assembly the same year, in 1967, and largely grew up together in politics. Within two terms Hoyer became the Maryland Senate president — later Cardin became House speaker — and Hoyer’s leadership style hasn’t changed since, Cardin said: a consensus-builder who’s managed to maintain ties with both moderate and liberal factions in the party. In one of his last speeches on Dec. 22, Hoyer called his approach the “psychology of consensus,” urging House Democrats to carry that on.

Steny Hoyer sought ‘consensus.’ The next Democratic leaders may find that hard.

“The Steny Hoyer I see today in the House of Representatives exercises the same type of discipline and the same type of integrity that I saw as a freshman member of the Maryland General Assembly, as a young senator. And that is he makes relationships,” Cardin said. “He instills confidence among all of his colleagues. He works across party lines. He works across philosophical lines.”

Throughout his four-decade tenure, Hoyer has been known for shepherding major pieces of legislation into law, such as the American Disabilities Act, which he pursued despite opposition from the business community, recalled former longtime Maryland senator Barbara A. Mikulski. But locally, Mikulski said, he worked behind the scenes not only to boost projects in his district but across the state.

She has a saying for it: “Steny knew how to work on the macro issues — and the macaroni-and-cheese issues,” she said. “There would be an impact like on the Eastern Shore and people wouldn’t know, ‘oh, Steny Hoyer helped with this,’ or the VA hospital in Baltimore ― ‘oh, Steny Hoyer worked on this.’ But he did.”

Gary Kessler, who sits on the board of the Southern Maryland Navy Alliance, said he’s got the majority leader on speed dial if something goes wrong.

In St. Mary’s County near the Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Kessler said, people still remember Hoyer as the congressional ringleader among Maryland lawmakers who spearheaded a pitch in the 1990s to save the naval base from potential closure — turning a nerve-racking military review known as Base Closure and Realignment into an opportunity for growth at the site. Today, that growth remains the bedrock of the local economy, Kessler said, and Hoyer stuck around, keeping the money coming, advocating for federal funding for new facilities or workforce recruitment programs to strengthen the base.

His rise in leadership had benefits, Kessler said: “Even in the leadership role he continued to advocate, reach out to senior leadership, even to the secretary-of-the-Navy level to address any issues or concerns we have down here,” Kessler said.

Prince George’s County leaders said that clout is materializing lately in one of the county’s biggest goals: bringing the FBI headquarters to Maryland.

Both local and federal lawmakers involved in the project have described it as a legacy item for Hoyer, who has been at the forefront of Maryland’s pitch to the General Services Administration that Prince George’s County is the best home for the FBI, which is housed in a crumbling building in downtown D.C. Two of the three sites under consideration for the new headquarters are in Prince George’s while the other is in Springfield, Va.

“He is dedicating a considerable amount of his personal time and attention, as well as that of his staff,” said Brown, who also represents Prince George’s and has been fighting for the sites. “It would certainly be a culminating victory for Steny and for Maryland,” should either site be selected, he said.

Hoyer’s pursuit of the headquarters fits within a record of seeking to bring more federal resources to Prince George’s. Hoyer, a son of the county who went to Suitland High School, is known for leading efforts to bring a new federal courthouse to Greenbelt, and in the 1990s helped ensure that a new IRS headquarters would be built in Prince George’s. His argument then was similar to what it is now: Prince George’s, a majority-Black county, has been neglected when it comes to federal office space compared to others such as Fairfax County, despite having a large population of federal workers.

Hoyer and the Maryland delegation put their feet to the pedal on that argument after President Biden issued an executive order last year requiring federal agencies to consider racial equity in their programs, policies and missions. Racial equity is included in the GSA’s criteria for site selection — but Hoyer and the delegation have lambasted a new decision this year to weigh proximity to Quantico and the Justice Department headquarters as the top criteria, which they say unfairly advantages the Virginia location.

The Maryland team’s tactics have at times rankled Virginia lawmakers, who say the criteria is sound, particularly after Hoyer and the Maryland senators engaged in eleventh-hour negotiations this month to add more language to the spending package regarding the criteria. They finally agreed to require GSA to consult with lawmakers representing the three sites, and Hoyer and the senators said they will use the opportunity to “improve equity” in the selection process.

Back home, local leaders like Prince George’s County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks see it as Hoyer going to bat for the county.

“I’ve been with him as he discussed this with the General Services Administration, and I was with him with Secretary [of Energy] Jennifer Granholm — I mean, whoever will listen, he’s selling why Prince George’s County is the best location for the new FBI headquarters,” Alsobrooks (D) said in a recent interview. “And he’s still working around-the-clock to make that happen.”

As Hoyer returns to being a rank-and-file member, rising Maryland political stars like Alsobrooks see his decision to pass the torch as aligned with something they say Hoyer has been doing for decades in Maryland: preparing the next generation of leaders.

Alsobrooks said that on the night she won her first election to become state’s attorney as a little-known lawyer, the first person to call to congratulate her was Hoyer. Before long, the powerful lawmaker was asking her to be the guest speaker at his annual women’s equality luncheon — an event that, like his annual Black History Month breakfast, was an incubator for up-and-coming leaders, she said.

He’s done the same for others, she said, noting how he endorsed Gov.-elect Wes Moore (D) early in the Democratic primary and campaigned with him across the state, especially in Prince George’s, to help Moore on his way to victory.

“I watched him just reach into new leaders, leaders like Jazz Lewis who he’s been so proud of, and other leaders he makes it his business to support,” Alsobrooks said.

Lewis, who represents Prince George’s in the House of Delegates, calls Hoyer a mentor. He began working for Hoyer as a campaign manager in 2014, brainstorming ways to reintroduce one of the nation’s longest-serving members of Congress to younger or more liberal voters. He worked as a policy adviser in his office, sometimes picking up the phone if ever Hoyer ran into a person at a Bowie movie theater or a St. Mary’s grocery store who needed help with Social Security. When Lewis’s father died, Hoyer called him every day for a month just to check in.

“That’s the kind of mentorship I’m talking about, because he’s dealt with grief,” Lewis said, referring to the death in 1997 of Hoyer’s wife, Judy, a teacher for whom Hoyer established the Judy Centers for early-childhood education across Maryland and the nation.

Now, with Hoyer leaving the leadership role, Lewis said that “regardless, he is still Leader Hoyer.”

“That wasn’t a position that was given to him. He earned it because of his skill and experience and reach, and he still has all of that,” Lewis said. “And I think Maryland should be proud that he’s continuing to serve because it allows us to continue punching above our weight.”

In that final “magic minute” speech on the House floor last week, Hoyer said that even though he’ll no longer have the privilege to speak as long as he wants on the floor, he looks forward to continuing to represent his district and Maryland, noting “we still have much more to do on projects that will benefit our district and state.”

While he won’t be the majority leader, he will be the top Democrat on the House Appropriations subcommittee with direct oversight of GSA — just as it wraps up its selection of the next FBI headquarters site.

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