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The Maryland Democrat Who Wants to Stay Where He Is

Hoyer has been a Pelosi lieutenant for more than a decade. Will his wait-it-out strategy pay off? (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Hoyer has been a Pelosi lieutenant for more than a decade. Will his wait-it-out strategy pay off? (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

One of these House members is not like the others. One of these members doesn’t hope to belong — in the Senate.  

If you guess which member from Maryland is the only one not pondering a run for Senate next year, you’ve answered the easiest political trivia question of the week. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski’s retirement announcement Monday surprised most everyone. Days later, the void she’s created threatens to upend her state’s electoral order, shrivel the influence of a delegation that’s long punched above its weight and shape the futures of a big crop of officials who can’t resist being part of a potentially once-in-a-generation reshuffling of political power.  

Six of Maryland’s seven Democratic House members say they may give up their seats to make a run at the open Senate spot, which is highly likely to be claimed by the winner of their party’s primary. Rep. Chris Van Hollen became the first to make his candidacy crystal clear Wednesday. (The only House Republican from the state, Andy Harris, is at least talking about such an up-or-out move.)  

Only Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer has committed to standing pat — which means doubling down on a bet he’ll eventually get to step out of the ultimate on-deck circle in the congressional leadership.  

Hoyer already has filed papers to seek a 19th full term representing suburbs east and south of Washington, D.C. He’ll turn 77 in June of next year, and on the safe bet he wins re-election he’ll be the second-longest-serving member of his caucus in the next Congress. Assuming he maintains his currently vigorous good health, several aides and others close to him say he has every intention of remaining in office as long as it takes to grab the brass ring he’s coveted almost since his arrival at the Capitol 34 years ago.  

He wants to become the No. 1 Democrat in the House — preferably as speaker, of course, but minority leader would be good enough.  

The job is not currently posted, of course. And there are no reliable indications that Nancy Pelosi, who turns 75 in two weeks, has set any timetable for loosening her ironclad grasp on the position, let alone retiring back to San Francisco.  

There are some practical and political reasons why Hoyer has committed to trying to wait Pelosi out. But, at its heart, it seems clear his decision is deeply personal.  

For all the apparent health of their current working relationship, which is universally described as professional and symbiotic, for more than half a century Hoyer and Pelosi have been nursing a rivalry that’s become something of a congressional legend.  

It started in 1963, when freshman Democratic Sen. Daniel B. Brewster of Maryland chose two politically plugged-in recent college graduates for his staff: Nancy D’Alesandro, the daughter of a former Baltimore mayor, and S. Hamilton Hoyer (his name on staff lists of the time), who’d been president of the Young Democrats at the University of Maryland. But, reflecting the gender stereotypes of the day, the young man was assigned to represent the senator at events around the state while the young woman was assigned to answer the phones. The contacts he cultivated helped secure his election to the Maryland legislature at age 27; she quit the switchboard after less than a year and moved to California after marrying Paul Pelosi.  

For the next two decades, Hoyer had the electoral field to himself. He was the youngest president ever of the state Senate, captured an open House seat, got assigned to the Appropriations Committee, was named a deputy whip and won elections as vice chairman and chairman of the Democratic Caucus by 1989, the year Pelosi started her first full House term.  

Hoyer lost his first bid for whip in 1991, and for the next decade the two of them gained currency with their colleagues as appropriators, inside leadership players and campaign fundraisers. Hoyer’s wife, Judy, died in 1997, and after a time of soul-searching he resolved to revive his quest to rise in the ranks.  

But Pelosi surged ahead in their next open competition — and has stayed there ever since — by winning a 118-95 election among the Democrats to become whip in 2001, after a campaign against Hoyer that festered in the open for three years.  

Rather than accept that his moment had passed, Hoyer decided to position himself to become Pelosi’s reliable and unsinkable lieutenant for as long as required. He became whip on his third try, in 2002, when she moved up to floor leader. And when Democrats won the House four years later, Hoyer won a lopsided election as majority leader even though Pelosi, as the ascendant speaker, engineered and vigorously promoted the rival candidacy of one of her closest allies, the late Rep. John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania.  

Having been Pelosi’s understudy now for almost 14 years, or nearly half his congressional career, it’s easy to appreciate why Hoyer would not risk his opportunity to secure the upper hand one final time.  

And, assuming he outlasts her, there’s a widespread assumption the younger generation of ambitious House Democrats would be willing to let him be top dog for at least one Congress — as something akin to a lifetime achievement award.  

The Senate, to be sure, seems out of the question for other reasons. Hoyer is the most fiscally and culturally conservative member of the delegation, and among the most hawkish, and Democratic voters in statewide primaries tend to prefer liberals. He’d be running to become the oldest “freshman” senator since the late Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey started his return engagement in 2003, at age 78.  

Beyond that, Hoyer has only half the campaign cash reserves of Van Hollen, who’s banked $1.7 million in anticipation of a statewide race. An elected official all his adult life, Hoyer has no personal fortune to invest in his own ambitions, like Rep. John Delaney. Neither does Hoyer have the ability to make history as the state’s first African-American senator, which either Reps. Elijah E. Cummings or Donna Edwards would be. He doesn’t represent the state’s largest media market, Baltimore, as C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger does. And, despite his long time in leadership at the Capitol, he doesn’t have the same name recognition across Maryland as Rep. John Sarbanes, whose father was a senator for three decades.  

But what Hoyer does have — beyond the impeccable tailoring and silver mane of a congressman from central casting — are depths of political resilience and fortitude that are rare commodities in the House of today.  


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