Hoyer takes nothing for granted and spends last campaign days in his district

Hoyer takes nothing for granted and spends last campaign days in his district

LAUREL, Md. — As the volatile 2010 campaign nears its Tuesday finale, Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) is staying close to home.

The House majority leader has campaigned for 85 Democratic candidates over the past two years, but in the interest of "‘tak[ing] nothing for granted," the 15-term incumbent is tending to his district in the last days.

Hoyer is not an endangered Democrat, not by a long shot. Maryland’s 5th district is considered solid blue, and he won reelection in 2008 with 74 percent of the vote. Yet as he greeted residents and toured shops along Main Street in Laurel late last week, he was confronted by the same economic disconnect that has imperiled Democrats across the country.

“The light at the end of the tunnel is that things have gotten better,” Hoyer told Debbie Zook, 56, who has owned a flower shop on Main Street for 25 years.

Zook was shaking her head. She told Hoyer business had not improved at all for the store, where sales have dropped by one-third in the past four years. “I don’t know how I’m going to pay taxes on my building,” Zook said. “I can barely make payroll every other week.

“I want to be positive, but I just don’t know,” she told her congressman.

As he meets with constituents and talks to the local press, Hoyer’s message is the same as the one he delivers to reporters in his Capitol suite or on the House floor.

“The economy is growing, but too slowly. Jobs are being created, but not enough. The stock market is going up, but that doesn’t make a difference to those people who don’t have a job,” he said outside the flower shop.

Hoyer, 71, is not a Democrat who needs to run scared. Secure in his district, he is also comfortably ensconced in the party hierarchy, a position he has strengthened by crisscrossing the country for vulnerable Democrats and by contributing $1.75 million to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Where Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has been — in his words — “vilified” on the campaign trail, the lesser-known and more centrist Hoyer has gotten a pass. And despite rumblings of a leadership challenge, Hoyer is considered unlikely to lose his post regardless of the outcome on Tuesday. He could rise to House Democratic leader if Pelosi steps aside.

In the months leading up to the election, Hoyer has navigated a careful path of maintaining loyalty to Pelosi while laying down a marker on issues like deficit reduction that are likely to dominate the next Congress. He was named among the most bipartisan members of Congress in a 2009 survey by The Hill, and it’s a reputation he wears with pride. In an interview last week, the majority leader cited several GOP leaders with whom he worked productively in the past.

Hoyer bemoaned the polarization of the 111th Congress, but he laid the blame squarely on Republicans. “Frankly, yes, I think it can be done in a more bipartisan fashion,” he said. Hoyer said the GOP had bet that obstructionism and gridlock would give them the upper hand. “Now, to some degree, they’ve been successful in that. And I think it’s unfortunate.”

In Maryland, Hoyer’s district straddles the Beltway and is heavily dependent on the federal government, both through its thousands of public-sector employees and through businesses that rely on government contracts.

His Republican opponent is Charles Lollar, 39, a Marine officer and businessman who says the majority leader has betrayed his constituents by supporting policies, principally the healthcare law, that are unconstitutional. “He’s just quite simply out of touch,” said Lollar, who raised more than $400,000 for the race. “I’m running into more and more conservative Democrats that are ready to send our team to Washington.”

While Hoyer has debated Lollar several times, he doesn’t seem too worried. Asked by a radio reporter about his opponent’s contention that his record is out of sync with the people he represents, Hoyer couldn’t suppress a small grin. “Well, we’ll see,” he said. “The ultimate test of that is whether they send you back to represent them. I’m very privileged that the people of this district have sent me back 15 times to represent them.

“I think they’re smart people,” Hoyer added. “I think they would not have done that if they felt I was not representing them. That does not mean that they agree with me on every issue.”

He ran into one dissatisfied constituent during his tour of Main Street, when a simple introduction turned quickly into a polite but tense political debate. “I’m very concerned about the state of our economy. What are you going to do about the deficit that’s been created by the Congress in the last four years?” asked the middle-aged woman, who declined to give her name.

Hoyer started to correct her. “The deficit, actually, has been created over the last eight years,” he began, but the woman interrupted him. “And you’ve been in Congress how long?” she asked.

“Thirty years,” Hoyer replied.

He tried again, telling the constituent that the deficit was created by “two large tax cuts we didn’t pay for” and “two wars we haven’t paid for.”

Again the woman interrupted: “Did you approve those wars?” Hoyer replied that he did.

Before parting ways, Hoyer told her: “If you think that this happened in the last four years, you are buying a message that was inaccurate, and you will make decisions going forward that will be inaccurate.”

After the exchange, the woman told The Hill she had contributed money to Hoyer’s opponent and would be voting “for change in all areas” on Tuesday.

For many other residents Hoyer met in Laurel, his message resonated, and several said his leadership position was a benefit to the district. Business owners nodded approvingly as Hoyer recited Democratic plans to expand clean-energy programs, and workers at an industrial plant applauded his signature “Make It in America” agenda to promote domestic manufacturing.

“We’ve been in a real trough, as you know,” Hoyer said to a group of employees at JEM Manufacturing, which produces antennae. He touted recently enacted legislation to boost lending to small businesses. “We need JEM to expand. This,” he said, “is the kind of business we want to encourage.”

Hoyer had won over JEM’s founder and owner, Nancy Lilly, as well as her husband, James, the company’s vice president. After Hoyer described his “Make It in America” agenda, Nancy Lilly, who immigrated to the U.S. from Colombia and built a company that has grown to 30 employees, said she was “a true example of making it in America.” Hoyer then quipped to a member of his staff that the Lillies should be invited to the next Democratic event on the issue.

Both husband and wife are Republicans who voiced concerns about the healthcare bill, the stimulus package and Democratic tax policy. But they praised Hoyer’s attentiveness and his ideas on boosting small businesses, and they said they’d be voting for him on Tuesday.

Debbie Zook, the florist, seemed less sure. Hoyer, she told The Hill, “could do a better job” than he has done. And she said she had just not seen the signs of progress he had talked about. Her shop’s revenue in 2010 has been down every month over last year. “It has not gotten better, no,” Zook said.