Talk stays close-to-home in Hoyer town meetings


CLINTON, Md. -- The prospect of military intervention i Bosnia may be the dominant issue in Washington this weekend, but just a few miles beyond the Capital Beltway, one of the Democratic leaders of the House heard little on the subject yesterday as he got an earful on domestic issues.

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, D-5th, the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, conducted a town meeting in this Prince George's County suburb near Andrews Air Force Base that was dominated by questions and comments about the economy, health care, immigration, the federal budget, federal employees' pay and pensions, and taxation of Social Security benefits.

Earlier, at a morning meeting in the Charles County community of Indian Head, some 25 miles south of the capital, he heard about most of those issues. He also found himself on the defensive for his backing of abortion rights and support for gays in the military -- and for his acceptance of special interest campaign contributions.

Although he discussed Bosnia in his opening statement at each meeting, saying "we have pursued what I consider an immoral" policy that "ignores, essentially a genocide that's taking place," Mr. Hoyer got only a couple of comments on Bosnia.

The congressional redistricting that followed the 1990 census left Mr. Hoyer in a largely new district. While he ran one of the most expensive campaigns in the country last year, spending $1.5 million, he won a relatively slim 54 percent victory against his Republican challenger, Lawrence J. Hogan Jr., who spent $265,000.

In a March speech, Mr. Hoyer pointed out that he was used to winning with majorities in the 80 percent to 90 percent range and said that last year's election was "a little tight -- too tight -- damned tight." With Mr. Hogan already gearing up for another run at the seat, the seven-term congressman is working hard to build support in the Charles, Anne Arundel, Calvert and St. Mary's counties portions of the district where he lost to his GOP challenger.

In Indian Head, a community where the U.S. Naval Surface Warfare Center is the largest employer, gays in the military was a dominant issue.

Mr. Hoyer was criticized for his support of President Clinton's move to lift the ban on homosexuals in uniform -- and he stood his ground with a spirited and at times impassioned defense.

Performance on the job, not sexual orientation or conduct in the privacy of one's bedroom, should be the basis for judging Americans, including members of the armed forces, he said.

He brought up the 1991 Tailhook convention -- an annual gathering of Navy fliers -- that developed into the largest sex scandal to hit the service in years. At least 140 officers now face the possibility of punishment for lewd conduct, sexual assault or conduct unbecoming an officer.

Speaking of the participants in the Tailhook parties, Mr. Hoyer said, "I presume all of them were heterosexuals -- gung-ho, red-blooded American men."

Later, questioned by a supporter of abortion rights who said she did not discriminate against gay people but against "behavior which is deviant," Mr. Hoyer said, "I bet 80 percent of the heterosexuals in the service today pursue deviant conduct" as described in the laws of Maryland and other states.

Mr. Hoyer bemoaned the defeat of Mr. Clinton's stimulus bill at the hands of a Senate filibuster, prompting a questioner to observe that former presidential candidate Ross Perot had criticized the bill as pork.

There was no pork in the bill, Mr. Hoyer answered.

"A swimming pool in the inner city in the hot summer is a darn good example" of the kind of project that was criticized unfairly as pork, he said.

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