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LOCAL HERO

The Baltimore Sun

When he entered politics at the age of 27, Steny Hoyer wanted to be the top man in Annapolis. He worked the halls of the State House, eventually winning election to the Senate president's office in 1975 and becoming the youngest person to serve in that position. Four years later, he became Acting Gov. Blair Lee III's running mate, hoping to eventually become governor.

But the Lee-Hoyer ticket lost, and Hoyer found himself out of a job. Three years later, when Congresswoman Gladys Noon Spellman suffered a stroke and a special election was held to replace her, Hoyer decided to run for her seat. He has been in the House ever since, rising to capture a number of leadership positions and earning a reputation as a consummate fundraiser and consensus-builder. In that time, his district, which includes the Washington suburbs of Prince George's County and once-rural Southern Maryland, has evolved into one of the state's fastest growing areas.

Last month, when the Democrats took control of the House, Hoyer's colleagues elected him majority leader in a landslide contest. Hoyer won despite the fact that Nancy Pelosi, the incoming speaker of the House and a native Baltimorean who has known Hoyer for 40 years, had campaigned for his opponent, Pennsylvania Rep. John P. Murtha.

Now, the native New Yorker of Danish heritage is the highest-ranking Marylander ever to serve in the House. The Sun asked Hoyer what the state can expect to see from him and his party in the coming years. You've just been elected to one of the most demanding positions in government. How will you balance the needs of your district with that new role? In other words, can constituents still expect to see you at events such as the Patuxent River Annual Wade-In and the Leonardtown Veterans Day parade?

The short answer is yes. When Tip O'Neill said that all politics is local, what he really meant is that none us serve in any leadership positions in Congress unless our constituents decide that they want us to represent them.

One of the things I'm advantaged by is that I live next door, and I am very close to my district. I would expect perhaps not to be at everything, and I'm not at everything now. But I certainly expect to be at the two events that you talked about. Those are definitely on my calendar. We've seen a lot of money flowing in to the state for projects like the Goddard Space Flight Center. What have been the projects you have been most proud to have helped fund?

Clearly, the National Archives at University of Maryland, College Park. That's a very significant investment for the nation. It draws scholars and researchers from all over the world.

And the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center. We've made a lot of investment there. The Patuxent Naval Air Station in Lexington Park is one of the principal economic assets of our state - a lot of jobs, a lot of economic investment. The Naval Ordnance Center at Indian Head, which has become the premier naval ordnance center for all the armed forces. And the Food and Drug Administration's state-of-the-art research facilities in College Park. We're saving money and providing the FDA with top quality facilities to ensure the safety of food and drugs in our country.

And the Patuxent Wildlife Refuge near Fort Meade, between Baltimore and Washington. The Reagan administration wanted to sell it off. It might be subdivisions or a business park if they had. But we made sure that it wouldn't be developed, and now it's 11,000 acres of green space. Paul Sarbanes refers to it as the "green lungs of Maryland." We have preserved a huge swath of land between two major metro areas, which is good for the environmental health as well as the aesthetics of our region. Can Maryland expect to see a lot more of the "Steny dollars"? And for what possible projects?

Without giving specifics, transportation is a huge issue in our state, whether it's mass transit or roads. On the Chesapeake Bay, we still have a long way to go. We're going to continue to work on our military bases. We need to make sure they have the capabilities and the up-to-date technology to do what we expect of them. How will all of Maryland (not just your district) benefit by having you and Maryland native Nancy Pelosi in the two top spots?

Nancy is a Californian but she is a favorite daughter of our state, and Maryland is very proud of Nancy for becoming the first woman speaker. That's an extraordinary achievement. She has a great appreciation for the state of her birth. We will both do what we can to make sure Maryland is a state that is considered very carefully. Many people are worried that the Democrats won't do any better than the Republicans when it comes to cleaning up the culture of corruption, doing away with earmarks, restoring civility and not letting big-money interests run the show. How do you think Democrats will be able to tackle these issues?

By our actions. Words will not do it. We are reaching out. I have a good relationship with Roy Blunt [the Missouri congressman, now majority whip, who will become minority whip]. I have a good relationship with Rep. John Boehner [the Ohio congressman, now majority leader, who will become minority leader]. We'll work together. We'll include them in decision-making. Mr. Blunt and I just got off the phone, talking about the schedule for bills and when we meet.

We're going to include Republicans in conference committees. We were included, but we simply weren't invited. That was not a way to run a railroad, let alone the country's business. To the extent that we create an atmosphere of mutual respect, the American public will feel more comfortable with Congress.

On the ethics issues, we will pass an honest leadership-open government bill within the first three weeks of the year. We'll adopt ethics rules right away, within the first week.

We're also going to get down to business. The 9/11 commission made certain recommendations. We'll address minimum wage. We'll address college costs, bringing them down, halving interest rates on student loans. We're going to repeal the tax cuts given to oil companies and use that money to fund alternative energy. The Iraq Study Group has just released its report. What do you think needs to be done to fix the situation in Iraq, and how would you propose to do it? Do you think the Democrats agree on a strategy for dealing with Iraq?

I think there is a large degree of unity that we need to change the course.

The first sentence of the Iraq Study Group report says that the situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating. The report urges action at the earliest period of time. They are saying we need to shift from combat to training. I think those are things that we have been recommending as a united party in three letters we have signed and sent to the president.

We have unity on changing course, on engaging the rest of the region, on encouraging bilaterals.

As Jim Baker said, it's not a sign of weakness to talk to those that disagree with you. ... I think getting out tomorrow is not an alternative that would serve our country well, or stability in Middle East, or Iraq. But I do believe that the policy now is failing. Robert Gates [confirmed last week as defense secretary] knows that. And now even Rumsfeld has acknowledged certain failures. Everybody but the president has said we need to change the course. What was it like to be in the White House with President Bush after the election? Did you get a sense that there was room to start anew and try to end the hostilities?

He invited Nancy and I down to lunch. He said, "You thumped us." He congratulated Nancy and me, Nancy in particular. He was very gracious about that. ... We will be meeting with him again soon. Clearly he is in charge of foreign policy. Our role is going to be pressing for a changed policy and the redeployment of our troops in the short term and the changing of our mission in the short term. Stem cell research was an important issue in the recent Maryland Senate seat campaign. How important a priority will funding for the research be in the next Congress?

Embryonic stem cell research poses a hope, not a guarantee. We believe, and over 70 percent of America agrees, that it's the way to go. The president still does not agree with us on this issue. But we're going to try again.

rona.kobell@baltsun.com

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