View From a Decade Ago: Reporter Reflects on Covering Pelosi-Hoyer Feud

Posted July 22, 2015 at 4:01am
Hoyer, Pelosi on Nov. 7, 2006, at the Democrats' election night watch party. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Hoyer, Pelosi on Nov. 7, 2006, at the Democrats’ election night watch party. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

This is part of a series of reflections from alumni journalists for our ongoing coverage of Roll Call’s 60th Anniversary. See all of our coverage at media.cq.com/60thanniversary.

Special to Roll Call

It was a hot, humid night — as if there’s any other kind during a D.C. summer — and Nancy Pelosi wasn’t happy. On her to-do list was an item that, on paper, seemed like a light lift: Get rid of the guy in whose freezer the feds had just found $90,000 in cold, hard cash. This was a particularly pressing matter for Pelosi, who had already made a vow to “drain the swamp” of Republican corruption the centerpiece of her party’s effort to win back the House in the 2006 midterms.

And yet here she was, presiding at an emergency Democratic Caucus meeting and facing a rebellion. Rep. William Jefferson of Louisiana wasn’t that popular or influential with his colleagues, and few doubted he was dirty. But to many Democrats, particularly Jefferson’s fellow members of the Congressional Black Caucus, this was a test of procedural fairness. Jefferson had not yet been charged with any crime, so who was Pelosi to strip him of his prestigious Ways and Means seat — especially when there was no obvious precedent for such a move?

The meeting began on a contentious note, then descended into chaos and recessed without resolution. It was then that Pelosi, in a bid to reassert her authority, appealed for help to a most unlikely figure. Officially, Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland was the party whip, the top Democrat behind Pelosi in the leadership. Unofficially, these Democrats had been locked for nearly a decade in a state of perpetual political war.

It was — and remains — a legendary Capitol Hill rivalry, one that can be traced as far back as the early 1960s, when a young Hoyer and Nancy D’Alesandro were interns in the office of Maryland Sen. Daniel Brewster. They went their separate ways after that — Hoyer staying in Maryland and ascending the ranks in Annapolis before winning his House seat; Pelosi relocating to the West Coast, making a name as a fundraising powerhouse, and claiming her House seat in 1987.

By the late 1990s, their ambitions collided when both spotted the same opportunity. If Democrats could win back control of the House, a new leadership slot would open up. And so they competed in the run-up to the 1998 and 2000 elections for a job that never actually materialized.

But it was all just a warmup for the main event.

In the fall of 2001, Minority Whip David Bonior got a raw deal in redistricting and abruptly resigned his leadership post to run for governor of Michigan. The battle lines already were drawn. Hoyer’s base: centrist New Democrats, Blue Dogs and the blue-collar Northeast. Pelosi’s: liberal members, her fellow Californians (the largest bloc of Democrats in the House) and her ace in the hole, Pennsylvania Rep. John P. Murtha, an old-school wheeler-dealer nursing a longstanding personal grudge against Hoyer.

The campaign was heated, but Pelosi gutted out a 118-95 victory. In the history of the House, no woman had ever climbed so high, and when Minority Leader Richard Gephardt stepped aside to run for president the following year, Pelosi took another historic step and replaced him. Hoyer, meanwhile, moved into her old slot as whip.

According to the official Democratic line, this was a unifying arrangement, a pair of rivals leading a diverse caucus. But behind the scenes, suspicion and animosity was the rule.

Pelosi set about packing key caucus posts with her loyalists — while marginalizing Hoyer’s. Her critics called her paranoid; her friends said she was shrewd.

When the No. 4 leadership post of caucus vice chairman came open at the end of 2005, it seemed to be a race between Reps. Joseph Crowley of New York and Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, a friend of Pelosi’s. But with Schakowsky’s husband facing jail time after a check-kiting conviction, Crowley had the clear upper hand. But he was a Hoyer protégé, and no Hoyer protégé was going to make it into leadership if Pelosi had anything to say about it.

What happened next stunned Capitol Hill, but everyone should have seen it coming. On the day of the vote, Schakowsky’s support suddenly evaporated and the race’s third-candidate, the low-key Connecticut Rep. John B. Larson, came out of nowhere to score a second-ballot victory. The tally was 116-87, eerily similar to the Pelosi-Hoyer total from a few years earlier.

It may well have been this muscle-flexing that emboldened Pelosi and Murtha, who was also key to Larson’s victory, to make a much more dramatic move a few months later. It was a lazy Friday morning in June 2006 when word suddenly began spreading through Democratic offices.

The 73-year-old Murtha, who recently had emerged as an unlikely hero to liberal activists after turning on the Iraq War, was telling his fellow Democrats he was going to challenge Hoyer for the No. 2 leadership post after the November election.

And it was true. Murtha was in. Publicly, Pelosi was mum, but it was impossible to see it as anything other than an effort by her forces to score a final, decisive victory and to push Hoyer out of leadership for good.

Hoyer, meanwhile, felt wounded. He had no illusions about his personal relationship with Pelosi, but had come to believe they’d evolved into a comfortable and cooperative arrangement. Now he was fighting her again, this time for his political life.

The fight was bizarre in so many ways. Timing: Democrats were in a strong position to end 12 years of exile and win back the House. But now, months before the election, they were going to engage in a civil war? And then there was the day-to-day awkwardness of Pelosi and Hoyer appearing before the cameras as the party’s official leaders and acting as if nothing at all were amiss.

It was just days after Murtha made his unexpected move that Democrats met to decide Jefferson’s fate. In addition to the cash in his freezer, the Louisiana lawmaker’s official congressional office had just been raided by the FBI as well, and Republicans, who’d been beset by their own high-profile ethical woes, were now crowing the other party wasn’t any better.

Pelosi had muscled a resolution through the Steering and Policy Committee to expel Jefferson from the Ways and Means Committee and now she needed the full caucus to sign off. But the CBC wasn’t ready to go along, and even non-CBC members began speaking up at the meeting to demand clear rules be established for booting members from committee seats. That’s when Pelosi pulled Hoyer aside and asked him to step in. She knew he had the ear of members she didn’t — members she needed now. Would Hoyer please speak up and offer his own personal seal of approval for Pelosi’s resolution?

The way Hoyer’s allies told it, this was a request he would have happily acceded to under just about any other circumstance — the kind of request, in fact, that he had been acceding to ever since he’d lost out to Pelosi back in 2001. But what exactly had his gestures gotten him? A challenge from Murtha. So Hoyer listened to Pelosi, looked at her and told her he was sorry — but she was on her own on this one.

The caucus meeting dragged on for hours before Pelosi finally did get her way. And when Democrats picked up 33 seats in that fall’s midterms, she realized her ultimate dream of becoming speaker. But her triumph wasn’t total. Hoyer’s handling of the Murtha challenge changed the way many Democrats looked at him.

He won respect for not lashing out publicly at his foes, and made a credible case that the party benefited from his presence in leadership. Even some hardened Pelosi allies came to see the challenge as needless overreach. Days after the midterm elections, Hoyer scored a resounding victory over Murtha, 149-86.

Nearly a decade has passed since then, but Pelosi and Hoyer have endured in those top two posts. There was a moment after the Democrats’ 2010 electoral debacle when it seemed Pelosi would be pressured to step down and Hoyer would enjoy the last laugh. Instead, she rallied her troops and kept her job, then did so again last year after another poor midterm cycle.

But Hoyer has hung around too, and Pelosi has never made another overt move against him. There never was an official truce, but as they both reach their mid-70s, it finally feels like Pelosi and Hoyer have learned to live with each other.

Steve Kornacki, who covered House Democrats for Roll Call from 2005 to 2006, is host of MSNBC’s “Up With Steve Kornacki.”

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