WASHINGTON – Even 5th District Rep. Steny Hoyer, D- Mitchellville, concedes that his Republican opponent, Bob Ostrom, is “a good fellow.”
And Ostrom, unlike most congressional challengers in Maryland this year, has political experience and has raised more than $200,000 for his campaign.
But in Hoyer, he faces a man who has been described as a “campaign finance machine,” a lifelong politician who “doesn’t just bring home the bacon, he brings home the entire pig.”
Longtime friends say Ostrom, 54, is up for the fight.
He is “not deterred by the fact that Steny has name recognition. Bob understands that, he wasn’t looking for an easy race,” said Lenny Goldstein, a friend from Ostrom’s Georgetown Law School days.
This year’s challenge is a turnabout for Ostrom, who supported Hoyer, 59, for Congress in 1992 over Republican challenger Larry Hogan Jr.
Ostrom was one of more than 20 signers of a letter then that said Hoyer “works well with members of both parties and we need him in Washington.”
Since then, Ostrom says, Hoyer has grown out-of-touch with the district and become a “big government guy.” He says Hoyer is “too liberal for his district,” which includes parts of Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties and all of Southern Maryland.
It’s not the first time the charge has been leveled against Hoyer, who has consistently beaten back challenges from credible Republican candidates.
When Hoyer won a 1981 special election to succeed the ailing Gladys Noon Spellman, the 5th District was a relatively safe Democratic seat entirely within Prince George’s County.
Since 1992, when the 5th District was redrawn to include Southern Maryland and lose most of the inside-the-Beltway communities in Prince George’s County, Hoyer began facing tougher challenges.
Larry Hogan Jr., the son of a former congressman and Prince George’s County executive, tried in 1992. Hoyer won that race with 53 percent of the vote.
In 1994, it was Donald Devine, director of the Office of Personnel Management during President Reagan’s first term. Hoyer finished with 59 percent of the vote.
The last challenger was Delegate John S. Morgan, R-Laurel. Hoyer beat Morgan with 57 percent of the vote.
Morgan said Hoyer simply outspends his opponents.
“Steny’s been there, against us he outspent us 4-to-1, that’s a problem,” said Morgan, who is running for re-election to the House of Delegates this year.
Hoyer’s spending could be a problem for Ostrom’s campaign.
Ostrom had raised $202,711 by Oct. 14, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission, to Hoyer’s $991,873. Ostrom had $66,603 on hand for the last two weeks of the campaign, compared to Hoyer’s $654,311, according to the FEC.
“Ostrom’s an outstanding man up against a campaign finance machine,” said Earl Cramer, a retired federal worker, after watching the two candidates at a forum at the Bowie office of the National Association of Retired Federal Employees (NARFE).
Even Maryland Republican Party Chairwoman Joyce Lyons Terhes said a challenger would have to raise at least $500,000 to mount a serious threat to Hoyer.
But Ostrom figures he can win if he takes Southern Maryland and gets as much support as he can in Prince George’s County. He is running on issues of school choice, lower taxes and less government.
And he takes every opportunity to blast Hoyer’s record.
“Steny voted against the ban on partial-birth abortion. I see that as a despicable procedure,” he said.
Ostrom also said he would support a constitutional amendment to protect the American flag, which Hoyer voted against.
But his loudest gripe about Hoyer’s record is over taxes. He noted that Hoyer has referred to himself as a tax-and-spend Democrat and he criticized Hoyer’s recent vote to put the budget surplus toward Social Security instead of returning it to taxpayers in the form of a tax cut.
“You can’t have it both ways, Steny. We should return it [the surplus] to taxpayers,” Ostrom said at the Bowie forum.
Ostrom points out that Hoyer is the only Maryland congressman to receive a grade of F for his voting record from the National Taxpayers Union. The American Conservative Union said Hoyer voted the right way only 12 percent of the time in 1997 while the Christian Coalition gave him a score of 22.
By contrast, the American Civil Liberties Union gave Hoyer a score of 83, and his scores topped 80 from most labor groups. NARFE gave Hoyer a perfect 100 for his 1997 voting record.
But Maryland Democratic Party Chairman Peter Krauser said that claiming that Hoyer is too liberal for his district won’t work any better for Ostrom than it did for Hoyer’s other challengers.
“Bob is grasping at straws,” said Krauser.
Hoyer defends his record.
“If you think I’ve worked effectively on interests that you care about, then I ask for your vote,” he said at the Bowie forum. “If you think I’ve forgotten you, don’t vote for me.”
In recent years, that record has been heavy with federal jobs and federal projects for the district.
He is credited with saving thousands of jobs at the Naval Surface Warfare Center at Indian Head and bringing thousands more to the Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Lexington Park during the military base closings and realignment of the late 1980s.
Hoyer won funding for the new National Archives facility in College Park and, as recently as last week, was claiming credit for funding to help finish work on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.
“Steny is a highly principled politician, he is a master at constituent services,” said Krauser. “He doesn’t just bring home the bacon, he brings home the entire pig.”
Hoyer, the senior member of Maryland’s House delegation, has also earned praise from his colleagues in Congress.
“We’ve worked together on a range of issues and policy questions, Steny’s been a real leader,” said Rep. Vic Fazio, D- Calif. Fazio, the retiring ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee, called Hoyer “a consummate legislator.”
Politics has been a lifelong pursuit of Hoyer. He was elected to the Maryland Senate at age 27 and served as its president before a failed run for lieutenant governor in 1978.
In Congress, Hoyer has risen through party ranks to become co-chairman of the House Democratic Steering Committee. He is the House Democrats’ liaison with the White House and the nation’s governors.
While Ostrom has never held elected office, he has served in public roles since 1979. He was the Prince George’s County attorney from 1979-83 and served as the county’s representative on the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority Board from 1984-91 — a nomination that was supported by Hoyer.
Ostrom’s only run at elected office came in 1994, when he was the Republican nominee for Prince George’s County executive. He lost that race to Wayne Curry.
Ostrom faced no primary challenger in this race for Congress.
A mid-September poll for www.electnet.org, a non-profit, non-partisan web site on state politics, showed Ostrom trailing Hoyer by 11.5 percentage points.
Ostrom is aware that Democrats make up 53 percent of the registered voters in the 5th District, to 33 percent for Republicans. He is also aware of the recent history of Republican challengers in the district.
But Republican officials said they expect Ostrom’s campaign to be helped by a large number of GOP voters turning out on Election Day to support Republican gubernatorial nominee Ellen Sauerbrey.
“Ellen has energized us,” said Michael Steele, chairman of the Prince George’s County Republican Central Committee. “That gives a big boost to someone who represents moderate and conservative interests.”
And Ostrom can take comfort in the fact that, even in the heat of a political campaign, there’s one area where Hoyer can’t attack him.
“Hoyer knows he can’t say anything bad about Bob Ostrom, because that would be an untruth,” said Ostrom.