His father abandoned him. His stepfather was an alcoholic. By his sophomore year at the University of Maryland, Steny Hoyer was short of cash, getting D's and drifting.
Then one spring day in 1959, a Pontiac convertible cruised past him on campus, carrying a familiar figure. Hoyer followed it to the student center. Spellbound, he listened as Sen. John F. Kennedy appealed to young people to get involved in government.
"It was just like that," Hoyer says, snapping his fingers as he sits in his U.S. Capitol office. "Just like that." The next week, he switched his major from public relations to politics. He started getting A's and went on to law school.
"You know the rest," he says.
The rest is this: At 27, Hoyer became a state senator. At 35, president of the Maryland Senate. At 41, a U.S. congressman. And, last month, he captured the second-most powerful post in the U.S. House of Representatives: majority leader.
At 67, Hoyer seems the very image of the Washington political insider, with his starched white shirts and patrician cap of silver hair. He is known as a pragmatist, skilled at navigating the legislative maze and wooing K Street lobbyists. A workaholic who makes the trains run on time.
Yet there is another side: The man who quietly fought for Soviet Bloc dissidents. The husband of a teacher devoted to the poor. The idealist who keeps a bust of Kennedy in his office.
The one-time pol from Prince George's County now stands at a historic juncture, as he tries to steer the resurgent Democrats' agenda through Congress. With a record as a moderate consensus-builder, he could be key to keeping the party together and coaxing Republicans to cross the aisle.
"I aspired throughout my life to make a difference in the things I cared about," says Hoyer, his brown-and-white springer spaniel at his feet. And to make a difference, you "try to be in a position where you can effectively advocate for what you believe is best."
A position like majority leader.
'To be the best'
Hoyer rarely talks about his childhood. When the new Democratic-controlled House was sworn in, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) threw a four-day extravaganza highlighting her roots in Baltimore's Little Italy. Hoyer held a quiet reception in his office.
Steny Hamilton Hoyer was born in Manhattan, the only child of a Danish immigrant and a high school dropout whose family fortune collapsed in the Depression. He is named for his father, Steen.
"He was a very arrogant, opinionated person," Hoyer says. "What I remember was not particularly happy."
The young Hoyer bounced around. At 4, to Texas, when his dad got a job with the military. At 6, to Massachusetts, for prep school. At 9, back to New York, when the money ran out and the father took off.
"I think I saw my father maybe two or three days in the next 20 years," Hoyer says. But the memory of that prickly, apathetic man would haunt him.
"He didn't want to be like his father," says the congressman's daughter Anne Hoyer. "That's what really drove him -- to be not just good, but strive to be the best you possibly could be."
By the time Steny Hoyer was 16, his mother had married an Air Force sergeant and the family settled near Andrews Air Force Base. His stepfather's alcoholism roiled the home. But, entering Suitland High School, the outgoing youth found the two interests that would define his life.
He got involved in politics, running unsuccessfully for vice president of the student government. And he started dating Judy Pickett, a warm, energetic schoolmate who was class secretary.
Judy's home became like his own. Her mother bought him new shoes, cooked for him when his stepfather was on a bender. Judy was at his side through the rocky start in college and the Kennedy epiphany.
She married him at 21, becoming, Hoyer says, "an example and guide."
Success, then failure
Fresh out of Georgetown's law school in 1966, Hoyer launched his campaign for state Senate from Prince George's. He was an underdog, a liberal reformer in a county still heavily white and rural. But he had an army of volunteers: classmates, friends from the statewide Young Democrats, interns from the U.S. Senate, where he worked part time.
"It was a youth corps onslaught," laughs Hoyer.
When Hoyer arrived in Annapolis, "he was a ball of energy," recalls Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), then a state representative. But the young reformer quickly befriended the older senators. "Rather than fight the establishment, he really co-opted it," Cardin says.
Hoyer pushed for better treatment of rape victims and funds for lower-income schools. His wife was a strong influence.
But he became better known for his hard-nosed grasp of politics. He and his allies replaced the Prince George's Democratic machine with an organization called the Breakfast Club. Over coffee and Danish, they met with party factions to plot strategy, pick candidates and dole out judgeships and other posts.
Hoyer's life was a whirl of dinners, negotiations, debates in the marble-columned Senate. But in 1972, the past came knocking. His father showed up, by then a 70-year-old drifter in threadbare clothes, suffering from lung cancer.
"I felt a responsibility because he was my father," says Hoyer. "But I was certainly not enthusiastic."
Hoyer got him a small apartment in Washington, where the elderly man lived until his death in 1974.
Hoyer's own life went from success to success. In 1975, he became the youngest Senate president in Maryland history. His political organization was the most powerful in the state. He and Judy bought a three-bedroom home in a subdivision called Friendly, near Clinton, and were blessed with three daughters. In 1978, the "golden boy" of Maryland politics ran for lieutenant governor, the latest move in a career exploding like a bottle rocket, higher, higher . . .
And then he lost.
He and gubernatorial candidate Blair Lee III, the political insiders, were upset in the primary by a reform ticket led by Harry R. Hughes.
For two years, Hoyer practiced law. Then the local congresswoman, Gladys Noon Spellman (D), suffered cardiac arrest, and her seat was vacated. Hoyer reactivated his formidable political network.
"I remember the day he called me to say, 'I'm running for Congress,' " says Peter F. O'Malley, a close ally. "The joy was back in his voice."
Working the system
Hoyer won the congressional race and quickly ingratiated himself with the Democratic leadership in the House, working overtime to round up votes and fundraise. He landed on committees such as Appropriations and played the levers of power like a maestro.
Hoyer was so successful at steering funds to projects such as Metro and NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center that they became known as "Steny dollars."
Not everyone was a fan. The nonpartisan Citizens Against Government Waste eventually gave him a 12 percent career score -- "hostile." A Hoyer spokeswoman says voters have shown time and again that they appreciate "the federal investment he secures."
Then there were the whispers in Congress: that Hoyer was too ambitious, too slick. After rising in the House hierarchy, he lost a race for whip -- the No. 3 job in the party leadership -- to the lower-key David E. Bonior (Mich.) in 1991.
As Hoyer fought the political battles, Judy was his sounding board. She accompanied him to the political dinners, flashing her warm smile. But her heart was in Prince George's, where she oversaw early-childhood education, including programs for disadvantaged kids. As the years went by, she wearied of politics.
"She thought it was in some ways superficial," Hoyer says. "She was really into substance."
Yet she always supported her husband's goals: civil rights, helping the less fortunate.
In 1985, Hoyer joined the congressional Helsinki Commission, which monitored human rights in the Soviet bloc. With little publicity, he flew red-eyes to Eastern Europe and Russia for the next eight years, visiting dissidents, lobbying officials to release political prisoners.
It was a chance, Hoyer says, to help "people who otherwise were powerless."
He spoke out for such causes as gays in the armed forces, even after his district was redrawn to include Southern Maryland, the home of two military bases, as well as parts of Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties.
One day, Hoyer and his wife were at an event, when a coffee cup suddenly flew from Judy's hand. "It scared her greatly," Hoyer would later tell a crowd. It was epilepsy.
Hoyer shepherded the Americans With Disabilities Act through the House, broadening rights for epileptics and others.
After tragedy, change
After losing their 40-year grip on the House in 1994, Democrats turned to Hoyer to help with a comeback effort. He hopscotched across the country, recruiting candidates, focusing laserlike on Election Day: Nov. 5, 1996.
The bombshell came in October. Judy had stomach cancer. Four months later, she was dead at 57.
Hoyer plunged into grief.
"You really do reflect back on all the things you did, all the travel I did overseas, all the time that was not spent with Judy and the family," he says.
"He's got all this energy; he's working 12, 16 hours a day -- that was what life was to him," says his daughter Stefany Hemmer. "My mother's death sort of jerked him into reality and said . . . there's something else out there other than Congress."
But Hoyer couldn't quit. "I sort of threw myself into work more," he says.
And the next step was the race for minority whip, against a formidable opponent: Pelosi. In 1999, they began a grueling, two-year battle. Hoyer cast himself as the pro-defense, pro-trade moderate. Pelosi promised to give the party a new face -- its first female whip.
And yet Hoyer realized the defeat wasn't as devastating as it might have been. "In comparison with losing a loved one, that loss is not nearly comparable."
Something was changing. Friends felt he'd become a better listener. His eldest daughter, Susan Taylor, says her father was "a little more interested in the human relation, not just the global relation." Hoyer began establishing "Judy Centers," fulfilling his wife's dream of creating one-stop facilities to offer poor families health, literacy and other services. Maryland now has 24 centers.
Hoyer finally rose to minority whip in 2002, when Pelosi moved up. But the "angst of ambition," he says, was easing.
"I suppose the fear of failure was not nearly as great," he says.
And then came the November 2006 earthquake that ousted the Republicans. Hoyer was the favorite to become majority leader. But Pelosi suddenly threw her support to Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.).
This time, Hoyer won.
All those nights on the road paid off, for Hoyer and the party. In the 2006 campaign alone, Hoyer helped raise $8 million for Democrats and traveled to 33 states.
"I feel a sense of accomplishment," Hoyer says. But reaching the top meant something different than it once had.
One recent Friday, Hoyer visited the Riderwood retirement community in Silver Spring. He strolled the stage with a microphone like a talk-show host, calling out to friends. The white-haired residents rose, clapping and cheering.
Hoyer turned somber when he spoke of the Democrats' plans to pass laws on homeland security, energy, the minimum wage. He emphasized that Pelosi sets the policy. "My job is to implement it."
Occasionally, he weaved in his own story. How he and Judy bought that first house in Friendly for $28,000. How he just became a great-grandfather.
These days, he told the crowd, "I live alone, with a wonderful woman named Charlotte."
She's a 15-year-old springer spaniel, he explained to laughter.
Though she's in failing health, he takes her everywhere. She was Judy's dog.
Staff writer Rosalind S. Helderman and staff researchers Magda Jean-Louis and Rena Kirsch contributed to this report.