Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer's long and sometimes tense relationship as Democratic leaders

Over the years, both have vied for House Democratic leadership roles.

November 18, 2022, 3:10 PM

For nearly six decades, the legacies of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer have been closely linked -- and together they will give up their leadership roles in Congress.

At once allies but also political rivals, they both moved up the ranks to the highest posts in the House. However, all that ended on Thursday when Pelosi announced on the House floor, "The hour has come for a new generation to lead the Democratic caucus that I so deeply respect."

Hoyer would heap praise upon Pelosi as he also stepped down. In a letter to his Democratic colleagues, he wrote he was honored to serve alongside Pelosi, calling her tenure as speaker was both historic and extraordinarily productive. "The impact of her leadership will surely be felt for a long time to come," he said.

Left unsaid was that he had always wanted to be speaker himself.

Both began as Capitol Hill interns

In an interview with Roll Call in 2007, Hoyer spoke about their relationship, saying, "I can't be successful without Nancy and I like to think Nancy can't be as successful without me."

Their careers started when they met in 1963 while both worked as Capitol Hill interns for the late Maryland Sen. Daniel Brewster. It was the beginning of decades of political jockeying between them.

Shortly before his death in 2007, Brewster, speaking to Capitol News Service, described fond memories of the pair, saying Pelosi, who worked as a receptionist, was "an excellent front person."

"Steny, on the other hand," Brewster added, "worked directly for me and helped me with a number of different projects."

PHOTO: In this Oct. 16, 2019 file photo House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, left, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer speak to members of the media after a meeting with President Donald Trump at the White House.
In this Oct. 16, 2019 file photo House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, left, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer speak to members of the media after a meeting with President Donald Trump at the White House.
Oliver Contreras/Sipa USA via AP, FILE

Vying for leadership

The future speaker didn't work for Brewster for long, though, eventually departing Washington to start a new life with her longtime boyfriend, Paul Pelosi. The two would marry and raise five children while Hoyer would work for Brewster until 1966.

Their careers would come together again two decades later after Hoyer was elected to Congress in a special election in 1981 and Pelosi won her seat in 1987, also in a special election. They eventually serve together on the House Appropriations Committee.

Decades later, in 1998, both began pushing for a role in House leadership. However, as Democrats failed to take the majority, they would have to wait a few more years.

In 1991, Hoyer ran for whip against Michigan Rep. David Bonior and lost. A decade later, in 2001, Pelosi defeated Hoyer 118-95 to become the newest House minority whip.

Immediately after, Pelosi said, "I accept this responsibility as House Democratic whip, having a long campaign with my good friend Steny Hoyer, who has very graciously offered me his support and I am grateful for that."

She added, "I respect him, and I look forward to working with him."

Hoyer praised Pelosi, saying, "Nancy Pelosi and I have known each other for four decades. Her family is one of the most extraordinary families in the state of Maryland," referring to her growing up in Baltimore as the daughter of Rep. Thomas D'Alesandro Jr.

PHOTO: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi holds a large gavel as she walks through the Cannon Rotunda after a Democratic Caucus, along with from left, are Reps. Steny Hoyer, John Lewis, and John Larson, March 21, 2010 on Capitol Hill in Washington.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi holds a large gavel as she walks through the Cannon Rotunda after a Democratic Caucus, along with from left, are Reps. Steny Hoyer, John Lewis, and John Larson, March 21, 2010 on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Lauren Victoria Burke/AP, FILE

Tension between the two

But by the next day, Pelosi and Hoyer were publicly feuding. In an interview with The Baltimore Sun, Hoyer said, "if she hadn't been a woman or from California, I think we would have been OK."

"Gender and geography in this case were overwhelming. C'est la guerre," he said.

Pelosi shot back saying, "they never said that to me. I thought [the campaign] was [conducted] with great dignity."

A year later, Democrats elected Hoyer as minority whip, replacing Bonior who left Congress and ran a losing effort for Michigan governor. With Bonior's departure, Pelosi moved up to minority leader, succeeding Dick Gephart who resigned as minority leader to pursue a failed presidential bid in 2002.

In 2006, after Democrats took leadership of the House, Pelosi backed longtime ally Rep. John Murtha for majority leader against Hoyer. Hoyer, however, beat Murtha, 149 to 86. Pelosi would make history as the first female speaker.

Again, Hoyer publicly heaped praise on Pelosi saying "I want to say how enthusiastic I am about the opportunity to work with Speaker-Elect Pelosi. She and I have been friends for a long time -- I won't mention the number of years, but for a very long time -- and we have worked very closely together over the last four years to create the most unified and focused caucus in the last half a century."

By 2008, Hoyer candidly talked about their decades-long relationship. Telling The Hill "Nancy and I are professional in the sense that we understand essentially that if we're not together neither one of us is going to be successful and our caucus is not going to be successful."

'We both wanted to win'

Reflecting over their campaigns to become House leaders, Hoyer said "Nancy and I ran against one other for two and a half years and … there were no public attacks and no public assertions -- I don't mean there weren't some private elbows thrown; we both wanted to win."

Hoyer called Pelosi "a tough pol."

His last major bid for the top Democratic leadership role came in 2010 when Democrats lost 60 seats in the midterm elections but Pelosi refused to hand over the reins of party power.

Instead, when Hoyer faced a new challenge from South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn, she created a new position for Clyburn -- assistant Democratic leader.

Despite years of jockeying, outside of the halls of Congress, Pelosi and Hoyer have shared a love of, of all things, dancing.

"We're good partners both on the House floor and the dance floor," Hoyer told NBC News in 2010.

In later years, Hoyer at times publicly remained one of Pelosi's advocates. Following a White House meeting with then-President Donald Trump in October 2019, Pelosi, Hoyer, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer walked out. Hoyer came to her defense telling reporters, "You're going to hear the president say we walked out. We were offended, deeply, by his treatment of the speaker of the House of Representatives."

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events