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Bonior Elected To Succeed Gray As House Democratic Whip

July 11, 1991

WASHINGTON (AP) _ House Democrats on Thursday elected David Bonior, a Michigan liberal who opposes abortion, to become the new House majority whip.

Bonior defeated Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., 160-109, in a secret ballot of House Democrats. Bonior, the 46-year-old chief deputy whip, will succeed Rep. William H. Gray III, D-Pa., who is retiring from Congress in September to become head of the United Negro College Fund.

Immediately after the vote, Bonior said that as the No. 3 House Democrat he would push an agenda of ″rebuilding America for working families.″

The Republican White House ″stands by year after year while jobs are shipped overseas″ and its only response to the economic recession is to say ″it’s no big deal,″ he said.

″It’s time that we started to take care of our own,″ he said, and that means tax relief for the middle class and more accessible health care.

Hoyer had hoped Bonior’s anti-abortion position would prove a handicap in the race, since most House Democrats support abortion rights. But it never happened.

″It’s a very important issue for my colleagues,″ said Bonior, and he promised as whip not to impede them as they express their views. But, he said, ″I will reserve for myself the ability to vote my conscience.″

While the job of whip is a natural stepping stone toward the speakership, the day-to-day duties can be drudgery - polling members and pressuring them to follow the party line. Lawmakers said their votes were based more on personal style and contacts than on policy.

Bonior, in his eighth term, has a reputation as a quiet, serious lawmaker who shows deep commitment to causes. Hoyer, by contrast, has a more smooth and polished style that attracted some lawmakers concerned about their party’s appearance in the television age.

With the departure of Gray, who is black, and the rise of Bonior, the top House Democratic leadership will be made up entirely of liberal, white, northern men. Bonior promised he would push to create new positions to bring other party groups to the table.

″I think we need to broaden our ranks to represent more diverse groups in our caucus,″ he said after the vote.

Speaker Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash., said he was listening and expected a decision would be reached by the time Congress leaves for its August recess. One proposal is to take Bonior’s old job and divide it into three new positions.

One of the keys to Bonior’s victory was the avid support of several powerful committee chairmen. But Foley and House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., declined to take sides in the Bonior-Hoyer battle.

″I’ll carry my choice to the grave,″ Foley said. ″We have a strong bench,″ Gephardt added.

Hoyer, who keeps his post as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, made clear he’ll be looking for another advancement opportunity in the future.

Two years ago, Bonior lost to Gray in the whip’s race. ″The Bonior precedent is clear in my mind,″ Hoyer said.

And Hoyer wasn’t the only one looking at future opportunities.

With the whip’s race out of the way, lawmakers began speculating privately on whether Gephardt will decide to run for president and vacate the majority leader’s post. Reps. George Miller and Vic Fazio, both of California, were said to be testing the waters, just in case.

Fazio played down the idea.

″When I ruled out running for whip, I was counting on the fact there would be other days and other opportunities,″ said Fazio. ″But at this point, I don’t anticipate nor do I have any indication Dick Gephardt will be leaving.″

Gephardt has said repeatedly he is not planning to run. But he has not ruled it out and, given the paucity of other candidates, speculation has increased that he will take the plunge. Several lawmakers said Gephardt plans to decide by the end of the summer.

For Bonior, the whip’s race seemed to show the skills necessary for his new role. His pre-vote estimate of how many votes he’d get was right on the money.

″Our vote was good,″ he said. ″That’s part of my job.″

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