Cardin's dilemma

September 29, 1993

For an experienced poker player, Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin has a peculiar abhorence to taking chances. In fact, the entire political career of this Baltimore metropolitan area congressman has been built upon the premise of avoiding risks. He likes to hold all the high cards before increasing his bet.

So far, that strategy has worked well for Mr. Cardin, who has risen from appointment as a state delegate while still in law school to House Ways and Means Committee chairman in Annapolis to House of Delegates speaker and now to a member of Congress with a key health-care subcommittee assignment.

But taking another step up the political ladder may a require a risky bet. Look, for instance, at the Cardin-for-Governor rumor.

Since last spring, business and political leaders have been asking Mr. Cardin to run for governor. After Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke bowed out of the race last week, the phone calls to the congressman increased dramatically.

But the answer was always the same: Mr. Cardin says he won't decide what to do until early in 1994, although running for governor is "a real long-shot."

His dilemma is that he can never become governor of Maryland without taking a calculated gamble. The race is wide open. There is no frontrunner. There is no enthusiasm around the state for any of the candidates in the race.

It is a tailor-made situation for an experienced, well-liked politician with a broad base of support.

Mr. Cardin fits those measurements precisely, but he has settled into a promising congressional career and seems unwilling to give it up -- even for his longtime goal of being governor.

Yet Mr. Cardin's future on the Hill may not be so bright.

One of his key protectors and patrons has been Chicago Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, who is under federal Justice Department investigation. If Mr. Rostenkowski steps down as chairman, Mr. Cardin might not fare as well under the new chairman, Rep. Sam Gibbons of Florida. That could be enough for the Baltimore-area congressman to re-think his political plans, especially if the governor's race remains in flux.

Ben Cardin is still young enough (he turns 50 next Tuesday) to bide his time. But in politics, timing is everything. There may not be a more promising opportunity to run for governor of Maryland.

Mr. Cardin will never know if that premise is true unless he takes a chance and tests the gubernatorial waters in 1994.

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