Came by to chat with the editorial board...


March 03, 1994|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

SENATOR SARBANES came by to chat with the editorial board. That is my signal to put a new six-year battery in my watch.

I've never known a politician who paid less attention to his hometown newspapers. In every state I've ever worked as a political writer, pols hated us or loved us, but in either case kept in touch a lot. I'm not just kidding when I say Paul comes by here only once every six years.

Some of his critics say he ignores everybody. They call him "the stealth senator." The non-judgmental Congressional Quarterly called him "the phantom." I thought he was a CIA agent the first couple of years I covered him.

I receive more "news releases" (government-paid campaign material) from senators from other states than I do from Sarbanes in a typical year. Some years I receive more from members of parliaments.

What's odd about this is that incumbent senators keep getting re-elected in large part because they take advantage of having the government provide them with campaign support. Sarbanes keeps getting re-elected despite not using it all. (But he uses some of it. As John O'Donnell reported in The Sun the other day, the senator mailed 25,527 post cards inviting Cecil County voters to a "town meeting," where he handed out 46-page books produced by Congress, "Senator Sarbanes Welcomes You to Washington.")

So when Sarbanes says, as he did on his recent every-six-years-rain-or-shine visit, that he doesn't think he takes an unfair advantage of the system to keep challengers at bay, he has more right than most to be taken seriously.

There is a second reason he can deflect such criticism with more credibility than any senator. He is one of only two senators who ousted an incumbent to get to the House and to the Senate. In fact, Sarbanes is a three-times ouster.

In 1970 he was elected to the House of Representatives by ousting Rep. George Fallon, the powerful chairman of the House Pork Barrel Committee. That was in the Democratic primary, where oustings are even rarer than in general elections.

In 1972, when redistricting put him and Rep. Edward Garmatz, the powerful chairman of the House Marine Boondoggle Committee, in the same district, Garmatz quit rather than face him in the primary.

In 1976, Sarbanes defeated Republican Sen. J. Glenn Beall Jr. in the general election (after having won the Democratic senatorial nomination by defeating ex-Sen. Joseph Tydings).

(His first election was to the House of Delegates. Two incumbents in his district were re-elected, but he ran ahead of both of them.)

Quite a record. So if he has no sympathy for out-gunned challengers, well, I guess he's entitled.

Has his long career changed him, political-sciencewise? Of course. Reflecting on his early victories and his present circumstances, he said, "You know, I used to criticize the seniority system, but increasingly now I see its advantages."

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