Sarbanes' longevity is asset -- and liability

June 12, 1994|By John B. O'Donnell | John B. O'Donnell,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- After 24 years on Capitol Hill, Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes is finally poised to claim real power. If he's re-elected this fall, and Democrats keep control of the Senate, he'll become chairman of an important committee for the first time.

But the source of his potential clout -- his longevity in office -- is paradoxically his biggest weakness. Anti-incumbent fever is running high, and Mr. Sarbanes has few high-profile accomplishments to show for his long tenure in Washington. Content to remain in the shadows, cautious in the extreme, he isn't regarded as a leader on any major issue.

Statewide polls show weak enthusiasm for keeping him in Washington through the year 2000. (Only 34 percent of Maryland voters said they were committed to his re-election in a survey taken this year.)

And yet, Mr. Sarbanes has managed to win handily in the past despite weak pre-election numbers and is favored to win again. The 61-year-old senator faces no serious primary opposition, and Maryland is among the most heavily Democratic states.

In a recent speech, Mr. Sarbanes played up his long years in office.

"When I first came here to Congress I was very critical of the seniority system," he said. "But I have to confess to you, as the years have gone by I have come to see more and more virtues in the working of our system."

The chief "virtue" of the system is that a senator can become chairmanof an important committee simply by sticking around long enough and floating to the top. That's just what could happen next year to Mr. Sarbanes. With Senate Banking Committee Chairman Donald W. Riegle retiring, the Marylander is in line to replace him in January.

Republicans who are fighting for the chance to oppose Mr. Sarbanes this fall already are using his longevity in office against him. At least two of the challengers, C. Ronald Franks and Ruthann Aron, label him a "career politician" who should be retired.

That Mr. Sarbanes may be vulnerable to such attacks says something about the mood of the electorate this year -- and perhaps even more about Mr. Sarbanes. Despite a lifetime in public life, this son of Greek immigrants who worked in his father's Salisbury restaurant, then distinguished himself at Princeton, Oxford and Harvard Law, remains an enigma to many Marylanders.

Within the Senate, where he has served since 1977, he has been eclipsed by many of those who were elected with him or later, including George Mitchell of Maine, the retiring majority leader; Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York; Bob Kerrey of Nebraska; Bill Bradley of New Jersey; and his high-octane Maryland colleague, Barbara A. Mikulski.

While compiling an unambiguously liberal voting record, he has shied away from leadership on high-visibility subjects. He rarely draws public attention to his work in an aggressive way and introduces relatively few bills.

Instead, he concentrates on obscure national and international questions, and does what he can for his political base: organized labor, Greek-Americans around the country and the folks in Maryland.

His defenders say he is cerebral and analytical, able to wield backstage influence through his powers of persuasion and careful not to take a stand until he weighs all sides.

But for years he's been burdened by the label of "stealth senator," and with voters increasingly demanding action in Washington, Mr. Sarbanes will find himself pressed as never before to defend his record.

Former Sen. William E. Brock, another of the Republican Senate hopefuls, says, "It's real hard to find any evidence that he's been there."

Adds Brad Coker, president of Mason-Dixon Political Media Research, a Columbia polling firm, "He is very susceptible to the charge that he gets elected and goes to Washington and we never hear from him for five years. . . . That's been his pattern for three terms."

Mr. Sarbanes, who is expected to formally announce his candidacy for re-election this month, began shifting into campaign mode several months ago, stepping up his fund-raising activities, making more appearances around the state and beefing up his Senate staff with a new public relations person.

But he is still honing his campaign message.

In a recent interview, he gave a rambling response when asked what he thought his legacy would be if he left the Senate now.

"I think we've given the people of the state and the people of the country, since you asked on national issues, you know, representation of integrity and intelligence and independence of judgment and, you know, I think we've done each of the responsibilities that sort of devolves upon us -- because a lot of the responsibilities you get depend on the committees on which you sit or the subcommittees which you chair or so forth and so on -- and I think in each of those instances, we've met those responsibilities and I would think met them to a high standard.

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