Cardin stays cool on spot Contender? More and more Democrats are urging Rep. Ben Cardin to run for governor. But he's not changing his cautious ways.

December 18, 1996|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,SUN STAFF

Ben Cardin hears the flattering talk wherever he goes these days.

You're the one person who could do it, they tell him, the one Democrat with the stature and financial backing to withstand a rough party primary, defeat an incumbent Democratic governor and then beat the Republican.

Wherever he goes, the five-term congressman finds another feverish recruiter who hopes he will challenge Gov. Parris N. Glendening, the weakened Democratic incumbent.

Cardin and his wife, Myrna, listen and say they appreciate the kind remarks. "We'll keep mulling it," she says. "I really haven't considered," he says. "I don't feel I have to be on anyone else's timetable. We'll deal with it in due time."

Meanwhile, the pressure builds.

Party insiders predict that if Cardin were to make the move, fretful Democratic officeholders would see a passageway to electoral safety and other challengers might retire from the race to back Cardin.

"If Cardin gets in," says former Prince George's County legislator Timothy F. Maloney, "the waters will part."

But the insiders also predict Cardin probably won't risk the loss of a comfortable and satisfying life in Congress even to pursue the public office he's always wanted most, governor of Maryland.

"He's very cautious and he's just not a boat-rocker," says a Democratic Party official, hoping to avoid the difficult choices that would come for friends of both men.

At every rung on the electoral ladder, though, Maryland Democrats are wondering what 1998 will bring -- and who is likely to be their leader. They worry that Glendening's low standing could drag them to defeat.

"I don't want to be a dark suit in a lint factory," said one Maryland Democrat who asked not to be identified, discussing the likely dynamics of a race for re-election on a ballot with Glendening. If the governor is vulnerable, the official said, others on the ticket may be vulnerable.

A series of fund-raising controversies dropped Glendening to a low ebb in the approval polls. Some fear he can't recover, and a flock of potential contenders is already circling: Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger; Harford County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann; House Speaker Casper R. Taylor; and, some hope, Cardin.

"I tell people who ask me that my first choice is for Parris to get back on his feet," says Del. Elizabeth Bobo of Howard County. "But I love Ben. Anything I can do for him, I'll do. He's absolutely a statesman. He's a leader. We need his honesty and courage and integrity."

Cardin appeals to many Democrats because he would come to the race with a solid geographical and political base in metropolitan Baltimore. He has broad statewide name recognition and the ability to raise money. He would have few issue liabilities in a Democratic Party that is still moderate to liberal.

If there is a down side to his candidacy, says former delegate Maloney, it might be Cardin's hyper-methodical approach to life.

Building 'brick by brick'

"He builds every house brick by brick," Maloney says. In a career now spanning 30 years, Cardin has yet to face a truly competitive race -- though he has taken more risks than he gets credit for. His skein of easy victories results from good luck and from a clear-eyed assessment of each race he considers.

There were those in 1986 who thought he should have stayed in the governor's race against William Donald Schaefer, then a nearly mythic figure on the Maryland political stage, an immensely popular and well-financed candidate.

Cardin thought that to have stayed in would have been foolhardy, not brave.

"I don't run to lose," he said last week. "I run to win. I don't run to make a statement. I'm very calculating."

Like the poker player he is, Cardin betrays no eagerness for the 1998 race -- if eagerness there is.

Now 53, Cardin has been a fixture in Maryland Democratic politics since the 1960s, when he was first elected to the House of Delegates.

"Ben was born into it," said Judge Richard Rombro, a former legislator and Annapolis lobbyist -- and one of Cardin's poker-playing buddies. He still plays once a month or so in a game that started "to keep us all out of trouble" in Annapolis, according to another of the players, former Baltimore County Sheriff Ned Malone.

Cardin impressed Rombro and others with an instinctive grasp of the lawmaking process and its attendant politics. In Annapolis, State House veterans warn: There's an official reason for a bill and there's the real reason.

"Ben always knew the real reason," Rombro says.

Cardin was elected shortly after he graduated from the University of Maryland Law School at the age of 24. At 31, he was chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. And, as if foreordained, he was elected House speaker in 1979.

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