It was a risk -- so Cardin declined

September 07, 1997|By Barry Rascovar

IN THE END, it came down to a matter of desire. As Walter Mondale might have put it, Ben Cardin lacked the ''fire in the belly'' to run for governor.

So Mr. Cardin, who loomed large over the gubernatorial race, will remain in Congress while others try to dislodge Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

The Baltimore-area congressman acted according to form. A decade ago, he tried running for governor and withdrew after he realized it might be an ''iffy'' proposition. Ben Cardin is someone who doesn't like to take chances with his political career.

Never having faced a tough campaign in 30 years, Mr. Cardin wasn't about to start. Governor Glendening understood that perhaps better than anyone: He applied enough pressure to make the congressman nervous about taking on an incumbent Democrat.

Mr. Cardin's history is instructive. He was appointed to the House of Delegates in 1967, while still in law school, to replace his uncle, who had been named a judge. It was a political deal worked out in advance.

He quietly rose in prominence, thanks to his brilliance, his mastery of the legislative process and his city and family ties. He was always in the right place: heir-apparent to the Ways and Means Committee chairmanship when Del. John Hanson Briscoe moved up to the speakership, heir-apparent to the speakership when Mr. Briscoe was named a judge; heir-apparent to a congressional seat when Barbara Mikulski moved to the U.S. Senate from the House of Representatives in 1986.

He maneuvered behind the scenes to make it happen without a public fight. That's what he tried this time, but it didn't work. As he conceded afterward, it was ''not my kind of race.''

Ben Cardin is the consummate back-room, consensus politician. likes to flesh everything out beforehand. No public controversies or cliff-hanger votes. In eight years as House speaker in Annapolis, he never lost a vote -- and rarely had a close call.

He's never been in a hotly contested campaign, either, and never has he taken on a task as daunting as challenging an incumbent governor of his own party.

''I don't like to be out of control,'' he remarked. Yet in a governor's race, it is nearly impossible to control events, especially when running against an incumbent. It takes an adept, flexible and fearless politician to make such a race.

A "naive" strategy

Mr. Cardin mapped out a strategy and he refused to deviate from it: Spend a summer canvassing leading Democrats and making fund-raising plans; then declare his candidacy in the fall with the early backing of the state's top four local officials, thus gaining instant credibility.

That plan, Mr. Cardin now admits, was ''naive,'' because it depended on early endorsements from Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and county executives Dutch Ruppersberger (Baltimore County), Douglas Duncan (Montgomery County and Wayne Curry (Prince George's County). It proved a stunning miscalculation.

Messrs. Schmoke, Ruppersberger, Curry and Duncan cannot afford to alienate the governor at this stage. They have to deal with him throughout next year's General Assembly session. Openly supporting an opponent now would have been suicidal.

When Mr. Cardin broached the notion of a unified, four-pronged endorsement at the Maryland Association of Counties meeting last month, these officials were aghast. They told him it couldn't -- and wouldn't -- happen.

From that point on, Mr. Cardin's ardor waned.

The governor's efforts also played a role. The congressman wondered if the early endorsements of Mr. Glendening by black city and P.G. lawmakers would damage his vote strength in these communities. And he worried that the governor could dilute Cardin support in Montgomery County by portraying the congressman as a tax-raising Baltimore pol.

Things were spinning out of his control. But rather than change his strategy to accommodate the wishes of the four local officials (they would have endorsed him in the spring, had Mr. Cardin launched his campaign then), the congressman took the easy route out of the race.

This might end his hopes for higher elective office. A horde of Democrats will be running for governor in 2002 -- including Mr. Duncan and Mr. Ruppersberger. Democratic Sen. Paul Sarbanes shows no sign of retiring in 2000, either.

An old lottery slogan proclaimed, ''You've gotta play to win.'' The same holds true for high elective office: You've got to get in the race, and stay there, if you want a chance to win.

Spiro Agnew did it in 1966 as a decided underdog, and won. Harry Hughes did it against all odds in 1978, and won. William Donald Schaefer did it in 1986, and won. Parris Glendening bucked prevailing sentiment in 1994, and won.

None of them faced an easy race or a sure thing. All of them took a huge risk -- the sort of risk Mr. Cardin was unwilling to take.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

Pub Date: 9/07/97

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