The Sarbanes ethos

March 13, 2005

A GENERATION of ambitious Maryland Democrats has grown old waiting for the announcement Paul S. Sarbanes finally made Friday - that he would retire from the Senate next year after five terms and three decades.

Democrats knew they couldn't beat him in a primary. Senator Sarbanes may seem cerebral and detached in Washington, but out on the hustings in the state to which he has devoted nearly 40 years in public life, he is as prized for his warmth and informal style as for his reliably liberal voting record. Republicans who took him on were typically sacrificial lambs.

Beyond his political strength, though, Mr. Sarbanes boasts surprisingly high-profile achievements for a legislator so publicity-shy his critics took to calling him the "stealth senator." His star turns ranged from the Nixon impeachment proceedings to the Panama Canal Treaty, from the Iran-Contra probe to the 2002 corporate-accountability legislation that bears his name and marks the capstone of his career.

Granted, Mr. Sarbanes only seems to surface on the national stage once every decade or so. But he's respected behind the scenes where the real work of the Congress gets done. Known for a sharp intellect and deliberative manner, Mr. Sarbanes was often mentioned during the Clinton years as a prospective Supreme Court nominee.

The son of Greek immigrants, he drew heavily on financial support from the Greek-American community for his political campaigns. Mr. Sarbanes also distinguished himself as one of the few members of relatively modest means in a body dubbed the "millionaires' club."

Returning every night to the same Baltimore home he and his wife, Christine, have shared for many years keeps him grounded with a consumer-oriented, champion-of-the-little-guy idealism that unfortunately isn't much in vogue on Capitol Hill anymore.

At 72, Mr. Sarbanes says he has decided to retire after serving longer than any other senator in Maryland history because "it's time." His decision may have been influenced, though, by the gloomy state of Senate Democrats - members of a shrinking minority who are losing the ability to significantly shape policy.

Whether or not Mr. Sarbanes' successor is a fellow Democrat, the political climate suggests the new senator won't have the same luxury to be a reliable party-line vote. While we wished sometimes he had been more open to compromise, Mr. Sarbanes upheld a standard of intellectual integrity and personal conviction that will also be missed.

Meanwhile, he has promised 22 more months of fighting misguided Bush administration policies - and we're happy to hold him to that.

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