Sorting through the glitz in search of a new Sarbanes

March 15, 2005|By C. Fraser Smith

MARYLAND'S SENIOR U.S. senator, Paul S. Sarbanes, found charisma worrisome.

"Hitler had charisma," he once observed.

Leadership for what, in other words.

Mr. Sarbanes had the charisma that comes with substance and a passion to serve. Voters saw it, but somehow challengers didn't get it until they'd been trounced. His record speaks for itself: 18 election victories, no defeats.

It's one of the things worth considering as the state turns to choosing his successor. Mr. Sarbanes announced last week that he's retiring after his fifth term ends next year. He was leaving time for Republicans and Democrats to sort through their talent for someone who can give Maryland stable, wise and (small d) democratic leadership.

Here's an early handicapping of the potential fields, Republicans first. It's a hall of mirrors. And the list is even more illusory because only one of the three candidates might run.

The early focus on Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. merely exposes the dearth of candidates. He's happy to be mentioned, but he won't run. His party won't want him to leave a post no other Republican has held since Spiro T. Agnew left in the 1960s.

Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele: an affable man with virtually no electoral experience beyond his current job. He could run for the Senate on Mr. Ehrlich's $20 million campaign coattails - and he'll be under a lot of pressure to roll the dice. If he runs, President Bush could be expected to campaign for him and for Mr. Ehrlich, who'll be running for re-election. If Mr. Steele loses, Mr. Bush could probably find a job for him. Still, he's the lieutenant governor already, not too shabby.

Kendel Ehrlich, the governor's wife. She might be unbeatable if she had even the trace of a record - or she were more than a mentionable candidate. While she is an asset to her husband, Republicans have been at pains to say she has no role in policy. Some rM-isumM-i. With two small children in the governor's mansion, what would her candidacy say about family values?

And the Democrats:

Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin: The most Sarbanes-like contender in the pack, of either party. Smart, experienced, decent, he brings even less sparkle than the incumbent. Some say that would be an advantage. Maryland likes class.

Job one for him: Convince his party that he'll really run. He pulled out of a race many wanted him to make against former Gov. Parris N. Glendening in 1998. Mr. Glendening won and bequeathed his mantle to Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who had never been elected to anything in her own right. She lost to Mr. Ehrlich in 2002. So, Democrats to Ben: Get in or out, quick.

Kweisi Mfume: The former congressman and former president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People stands on the other end of the glitter scale from Mr. Cardin. That doesn't mean he doesn't have substance. He was an effective congressman and helped the NAACP erase a big debt. His story has been a winning one, though complicated: He's an up-from-poverty candidate who's been unhindered - possibly helped - by his five sons out of wedlock. He's provided for them all and kept them close.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen: Bright, energetic and young at a time when youth may have to be served in an aging Democratic Party. Probably too young. He won his Montgomery County seat via redistricting, which packed his district with Democrats willing to vote against the popular Republican incumbent, Constance A. Morella. He'll be tempted to get in because, once captured, a Senate seat can be occupied for a long time. See Senator Sarbanes above.

Mayor Martin O'Malley: He won't run. He wants to beat the incumbent governor, Mr. Ehrlich, only a little less passionately than his party does.

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan. He says he won't run, but he's causing big trouble as a candidate for governor. A primary with Mr. O'Malley could weaken the winner for a race against Mr. Ehrlich. Party bosses (if there were any) would push him toward a Senate or House race. Maybe the Van Hollen district will be available.

More candidates are available and eager to be mentioned. Some of them might run, depending on how the field shapes up. It's a political kaleidoscope. Financial, racial and charisma considerations will be tumbling into place - more than once.

C. Fraser Smith is news director for WYPR-FM. His column usually appears Sundays.

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