Same race, different starting points

With contrasting styles, backgrounds, Democratic rivals aim for Senate seat

Benjamin L. Cardin

Maryland Votes 2006

Sun Profiles // Democratic Primary For U.s. Senate

August 27, 2006|By Jennifer Skalka | Jennifer Skalka,Sun reporter

NORTH POTOMAC — NORTH POTOMAC-- --Though Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin has been a high-ranking figure in Maryland politics for 40 years, most of the people in the well-appointed living room in this Washington suburb knew little about him.

With just 15 minutes to win their support for his Democratic Senate nomination bid, Cardin told the guests at a house party about some of the issues that matter to him most: pension reform, health care and education. Unlike other politicians, who might roll up their shirtsleeves and easily offer up a poignant family story or joke during a casual Sunday afternoon barbecue, the congressman stuck mostly to policy.

It was vintage Cardin: dry, but important.

As he campaigns for Senate, Cardin, 62, faces the challenge of convincing a statewide audience that his even-keeled temperament and behind-the-scenes skills make him the best choice for higher office, even as other candidates - Democrat Kweisi Mfume, the former NAACP president, and Republican Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, a Bush administration favorite - draw national attention to the prospect of a contest pairing two black nominees.

The primary poses a stylistic challenge for Cardin. Short and stocky, a reader of mysteries and an avid poker player, he must overcome the appeal of Mfume, a smooth orator whose tale of personal redemption is the stuff of ready-made inspiration.

Cardin is banking on his reputation as a thoughtful, solid lawmaker who understands the nuances of complicated legislation and how it affects people's lives.

First in the Maryland State House, where he became the chamber's youngest-ever speaker, and later on Capitol Hill, he earned the respect of his peers by mastering an insider's game.

"Ben is solid; he's not controversial," said Arthur C. Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council. "When you're controversial everybody knows about you, right? When you're not controversial, when you've done your job and excelled in your job, that doesn't necessarily get you a lot of publicity."

But publicity is what Cardin needs now, having abandoned a safe congressional seat in an attempt to replace retiring Democratic Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes. And he acknowledged as much during his talk in the North Potomac living room - where some attendees seemed to struggle to keep their eyes open and others said later that they were impressed by Cardin's message.

The event was one of many "Barbecues for Ben" held around the state. But the candidate had a new slogan in mind, one that would convey excitement.

"`Buzz for Ben,'" he said, imploring attendees to grab bumper stickers and lawn signs before they leave. "We wanted it to be `Buzz for Ben.'"

While Cardin's few detractors see a guy with a long but uninspiring career and an unassuming demeanor, his supporters call him a worthy successor to the leader he is trying to replace. They say his accomplishments - from limiting Maryland teacher pensions during a time of runaway 1970s inflation to co-authoring federal legislation that allows higher contributions to retirement accounts - are born of an ability to grasp complex subjects.

"He really is Paul Sarbanes," said Gerard F. Devlin, a former Prince George's County delegate and judge who served with Cardin in the General Assembly. "He's got all of the intellectual ability."

Sarbanes, the longest-serving senator in Maryland history, gravitates to the kind of issues - such as corporate accounting reform - that beguile Cardin. But Sarbanes never rose to leadership positions, and his Capitol Hill profile is low.

"With Cardin you certainly don't have a show horse, but you have somebody who, I think, is more comfortable in that larger public setting than I think Sarbanes has been," said Norman J. Ornstein, a congressional expert and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "This is not a guy who is going to elbow people aside to get to a camera. This is a guy whose primary goal is to make good legislation."

While Cardin might be cerebral, it was his family name, not merit alone, that launched his career.

Voters in then heavily Jewish Northwest Baltimore might not have known Ben well when he first ran for the House of Delegates at age 22, but they knew the Cardins.

An uncle, Maurice Cardin, had served in the General Assembly since 1951, and it was that seat that Ben Cardin would win in 1966. His father, Meyer M. Cardin, had also served a term in the House and was an associate judge on the city Circuit Court.

"It's a respected name," said former Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg, a Baltimore native who served as Senate president when Cardin was House speaker. "It gives an edge."

Traditional family

Benjamin Louis Cardin was born Oct. 5, 1943, into a traditional Jewish family that valued work and education and considered politics noble.

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