A quiet shepherd of wiser policies

Sarbanes is known for fairness, integrity, service

January 01, 2007|By Matthew Hay Brown | Matthew Hay Brown,Sun Reporter

WASHINGTON -- As a freshman congressman, he introduced the first article of impeachment against President Richard M. Nixon. As a veteran senator, he responded to corporate scandals by guiding a landmark reform package to passage.

But as he reflects on 36 years in Washington, Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes becomes most animated as he recalls a dredging project in the Chesapeake Bay.

It was the mid-1990s. The port of Baltimore required regular dredging to keep channels clear for commercial shipping. But opposition was growing to the practice of dumping the dredge spoil in deeper waters.

Eventually, the sides hit on the idea of using it to rebuild eroding Poplar Island. The work would keep the bay open to shipping while restoring a habitat then on the verge of extinction. The senior senator from Maryland helped to sharpen the details and shepherded the project through Congress.

You might call it classic Sarbanes: working outside the spotlight, on an unglamorous issue, to guide conflicting interests toward what he calls a "principled compromise" - with lasting effect. In the case of Poplar Island, the solution has become a model that the Army Corps of Engineers uses as it considers similar challenges.

"I'm pretty proud of that, actually," the 73-year-old Democrat said in a recent interview. "It's a good example of how, if you use a little bit of innovation, and if you're willing - which we got [President Bill] Clinton to do - to commit some extra money, you can develop a broad consensus.

"It's an instructive lesson in developing good policy. Which I'm interested in doing." He smiled. "Have been interested in doing for a long time."

Sarbanes says he will pursue that interest into retirement. The longest-serving senator in Maryland history - after five six-year terms, he decided last year not to run again - Sarbanes leaves office when the new Congress takes over this month. Often described as professorial, the former Rhodes scholar is planning to lecture and write on government and policy.

"At this point, I'm sort of caught up with trying to disengage, which is no small task I've discovered," said Sarbanes. "And then we want to catch our breath a bit. ... I'm going to have to adjust to a different pace and a different circumstance."

When he is ready to teach - he has been a trustee at Princeton University, his alma mater, but says he has no firm plans anywhere - he will be able to draw on four decades as a legislator. Low-key by nature (Republican challengers called him Maryland's "stealth senator"), he has built a reputation for a quiet, deliberative approach focused more on achieving results than attracting attention.

"You didn't hear about him like you hear about a lot of these blow-dried politicians that are always in front of the microphone," said Donald F. Norris, director of the Maryland Institute for Policy Analysis and Research at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "That's not the way he operated. He was quiet but effective."

The voters responded. From his political debut, a 1966 run for the House of Delegates, through his last Senate campaign in 2000, Sarbanes never lost an election. In five races for the U.S. Senate, he never received less than 59 percent of the vote.

In office, he compiled a liberal voting record while positioning himself as a leading voice on issues hardly likely to excite the electorate. One example: monetary policy, the relationship among interest rates, inflation and employment, on which he sparred regularly with Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan.

"He was the only guy that used to cross-examine Greenspan," said Michael S. Dukakis, the former Massachusetts governor and a longtime friend. "Which I always thought was just another example of Paul's intelligence and his courage and his character."

Sarbanes also busied himself with housing policy and financial legislation. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, his delegation partner for two decades, sees a unifying theme to his work.

"Whether it was challenging the political bosses in old Baltimore neighborhoods or challenging Wall Street bullies like Enron, he was a reformer," Mikulski said. "Whether it was the Judiciary Committee in the House and standing up against Richard Nixon, to here on the Housing and Banking Committee to fight predatory lending, it's always been fairness and opportunity."

Matthew A. Crenson, a political scientist at the Johns Hopkins University, called Sarbanes "the workingman's friend."

"Although he may have an aristocratic bearing," Crenson said, "he hasn't forgotten where he came from."

The son of Greek immigrants, Sarbanes grew up in Salisbury on the Eastern Shore, where he worked in the family restaurant and gained local fame as a skilled athlete. He was awarded scholarships to Princeton and Oxford universities, and received a law degree at Harvard.

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