Though he says he was helped by his father's reputation, John Sarbanes says he wants to forge his own political path

Making a name for himself

January 05, 2007|By Matthew Hay Brown | Matthew Hay Brown,Sun reporter

It was early in the campaign last year for Maryland's open congressional seat, and John Sarbanes was in Boston for a fundraiser. Appearing before an audience that included classmates from Harvard Law School and fellow Greek-Americans, he spoke about how the nation's reputation in the world depended on a foreign policy that was respectful of other countries.

That talk - not just the ideas, but the reasoned and deliberate way he expressed them - put at least one old family friend in mind of Sarbanes' father.

"God, I was just struck by how many of those very same qualities he has," said former Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, who helped to organize the event. "Not a lot of flash, but quietly eloquent. And bright as a whip."

It's a common reaction among those encountering the son of five-term Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, and one that can cut both ways. If the younger Sarbanes benefited during the election campaign from one of the most respected names in Maryland politics - and he agrees that he did - he now assumes his first elected office facing high expectations.

It was Paul Sarbanes, after all, who in his first House term introduced the first article of impeachment against President Richard M. Nixon. Paul Sarbanes who responded to the Enron and Worldcom scandals by shepherding the accounting reform package that bears his name. Paul Sarbanes who was elected to a state-record five terms in the Senate - and probably could have won a sixth if he had run for re-election last year.

As John Sarbanes prepares to take his father's old seat in the House of Representatives, he acknowledges the challenge ahead.

"I think those expectations would be more burdensome if I didn't have a confidence and a pride in the things that I've been doing myself," the 44-year-old Democrat said. "Coming to this after almost 20 years of being in professional life, and feeling like I've accomplished something, gives me a confidence and a readiness to meet those expectations - or at least try."

Sarbanes was sworn in yesterday to represent Maryland's 3rd District, which includes parts of Baltimore and Baltimore, Howard and Anne Arundel counties. He says he will bring to Congress the interests he has pursued professionally: health care, the focus of his law practice with Venable LLP in Baltimore; and education, in which he immersed himself during seven years as special assistant to the state superintendent of schools.

As a member of the Committee on Education and the Workforce, his agenda will include the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act. Sarbanes lauds the goals of the act, which requires public schools to show student improvement in math and reading or face sanctions, but he wants it to be better-funded and more flexible.

He favors universal health insurance coverage - he would start by looking at how programs such as Medicare could be expanded to cover more of the population - and talks about protecting the Chesapeake Bay.

"There's a real opportunity - and this applies across the board now, not just on the environment - to have Maryland be a showcase of innovating public policy," Sarbanes said. "It is right in the backyard of Washington, and it's facing many of the same issues that are a challenge across the country."

As a liaison to the Baltimore City Public Schools for the state Department of Education, he helped to develop a program to attract principals who have been successful elsewhere to jobs in the troubled urban district. State Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick described him as "highly sophisticated in the way he participated in meetings and dealt with staff."

Sarbanes was raised on politics. He was 4 when his father was elected to the House of Delegates and 8 when his father entered Congress.

"Obviously, public issues were the central focus in the conversations in our household," Paul Sarbanes said. "He's had a keen interest in those issues for a long, long time."

John Sarbanes led the student Democrats at Princeton and at Harvard Law School, and he worked on his father's campaigns. But he says the idea of running for office remained remote.

"The possibility of elective office was always sort of abstractly present because you grow up in it, how could it not be?" he said. "But it was never a driver for me."

Sarbanes chaired the health care practice at Venable, representing nonprofit hospitals and senior-living providers - and, he says, learning the pressures that such organizations face from rising costs and nursing shortages.

And he has served 15 years on the board of the Public Justice Center, including three as president. The Baltimore nonprofit provides legal support to the homeless, immigrants, low-wage workers, prisoners and others.

"John has done his public service through a different route," said Mike Davis, a Venable partner who managed Paul Sarbanes' past three campaigns. "He didn't get into the family business at an early age, but he's always been committed to public issues."

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