Sarbanes known as idealistic, unrelenting, grass-roots activist

In first political run, he seeks council presidency

Baltimore Votes

September 01, 2007|By Sumathi Reddy | Sumathi Reddy,Sun Reporter

The tall white guy, the son of the esteemed senator, with a degree from Princeton and a Marshall Scholarship, was an unlikely apparition in the West Baltimore neighborhood of Upton that summer 15 years ago.

Few thought that Michael Sarbanes, the newly minted lawyer out of New York University School of Law who showed up on their doorsteps, would stick around for long.

But the Community Law Center lawyer galvanized the community, helping it use the city's new drug nuisance law to shut down a drug-infested apartment building.

"I thought with the name Sarbanes that we'd have a snotty-nosed kid trying to make a name for himself," said Ernest Green, 69, vice president of the Upton Planning Committee. "But when he sat down and talked with us, and we planned our strategies, he became more of a friend and a neighbor than a politician."

Fifteen years later, the 42-year-old is making his first foray into politics, running for City Council president.

Sarbanes will face City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake and City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr. in the Sept. 11 Democratic primary. Those who know Sarbanes describe him as independent and idealistic, ambitious and unrelenting. But most of all, they say, Sarbanes is a grass-roots activist. It's not just his work; this is his life.

"He's very genuine about his desire [to] help," said Mike Morrill, former Gov. Parris N. Glendening's chief spokesman. "He lives his life the way he practices his politics. He doesn't just talk about building communities, he's lived in a community and built those communities."

Sarbanes and his wife of 13 years, attorney Jill Wrigley, chose to live in Irvington, a Southwest Baltimore neighborhood that is economically diverse and predominantly black, where he clears gang graffiti off signs, picks up trash in front of vacant houses and takes local children to church. The couple adopted their two older children, 14- and 12-year-old brothers, from Ethiopia, and their youngest, a 3-year-old girl, is African-American and from East Baltimore. ("Race was not a barrier," he said.)

"Both my work experience and my personal life have been very focused on overcoming the racial divide," said Sarbanes. "My own family and life doesn't fit the usual stereotypical box of how people are divided."

Critics point out that Sarbanes has never held public office and is running because he has ambitions to be the mayor. They say he's relying on a name that resonates with voters, who elected his father, Paul S. Sarbanes, to the U.S. Senate five times and most recently his older brother, John, to Congress.

"I think he'd have tremendous difficulty going into a legislative body that he's never served on before and leading the legislative body, where you'll have many more people who've had a lot more experience," said Joseph T. "Jody" Landers III, executive vice president of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors and a former city councilman.

Sarbanes brushes aside such criticisms, pointing to his 15 years as an activist -- as well as his experience in state politics. He won't rule out a run for mayor, but he says his is an "ambition of service, not position."

"This is what appeals to me, what I'm being called to do," said Sarbanes. "I don't regard the City Council president as a steppingstone to something else. I think it's the most underutilized position in the city."

Sarbanes' work experience is varied: Community Law Center lawyer, top aide to former Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and, most recently, executive director of the Citizens Planning and Housing Association.

"Michael has a tremendous passion to serve and to help others," said his father, who retired last year. "There's just a core there of integrity and independence of judgment and commitment."

Sarbanes grew up in Baltimore -- first Bolton Hill, then Guilford -- the second of three children.

A year after he was born, his father was elected to the House of Delegates. "I can remember having the front hall of the house filled with stacks and stacks of binders, transcripts for the Watergate hearings," he recalled. His father presented the first article of impeachment against President Richard M. Nixon.

At Gilman School, Sarbanes excelled at athletics and academics. After graduating in 1982, he enrolled at Princeton on an ROTC scholarship.

Juggling his time between the football team and his ROTC commitment, his schedule was so busy that his former roommate recalls nights where Sarbanes would go to sleep in his uniform so he could run to drills at 5 a.m. He became politically involved and headed a campaign to pressure the university to divest its endowment holdings from South Africa.

Eduardo Bhatia, his roommate, said he met Sarbanes at a Latino student group's events, and several years later Sarbanes was chosen as chairman of a race relations committee.

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