Assessing The Fallout

Has Cardin's Marriage Proposal Clouded His Political Future?

August 21, 2009|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com

An apologetic Jon S. Cardin insisted on Thursday that his political career would not be hampered by the uproar over his engagement stunt, but political observers said the state lawmaker's nascent bid for the more prominent position of Baltimore County executive has likely been derailed.

Veteran watchers of county affairs said it is unrealistic for Cardin to pursue the executive's office because the Aug. 7 proposal, involving on-duty Baltimore police marine and helicopter units, casts doubt on his judgment. The officers staged a mock raid on a boat in the Inner Harbor just before he popped the question.

County voters "respond to a situation like this in a negative way," said Leslie M. Pittler, a member of the county revenue authority and longtime confidant of politicians. County residents, Pittler and others said, are sensitive to even the perception of misuse of office and wasted resources, given a history of scandals dating back decades that includes former county executive and Vice President Spiro T. Agnew.

Still, the Democratic lawmaker's famous last name and previously clean track record should buffer him against voter backlash and help him maintain his current office, observers said.

In a telephone interview with The Baltimore Sun, Cardin said he feels terrible about the incident. He has apologized to Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III and Mayor Sheila Dixon and promised to pay for the police resources.

"It was a stupid thing, and I hope that one stupid act in what is hopefully the early part of my career will not define who I am and the accomplishments that I have and will have," said Cardin, 39, who represents northwest Baltimore County. He has been vacationing out of state with his fiancee, Megan Homer.

A nephew of Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin's who works at his father's law firm in Baltimore, Cardin said he is proud of his work on a statewide smoking ban, stem-cell research and drafting early-voting standards. "I try to take my passions and put them to work," he said.

Del. Eric Bromwell, a Democrat and chairman of the Baltimore County delegation, said Cardin is popular in the county and successful as a lawmaker. The two were freshmen delegates in 2003 and remain close friends. Of the engagement, Bromwell said, "he is a passionate guy and was doing something from the heart. His apology is sincere, and I don't think he should be judged only on this."

A week ago, before news accounts of the proposal surfaced and then drew national attention, Cardin hosted a fundraiser in Ocean City during the annual conference of the Maryland Association of Counties.

He had spent the summer talking with county and state political leaders about his plans to run for county executive; incumbent James T. Smith Jr. is leaving because of term limits.

Asked about his plans to campaign for county executive or any other office, Cardin said, "I have not made any decisions to do anything different" because of the engagement fallout.

Many observers said Cardin's seat in the House of Delegates is probably safe if he chooses to seek it again. All 188 seats in the General Assembly are up in 2010.

F. Vernon Boozer, a Towson lawyer and former Republican Baltimore County lawmaker, said the "Cardin family name and its history of public service" will serve the delegate well as he attempts to recover from the political misstep.

"He also seems to be taking responsibility, and I give him credit for that," Boozer said.

Richard Vatz, a professor of rhetoric at Towson University, said that Democrats' firm grip on Maryland also will tamp down the effects on the younger Cardin. "I would be amazed if this hurt him long-term," he said.

But Vatz said Cardin's initial reaction could have been stronger. In a statement earlier this week, Cardin described the police actions as "a 5-minute safety check" and didn't mention that a helicopter hovered above the boat. He said he'd pay for those police resources and that he should have used better judgment.

"It does not appear that he was immediately struck with how untoward these behaviors were," Vatz said.

On Thursday, the head of the Baltimore County Republican Central Committee asked a legislative ethics committee to examine the issue.

In the interview, Cardin was more explicit in his contrition, even though he would not say who owned the boat or provide details about how the event was staged. "I feel terrible," he said. "I regret doing something that was inappropriate."

Baltimore Sun reporter Laura Smitherman contributed to this article.

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