Sen. Paul Sarbanes' announcement yesterday that he will not seek re-election to a sixth term is likely to trigger a game of political musical chairs in Maryland, where Mr. Sarbanes -- the kind of liberal Democrat who traditionally wins statewide elections -- appeared unbeatable.
His pending departure has unsurprisingly triggered rampant speculation about who will succeed him in the Senate, with former congressman and NAACP head Kweisi Mfume near the top of the list on the Democratic side. Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, who had been expected to face off against Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan in a bruising gubernatorial primary, is another possible candidate. On the Republican side, prominent names include Lt. Gov. Michael Steele and state Sen. E.J. Pipkin, who challenged Barbara Mikulski last year.
Mr. Sarbanes first ran in 1970 as an opponent of the Vietnam War and Baltimore's Democratic Party political machine. He upset 13-term incumbent George Fallon in the 4th Congressional District primary and went on to be elected to the House of Representatives that November. After being re-elected to the House in 1972 and 1974, Mr. Sarbanes defeated incumbent Republican freshman J. Glenn Beall to win election to the Senate, where he has served ever since.
Although we have rarely agreed with Mr. Sarbanes on policy matters, we found admirable his quiet manner and his refusal to grandstand. In an era in which many of his colleagues cannot keep away from the television cameras, Mr. Sarbanes has done much of his political work behind the scenes. This style was very much on display early in 2002, when Congress began examining the WorldCom scandal and other matters related to corporate malfeasance. While other congressmen and senators held well-publicized hearings that received plenty of attention from the press, Mr. Sarbanes plodded along, holding a series of hearings on business accounting and governance. In the end, Congressional Quarterly's Politics in America points out, he "essentially dictated terms to Republicans during abbreviated conference negotiations, and the statute that was enacted stands as the most sweeping overhaul of securities since the Great Depression." Aside from his role in pushing through the securities bill, Mr. Sarbanes is probably best remembered for his role in 1974 as a member of the House Judiciary Committee, where he drafted the article of impeachment charging President Nixon with obstruction of justice.
While Mr. Sarbanes has an extraordinary record of political success, one important cautionary note is in order: The last time an incumbent senator from Maryland retired was in 1986, when Republican Charles Mathias departed after three terms. Initially Gov. Harry Hughes appeared to have a chance to succeed him. But the Hughes campaign imploded due to the state savings-and-loan scandal, and Miss Mikulski was elected to the Senate. Other political up-and-comers, like Rep. Michael Barnes and Attorney General Steve Sachs, also bested by Miss Mikulski in the Democratic primary that year, faded into political oblivion. That's something the ambitious politicians looking to replace Mr. Sarbanes would do well to keep in mind.
By Elaine Donnelly
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