Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, 72, the veteran Democrat from Maryland, announced yesterday he will retire when his current term expires in 2006. He is the longest-serving senator in the state’s history.
“It was not my ambition to stay there until they carried me out,” the popular five-term senator said yesterday at his Baltimore office. “It was just the right time. We think we’ve served long and well and honorably and we’re very comfortable with this decision.”
The retirement brings to an end the political career of a quiet, thoughtful senator whose primary focus has been the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, where he serves as the ranking Democrat.
On social and economic matters, Mr. Sarbanes is a reliable liberal vote. He was among 23 to vote against authorization for the war in Iraq and among the 25 who voted against the bankruptcy reform bill earlier this week.
“Without question, Paul Sarbanes is an intellectual giant in the Senate,” said House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, Maryland Democrat. “When Senator Sarbanes retires, our state will be losing a humble, historic leader. Our nation will be losing a committed public servant and patriot.”
On a more personal level, Mr. Hoyer added: “I personally will miss a close friend and trusted counselor. The loss of his insight and leadership will be keenly felt at a time of debate on so many important issues.”
The impending vacancy is expected to start a frenzy for the Democratic nomination; it creates the second Senate vacancy Democrats must protect in the 2006 election. Sen. Mark Dayton, a Democrat from Minnesota, also plans to retire.
“Today’s announcement by Senator Sarbanes provides Republicans a wonderful opportunity to gain another seat in the United States Senate,” said Sen. Elizabeth Dole, North Carolina Republican and head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “Having already elected a popular governor and lieutenant governor in addition to other statewide office holders, there is a lot of Republican momentum at the grass-roots level in the state of Maryland.”
On the Republican side, Majority Leader Bill Frist — the Tennessee Republican who has always said he intended to serve just two terms — is the only Republican publicly planning retirement in 2006.
But Mr. Sarbanes seemed confident that Democrats would hold onto his seat.
“We’ve got a number of able Democrats,” he said yesterday. “I’m confident that one of them will be elected to the United States Senate in 2006 and I will do everything I can to bring around that result.”
Maryland long has been a Democratic stronghold; it supported Sen. John Kerry with 56 percent of the vote in the 2004 presidential election. Maryland’s other senator is Barbara A. Mikulski, a Democrat whose voting record is among the most liberal in the Senate.
The possible candidates to seek the Republican nod to replace him include Lt. Gov. Michael Steele and conservative commentator Alan Keyes. Possible Democrats include former five-term congressman and NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, Rep. Chris Van Hollen and Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley.
Rumors have even centered on former Minority Leader Tom Daschle, who was bounced by voters last year in South Dakota and currently resides in Washington. At a farewell party for Mr. Daschle earlier this month, Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat and chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, was reportedly overheard whispering that Mr. Sarbanes had some ideas about Mr. Daschle’s filling his Maryland seat were he to retire.
Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said he would work with Maryland Democrats to retain the seat.
“Paul Sarbanes is a good friend and outstanding senator,” Mr. Reid said. “Over the last three decades, he has worked tirelessly on behalf of the people of Maryland.”
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said: “He has worked effortlessly to represent the citizens of Maryland on both a state and federal level with the type of leadership that citizens expect and deserve of their elected officials.”