- The Washington Times - Monday, March 14, 2005

Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes of Maryland, the so-called “stealth senator,” made more noise in one afternoon last week than he has in a three-decade, low-key career.

Once the invincible Democrat made the official announcement of his 2006 retirement Friday in Baltimore, all gentlemen’s (and ladies’) agreements in the Free State swiftly scattered like pent-up thoroughbreds at the starting gate.

Sorry, not those Maryland-bred horses that Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. wants to see prancing around the state’s racetracks, generating gobs of slots revenue. No, these steaming contenders are more akin to Maryland crabs in a burning barrel.

After all, the Servant Sarbanes’ coveted crown was off-limits for eons. A fresh victory represents more than a trip to the Preakness winner’s circle to collect a trophy. A fresh victory means a trip into a junior seat in the U.S. Senate and a national soapbox that could come with it.

“This is going to be big fun, a lot of fun to watch,” said Prince George’s County political activist Radamase Cabrera. Yesterday, he already was attempting to analyze “the buzz” about the 2006 Senate race in Maryland.

The possible matchups and strategic scenarios are swarming.

I agreed with Mr. Cabrera as he nixed the U.S. Senate possibilities of Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan. They would have to start from ground zero to raise funds because the money they’ve raised so far for the statewide race for governor is not transferable to a federal race. Even with party backing, neither has the sophistication or stature that makes for a good senatorial candidacy.

How about a high-profile race — on the order of Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois — between Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, a Republican, and former Democratic Rep. Kweisi Mfume, who recently stepped down as president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People?

Don’t count on this political dream, either. Mr. Steele makes it clear that he wants to be governor in 2010. It would take unfair pressure from the White House to persuade him to run for a seat he most likely would lose to the more nationally popular Mr. Mfume.

“A Mfume candidacy is a no-lose scenario,” Mr. Cabrera said. “It will be the first time in 20 years that a well-funded black candidate will be pumping money into the black community and raising issues, enthusiasm and voter turnout because national black leaders from across the spectrum will be looking at Maryland and paying attention the way they did for Obama.”

Can’t you see it now, Mr. Cabrera mused: talkster Tavis Smiley hosting a town-hall meeting with comedian Bill Cosby in Baltimore; radio jock Tom Joyner bringing the “Sky Show” to Upper Marlboro; or Beyonce bouncing as the fund-raising headliner in the Inner Harbor. “Cornel West would come teach and Al Sharpton would come preach,” he said, jokingly.

Political observers, including Mr. Cabrera and Robert Redding Jr., The Washington Times’ reporter in Annapolis, noted that black Maryland Democrats have assumed for decades that the Sarbanes Senate seat was their just reward whenever it became vacant.

However, the seat is no longer guaranteed to a Democrat — black or otherwise.

One novel scenario, put forth by our State House scribe, has Mr. Ehrlich returning to Capitol Hill (he served four terms in the House) but in the upper chamber. Mr. Steele steps in as governor to finish the term, which increases the Republicans’ 2010 chances in the predominantly Democratic state.

As suspected, first out of the gate is Mr. Mfume, who officially announced his Senate candidacy yesterday at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. One Baltimore observer said it’s no secret that Mr. Mfume, with his inclusive rhetoric, “has been priming himself for the job ever since he left” the House of Representatives.

This new political hot potato not only is destined to set the body politic ablaze, but also likely to force a major shift among traditional power brokers and power centers in Maryland’s Democratic Party.

“This is not about Republicans; this is about Democrats,” Mr. Cabrera said, suggesting a nasty internal party battle. Mr. Mfume is no dyed-in-the-blue-wool party player.

Mr. Cabrera said the wide-open Senate race presents black voters, in particular, with a rare opportunity for “a chance to flex their political muscle.” At the same time, “the old guard” of the dismantled Democrats, he added, “will try to field a candidate they can control.”

He pointed out that quiet though he may be, Mr. Sarbanes was the titular party head and it was the senator who brokered the deal between warring factions for the state party chairman when Isaiah Leggett stepped down to run for Montgomery County executive.

“The big questions are: How will blacks act? How will white Democrats react? And then how white Republicans will react to them both,” Mr. Cabrera said.

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