- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 31, 2009

Politics runs thick in the blood of the Cardin family, as does a wonkish interest in how policy affects the daily trappings of ordinary Americans. Maryland Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin is about to get a prime opportunity to display both facets of his family legacy.

A studious, low-key lawmaker who has been in elected office more than four decades, the freshman Democratic senator said he will be taking a careful tack as the Senate gears up for the confirmation battle over President Obama’s first nomination to the Supreme Court.

Mr. Cardin figures to have a front seat to history — and a fair amount of television face-time — as one of the lawmakers who will vet New York Judge Sonia Sotomayor on the Senate Judiciary Committee, taking on one of his most high-profile legislative tasks yet.

He has dedicated one staff member exclusively to researching Judge Sotomayor’s work, and has been seeking the advice of his Senate colleagues who have been through multiple Supreme Court confirmations.

See related story: Sotomayor cleared prior Senate hurdles

“I want a person who has a passion for the Constitution, who understands the role of the court,” he said in an interview. “I want them to understand they don’t create the law, they enforce and interpret the law.”

Mr. Obama called Mr. Cardin a week before choosing Judge Sotomayor. After the nomination, Mr. Cardin praised her nomination while adding he would do his due diligence as a senator.

The Cardin family has roots that reach deep in Maryland politics.

Mr. Cardin himself was active politically in the northwest Baltimore city public schools he attended, joining the student government in high school. Politics was a natural calling for Mr. Cardin, whose father and uncle both served as public officials while he was growing up.

His father, Meyer Cardin, was a state lawmaker before serving 18 years as a Baltimore City judge. Mr. Cardin’s uncle, Maurice Cardin, served as a state delegate.

“For some eight decades, the Cardin name has been synonymous with public service and civic-mindedness,” Rep. Steny Hoyer said in 2005, eulogizing Meyer Cardin’s passing.

Mr. Cardin’s roots have helped the low-key lawmaker when he has faced off against some much more telegenic rivals. In the tight, expensive 2006 Democratic primary for the Senate seat he now holds, he was able to defeat NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, a former congressman himself, outspending his better-known rival by nearly four to one.

Mr. Cardin then beat former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele — now the chairman of the Republican National Committee — to become the state’s junior senator, replacing the long-serving Sen. Paul Sarbanes. Mr. Sarbanes and Mr. Cardin were longtime allies, having entered the state legislature as members of the same freshman class 40 years earlier.

Name-recognition and political roots have generally boded well for Maryland pols. After Mr. Cardin won Mr. Sarbanes’ vacated seat, John Sarbanes, Mr. Sarbanes’ eldest son, won Mr. Cardin’s old congressional seat.

The state’s dynasties even extend to figures who no longer claim Maryland as their home. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, was raised in Baltimore’s Little Italy as a member of the D’Alessandro family, which produced two Baltimore mayors.

Mr. Cardin took his seat in the Maryland House of Delegates in 1967 at the age of 24 — the first year he was eligible to run. A little over a decade later, he became speaker of the legislature, a position he held for eight years before winning a seat in Congress.

In Annapolis, his primary achievements included a rewrite of the state’s ethics laws and changes to the property-tax laws to allow seniors to stay in their homes.

“I’ve always been interested in taxes. I worked on property taxes when property taxes were extremely repressive,” he said. “We established a ‘circuit breaker’ that allows older people to stay in their homes.”

Mr. Cardin earned his spurs as a serious policy wonk through a sincere love of detail and the minutiae of the legislative process, said his nephew Jon Cardin, now a state delegate representing some of Mr. Cardin’s old district in Baltimore.

Which is not to say Mr. Cardin can’t play politics, he said.

“My uncle has an uncanny way of being three steps ahead of everyone around him,” said Jon Cardin, who added he has learned as much about government by debating policy with his uncle as he has playing card games with him.

The Cardin family gathers every Friday night to mark the Jewish Sabbath and debate policy, including such issues as slot-machine gambling and health care.

“We all look forward to it, we get our weekly dose of politics,” said Jon Cardin, whose father — Mr. Cardin’s older brother — served briefly as the Baltimore City prosecutor.

As a congressman, Mr. Cardin focused his efforts on health care issues for two decades before winning a seat in the Senate.

“Clearly, Washington has gotten more partisan, which is something I regret,” he said of the changes he’s seen since he came to Washington in 1987. “We lose something when we tend to exclude each other.”

As a senator, Mr. Cardin has taken a lead on environmental issues, focusing on the poor status of the Chesapeake Bay. He has also attracted national attention with a proposal to aid the ailing newspaper industry by allowing newspapers to set up as tax-exempt nonprofits as a way to keep from folding.

He lamented the woes of his hometown paper, the Baltimore Sun, which recently laid off 61 news staffers and has shrunk significantly since being acquired by the now-bankrupt Tribune Co.

“You could be assured that anything you were doing was being watched,” he said. “There is national coverage of Congress, but the in-depth, local coverage has really been compromised.”

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