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For Md.'s Cardin, the Delight Is in the Details
Anti-Incumbent Mood Could Hurt Longtime Congressman's Senate Bid

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 3, 2006

A few years ago, U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin was asked to throw out the first pitch at an upcoming Orioles game.

He got two baseball gloves and put them in his car. Wherever he went, his wife, Myrna, recalled, he would take out the gloves and a ball and practice.

All summer, he practiced, she remembered.

Nah, he said, it was more like one week, maybe two.

Whatever.

The day came. Cardin took the mound, reared back and fired. "Great pitch," he joked. "It went over the plate. Without any bouncing. No one could have hit it."

It was vintage Cardin. Serious, meticulous, prepared to the last detail. Friends say he has been that way through 20 years in the Maryland House of Delegates and 20 more as a U.S. congressman from Maryland.

Now Cardin (D) is seeking the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Paul S. Sarbanes (D), promising to approach the job with the same serious attention to detail he gave to the big pitch.

But all those years of practice -- the hundreds of votes he has cast and the quiet, workhorse reputation he has acquired -- could work against him this time, with an electorate in a decidedly anti-incumbent mood and a throng of candidates in the Democratic primary scrambling to be considered the outsider.

Cardin is bald and a bit portly. Easy to overlook in a crowd -- even at his own campaign events. He wears dusty black loafers, drives a Pontiac, collects stamps. People say he lacks charisma, is a "a nuts-and-bolts" guy, a "policy and politics" guy.

A detail guy who reveres the political and legislative processes.

Cardin tells a story about how, as a rookie member of the Maryland House in 1967, he first put his hands on the levers of local politics.

A high school playground in his Baltimore district lacked a baseball backstop. Neighborhood youngsters wanted to play there, but the balls kept rolling into the street.

Cardin, who had been elected largely on the strength of his family's name, boldly telephoned the mayor, Thomas J. D'Alesandro III. He was amazed when D'Alesandro took the call, and within weeks the playground had a backstop.

Cardin, who lives in Pikesville, in Baltimore County, and has been a member of the U.S. House of Representatives since 1987, tells the story to show how he first learned politics' potential for good.

But the tale also suggests his faith in process and mechanics.

"If you don't have process," he said, "the people who depend upon the government working for them are going to get hurt."

As for charisma, "it doesn't concern me because it doesn't affect my ability to get things done," he said.

"He's an adult," said U.S. Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), a friend and longtime colleague. "He's a common-sense, hardworking, focused . . . individual."

"He works very hard at mastering policy issues," said Matthew A. Crenson, professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University. "Especially the ones that everybody else finds boring."

But after 20 years in Congress, Cardin is 62. During a televised debate last week with his chief opponent, former congressman and NAACP president Kweisi Mfume, 57, the graying Cardin appeared much the older man.

Cardin also has a strong Baltimore accent, which does not lend itself to oratory and marks him as a son of the city in a state that stretches from the Eastern Shore to the Allegheny Mountains.

Indeed, although Cardin was inspired by the eloquence of John F. Kennedy, he was reared on old-fashioned urban politics and schooled in backroom strategy sessions at the feet of his father and uncle, who were pros.

The Cardin family, descendants of Eastern European immigrants, hailed from the old Jewish neighborhood of East Baltimore around Lombard and Baltimore streets.

Crenson said it was a neighborhood rich in tradition and dotted with synagogues. Cardin's late father, Meyer, and uncle, Maurice, both became lawyers and entered Democratic politics. The "family is a political institution in Baltimore," Crenson said.

Cardin said his father, the family patriarch, was elected to the Maryland House before the elder Cardin was married and served from 1935 to 1939. His uncle also served in the State House, from 1951 to 1966.

Cardin was raised with his older brother, Howard, who later served as Baltimore's state's attorney, in a two-bedroom house on Sequoia Avenue in the close-knit Ashburton section of West Baltimore.

"We grew up in politics," Ben Cardin said. "When I was 7 years old, I was on the corner handing out literature. . . . There were political meetings going on all the time. In our house. In other people's houses. I was there when I was a teenager . . . where they would talk about precinct work and organization."

Asked to name a political hero, he points first not to Democratic icons Franklin D. Roosevelt or Kennedy, but to a late Republican mayor of Baltimore and governor of Maryland, Theodore R. McKeldin, who was instrumental in building up Baltimore's modern urban and transportation infrastructure.

McKeldin was also known as one of the first state politicians to court Jewish voters and advisers, and he attended Cardin's bar mitzvah. McKeldin "really opened up both city and state government for opportunity for more diversified representation," Cardin said.

Cardin said he was also deeply influenced by his father, who was the first of his family born in the United States and who went on to become a circuit court judge.

"He looked at politics as an opportunity to empower people otherwise who wouldn't have a chance," Cardin said. "My father taught me from the first day I was elected that you have an unbelievable opportunity to help people. You can open up doors. So use it. Don't waste time."

This is Cardin's first election without his father, who died last year at 97.

But his political support still begins with his family.

"When I first ran for the House of Delegates, even though it was a large district, as long as my family came out to vote I was safe," he joked recently at a breakfast meeting of old friends and relatives.

He said later that he got elected because "people had confidence in my family. They knew me from my family. It was the family connection."

Cardin was still in law school when he was elected to the State House in 1966 as one of the seven delegates from northwest Baltimore's old 5th District. He rapidly distinguished himself and in 1979 became speaker of the House at age 34 -- the youngest speaker in 100 years.

He was "a whiz kid," said former Maryland House speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. of Cumberland, who served with Cardin. "We got along beautifully from Day One because of his ability to reach out," Taylor said. "He did not ignore the rural parts of the state, which, obviously, I cared a great deal about."

Far from "a city slicker," Cardin was an organized, disciplined, studious consensus-builder, Taylor said.

By 1986, Cardin said, he felt he had accomplished all he could at the state level. He ran for and was elected to Congress, representing Maryland's 3rd District, which includes parts of Baltimore City and Baltimore, Howard and Anne Arundel counties. In Congress, he specialized in health care for senior citizens. He voted against the war in Iraq, has called for the withdrawal of U.S. troops and has criticized the United Nations for what he said is its chronic bias against Israel.

He believes it is again time to move on.

"It's right for me to leave Congress now," he said. "I've been there 20 years. I'm proud of my record."

He believes the House has changed, just in the past six years. "It's become much more partisan," he said. "I think that my skills of bringing people together can work best in the United States Senate."

Cardin has been married for more than 40 years. He met his wife in elementary school. "We grew up in a neighborhood where families knew everybody," he said. The couple has a daughter, Deborah, and two grandchildren.

The Cardins' son, Michael, 30, an outgoing, civic-minded Baltimore lawyer, took his life six years ago. He was an independent thinker and loved politics, the couple said. "We thought one day he might run for City Council," Myrna Cardin said. "He was a strategist. . . . He inhaled [political] races."

Ben Cardin said: "He did his own thing. Obviously I gave him opportunities, but he would find his own way to get involved."

His son's death "changed my focus on life," Cardin said. "It's hard to describe. . . . I think it points out the importance of not wasting any time. Try to get things done. Don't wait for tomorrow. Do things today."

One afternoon last month, Cardin stood at the top of the escalator at the Glenmont Metro stop greeting homebound commuters. Even here he was meticulous. He didn't ask passersby for their support, only their "consideration."

"Got my vote," Chuck Angelucci, 54, a financial analyst from Layhill, told Cardin as he passed.

"I like him," Angelucci said. "I just like him. . . . He's a quiet guy. . . . He'll be a working part of the Senate instead of someone who's grandstanding."

Femi Akinbi, 48, an entrepreneur from Silver Spring and a native of Nigeria, asked: "What is your platform?"

"For education as a national priority," Cardin replied. "So that we can really provide education opportunities for every child in our country. For becoming energy independent. For universal health coverage. I voted against the war in Iraq."

Akinbi smiled. "I think your agenda might be something a lot of people want to be a part of," he said. "I wish you well."

"I like his demeanor," Akinbi said later. "He is not cocky."

He said the fact that Mfume, Cardin's main opponent in next month's Democratic primary, is African American would "definitely" figure in his voting decision.

But, he said: "That the person is of African descent does not automatically make sure that they get all the black votes."

Jacque W. Leighty, 56, of Aspen Hill, an English teacher at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School in the District, paused to chat with Cardin for several minutes and then said: "You're a good man."

A profile of Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Kweisi Mfume appeared last Sunday.

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