A Sense of Service Sustained by Family, Faith

Cardin speaks to the B'nai Israel Congregation and to some of its members afterwards.
Maryland Democratic Senator Ben Cardin. (Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)
By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Almost every Friday, Benjamin L. Cardin gathers with his family -- his wife, daughter, granddaughters, cousins and brother's family -- for dinner celebrating the Jewish Sabbath.

As many as 30 people come. Cardin often bakes the challah or grills the chicken. The group sings, prays and collects money for charity. Then everyone takes turns sharing what made each happiest that week. At one recent Shabbat, the Democrat took a break from campaigning for Maryland's open U.S. Senate seat to join in. He was happy, he told everyone, that Election Day was less than a month away.

During 40 years in public office -- 20 in the General Assembly followed by two decades in Congress -- Cardin has woven his political life into the faith and family that he says sustain him.

He followed his father and uncle into the state legislature. One of his closest political advisers is Myrna, his wife of 40 years, whom he met in elementary school. At one of the lowest points in his life -- when his son committed suicide eight years ago -- Cardin carried out a Jewish custom of mourning for 30 days by gathering Jewish staffers and fellow Congress members in his Capitol Hill office for daily prayers.

His faith informs his actions in the House of Representatives, particularly a six-year membership on the ethics committee, he said.

His office displays none of the usual photographs of a congressman shaking hands with famous people. Instead, the most prominent photo shows his curly-haired granddaughter, Madeline, then 4, sitting beside him during a swearing-in ceremony at the Capitol.

He and his brother, Howard, shared a bedroom for 16 years while growing up. They remained so close after both married that they moved their families several times so they could live near each other -- at one point, across the street from each other for 25 years. He considered his father, Meyer M. Cardin, who died last year two days shy of his 98th birthday, one of his closest friends.

Ben Cardin, 63, said he remains grounded in what his father told him after his election to the General Assembly at 23. "He said I had something people worked a lifetime for," Cardin said, "that I had the opportunity to make a difference and that I should think about that. . . . I think about that frequently, and it affects everything I do in life."

Although Cardin hails from one of Baltimore's most prominent political families, his canvassers say his name draws blank looks from many voters. His Republican rival, Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, is a telegenic, polished speaker who has captured attention with catchy TV ads highlighting his love of puppies. Steele hugs his way through a crowd and shares humorous personal stories. Cardin launches straight into serious policy discussions. At rallies, it is hard to tell that he is the star.

"My father-in-law would come to a restaurant and work every table," Myrna Cardin said of Meyer Cardin, who also became a Circuit Court judge. "Ben would sit down and eat and not even think people would want to be bothered during dinner."

Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 2 to 1 in Maryland, but Cardin isn't taking any chances. After all, many of those Democrats chose a GOP governor four years ago. Nor can he ignore Steele's appeal for some as the first African American elected to statewide office in Maryland. Cardin skipped Shabbat last week, which he is loath to do, to attend an NAACP dinner in Prince George's County.

Cardin -- whose congressional district includes a piece of Baltimore and parts of Howard, Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties -- comes across as a mix of a professor and the nice guy next door, with a finely honed political edge. Political supporters and rivals alike describe him as steady, smart, decent and honest.

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