A Sense of Service Sustained by Family, Faith

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.

As Myrna Cardin said, using a Yiddish term for an upright person, "He runs his life to be a mensch."

Profiles of him never fail to mention that he is short, stout and, but for a few curly wisps of white hair, bald on top. His specialties in Congress -- pension law and Social Security -- gained him a reputation as a serious legislator but often draw yawns beyond the C-SPAN crowd. In stump speeches, Cardin calls for universal health care, a higher minimum wage and federal support for embryonic stem-cell research. He criticizes the Bush administration for trying to privatize Social Security and highlights his vote against sending troops to Iraq.

He is clearly most at ease -- and at his best -- in small groups, where he is warm and, for a man often labeled as dull, surprisingly witty. During lunch with a dozen Washington Post reporters and editors, Cardin mentioned his father's death. "His brother is 96 and just bought a car," Cardin said. He added dryly: "He took the five-year extended warranty. We have good genes in my family."

Supporters play up Cardin's seriousness as his strength.

"He's always thinking about something," said Frank M. Conaway Sr., a Democratic former Assembly colleague of Cardin's and now clerk of Baltimore's Circuit Court. "He's just not a jump-up-and-down kind of politician."

By contrast, Myrna Cardin is gregarious and bubbly. Crowds warm to her beaming smile. She refers to her husband by his childhood nickname, "Benji."

They grew up in Baltimore, a mile apart in a middle-class neighborhood of first-generation Americans. Cardin's grandparents came from Lithuania and Russia. (Cardin said it's likely that an immigration officer shortened their last name from Kardonsky.) The extended family, including 17 first cousins, lived within a couple blocks.

"The family was always together," said Howard Cardin, a Baltimore defense lawyer. Many went into public service, he said, because "there was a strong feeling of serving public needs."

The men's parents were active in volunteer work, especially among the needy. Myrna Cardin said in an interview that her husband soaked up their example.

"Ben grew up in a very traditional Jewish home, where you gave back," she said. "That's his persona. . . . It's like he inhaled it as a good way to live."

In addition to teaching an ethics course at Johns Hopkins University, Cardin served on the House ethics committee, an often unpopular job because members must pass judgment on colleagues. He helped investigate the House Bank scandal, in which members regularly bounced checks. He was the lead Democrat in crafting a bipartisan punishment for then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who used tax-deductible money for political purposes and provided inaccurate information to House investigators.

"Ethics is the driving equalizer in my life -- to make sure everything I do can be judged as right or wrong," Cardin said in an interview.

It is a quality his wife said she has always admired. When they began dating at 15, she also saw him as happy, fun and full of adventure.

"And he drove a Chevy Impala -- a convertible -- and that didn't hurt," she said with a laugh over a glass of iced tea recently at a Baltimore coffeehouse.

She knew politics came with the package. The Cardin name loomed large in Baltimore's Democratic politics. In addition to his father, Ben's uncle, Maurice Cardin, served in the House of Delegates. Like his uncle and father, Ben would become a lawyer. He graduated first in his class from the University of Maryland's law school.

When his uncle left the General Assembly, local Democrats approached Cardin's father about filling the seat. Ben Cardin said he would run.

"They said: 'We've always had a Cardin on the ticket. We need a Cardin on the ticket,' " Myrna Cardin recalled. Cardin was in law school when he won. He quickly became chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee before being chosen one of the youngest House speakers in state history.

"I worked hard in that [first] election," he said, "but I think it's fair to say that without the name, I wouldn't have won."

Family ties haven't always helped. At least one challenger in the late 1980s tried to link Cardin to an older cousin, Jerome Cardin, who was jailed as part of the Maryland savings and loan collapse. Cardin was never implicated.

But Republicans couldn't compete with Cardin's ability to raise money and win votes in heavily Democratic districts. Before Steele, most of his challengers were little-known or first-time candidates running on pennies compared with Cardin's campaign coffers.

Scott Conwell, a Republican lawyer from Crofton who opposed Cardin in 2002, said Cardin spent much more money than he did. Cardin's congressional seat has been so safe for so long that he has never had to run a hard-hitting campaign, which fits his cautious nature, Conwell said. Cardin, he noted, bowed out after initially challenging then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) in 1997.

"His issues are not risk-taking issues," Conwell said. "He's very safe. Even when he spent $1 million against me, no one would ever remember how he spent it because they were nice-guy commercials -- Ben doing this or Ben near the [Chesapeake] Bay -- but they weren't risk-taking commercials. They raised his favorability ratings, but they didn't spark any passion for him."

Cardin seems most passionate about discussing policy. On those issues, he said, he turns to his staff for advice. When it comes to any other difficult decision, political or personal, he asks Myrna.

"She's not the person pulling the strings and shaping policy," said their daughter, Deborah Cardin, 37, who works at the Jewish Museum of Maryland. "But she's fiercely protective of my father. . . . She'll call the person who's driving him and say: 'Has Ben had lunch? Is he getting dinner?' "

If anything could have tested the Cardins' marriage, friends said, it was the death of their son, Michael. Family members said he was a sensitive young man who knew the names of homeless people on his street and loved discussing politics with his father. Myrna Cardin said they thought he might run for Baltimore City Council some day. One night in March 1998, Michael, 30, killed himself in his apartment. He had recently passed the state bar exam and was volunteering with lower-income residents.

Friends said Michael's death devastated his parents, but Ben didn't display his grief publicly. "They're not the kind of people who need to go to grief counseling," said Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg of Beth Tfiloh Congregation in Baltimore, who officiated at Michael's funeral. "They had each other for that."

As for possible feelings of guilt, Wohlberg said: "Theirs wasn't the kind of situation where they had to ask themselves: Where did we go wrong? They knew in their heart of hearts [they] hadn't. Something went wrong with Michael."

Cardin said he was "extremely close" to his son -- they met regularly for lunch or dinner -- but neither he nor anyone else saw warning signs of depression or suicide. In learning more about his son's life after his death, Cardin said, he has come to believe that Michael "made a judgment, a wrong judgment, about a circumstance." He declined to elaborate, saying only that the "circumstance" is "not really relevant because it wasn't really major."

Though Myrna teared up on mention of Michael, Cardin broke into a wide, somewhat forced-looking smile.

"It's not a sad thing," Ben Cardin said. "Michael is a happy part of my life. He was an incredible person. . . . He was totally convinced he could change the world one person at a time. He'd go out of his way to find problems so he could help people."

Cardin said later: "You don't lose someone without changing. It's hard to describe how, but it changes your perspective. It's like my father said: You don't lose any opportunities in life."

Whether Cardin can seize the next opportunity -- a lesson born of faith, passed between fathers and sons -- is up to voters.

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