Del. Jon S. Cardin, the front-runner to become Maryland's next attorney general, calls himself an active legislator who believes "nothing is more sacred to democracy than the right to vote."
But when it came time to cast votes in the House Ways and Means Committee in Annapolis this year, the Baltimore County Democrat repeatedly failed to show up.
General Assembly records reviewed by The Baltimore Sun show that during the 90-day legislative session, Cardin missed about 120 out of 164 committee votes — nearly 75 percent. The other two legislators running for attorney general missed few or no committee votes.
Questioned about his attendance record, Cardin declined to be interviewed for this article. His campaign declined to say why he missed so many votes in committee — where members make critical decisions about whether a bill is killed or goes forward — and instead pointed to his record on the House floor.
"Jon has a more than 90 percent attendance record for floor votes throughout his twelve years in the General Assembly," Cardin's campaign manager, Andy Carton, said in a statement. "Jon was in Annapolis to pass the minimum wage increase, the Fairness for All Marylanders Act, to criminalize cyber sexual harassment, and be a part of many other important legislative initiatives."
Though some colleagues said they believe Cardin left Annapolis to focus on his campaign, aides denied that he missed votes for that reason. Some supporters said he missed committee meetings to spend more time with his family.
The other candidates in the Democratic primary race — Sen. Brian E. Frosh of Montgomery County and Del. Aisha N. Braveboy of Prince George's — were sharply critical of Cardin's missed votes. And a political analyst said Cardin's attendance record is likely to become an issue in the campaign.
"Particularly in the House of Delegates, committees are where the real work is done," said David Lublin, an American University government professor. "I can see the campaign ads now: 'He's not doing his job, and now he wants a bigger one.'"
Frosh and Braveboy both pointed out that the fate of much General Assembly legislation is decided at the committee level.
"I can't think of any explanation for it that would be excused or acceptable," Frosh said. "If you're a legislator, that's what your elected to do: Vote. If you're not voting, you're not doing your job."
Braveboy expressed incredulity at Cardin's attendance record.
"The committee votes are critical to shaping the actual bill," she said. "There are some really bad amendments that can get onto bills if you don't have the right people there."
Frosh, who chairs the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, missed no votes out of 244, records show. Braveboy, who sits on the House Economic Matters Committee, missed 12 out of 140.
"We're there to do the people's work, but we're humans," Braveboy said of her missed votes. She said they were due to a brief illness and giving testimony in other committees.
With more than 100 votes missed, Cardin didn't weigh in at the committee level on a wide range of issues. For instance, Cardin missed committee votes on reforming Baltimore's tax code, removing dead people from the state's voter rolls, expanding pre-kindergarten and granting tax credits for urban farming, among other issues. Several times, Cardin missed voting for bills that he co-sponsored, such as legislation cracking down on intimidation and fraud in petition drives.
In March, Cardin skipped a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee on a bill he'd introduced aimed at addressing a huge backlog in criminal background checks of gun buyers.
He put the bill in — publicizing his action with a news release — after The Baltimore Sun reported that more than 200 guns had been sold to people who were prohibited from owning firearms. One of those handguns was later used in an armed carjacking, state police disclosed.
The hearing, during which the committee reviewed dozens of gun bills, dragged on into the evening. When Cardin's bill was finally called, an aide testified on his behalf. Joshua Greenfeld, his legislative director, said later that Cardin had returned to Baltimore that evening to pursue his campaign.
The committee killed the bill.
At Ways and Means, Del. Talmadge Branch, a Cardin supporter who also sits on the committee, said he believed Cardin missed so many votes due to campaign activities. He argued that it's appropriate for a candidate to miss some committee votes to get out his message.
"He was probably more focused on the attorney general's race, but his voting record over the years on the issues has been great," said Branch, a Baltimore Democrat. "He's very, very smart, and he's always focused on doing the right things."
Del. Sheila E. Hixson, the Montgomery County Democrat who chairs Ways and Means, said she noticed Cardin was frequently missing votes but didn't press him for a reason. She said she didn't think any bills were harmed by his absence.
Of his missed votes, records show Cardin alerted the committee more than 100 times that he would be absent, but eight times failed to do so.
"I knew he wasn't there a lot," Hixson said. "If we were going to have a tough vote on something, I would have called him to make sure he was there."
Likewise, House Speaker Michael E. Busch said he wasn't overly concerned about Cardin's missed votes, noting the need of a part-time legislator to balance work with family obligations.
"As a citizen legislator, each member must balance their responsibilities in the legislature, particularly in committee, with other responsibilities, both professional and personal," Busch said in a statement. "I believe the work product of the Ways and Means Committee was outstanding this legislative session and did not suffer because any one member was not in attendance."
But Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, a Baltimore Democrat who is supporting Frosh, said she believed Cardin's lack of attendance calls into question his suitability for higher office. She pointed to a stunt Cardin pulled in 2009 in which he persuaded on-duty city police marine and helicopter officers to help him propose to his girlfriend by pretending to raid a boat the couple was aboard in Baltimore's harbor.
City police investigated what they said appeared to be a misuse of police resources, and Cardin pledged to reimburse the city for "whatever costs they deem appropriate." He later paid $300.
Gladden introduced a bill this year that would have imposed a $15,000 fine on any state or local official who misuses law enforcement resources
"I thought it was wrong," Gladden said of Cardin's use of police resources. "In a place like Baltimore City, where we have a high crime rate, we need every officer and every penny and dime available to us."
Gladden withdrew her bill, citing the election, but said she planned to reintroduce it next year.
According to recent polls, Cardin — the nephew of U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin — leads in the race to succeed Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler. Cardin led a Baltimore Sun poll in February with 18 percent of Democrats supporting him. Frosh trailed with just 6 percent. About two-thirds of voters were undecided.
Lublin said he believed Frosh and Braveboy could seize on Cardin's voting record to gain momentum in the race.
"One thing that resonates a lot for Cardin is his last name," Lublin said. "His uncle is enormously respected in Maryland, particularly in Baltimore and particularly in the Jewish community. Can Frosh or Braveboy make his voting record well known? I don't think this is the last time people are going to be asking him the question as to what he was doing during that time."
The Democratic primary is June 24. The winner will face two little-known candidates: a Republican, Towson attorney Jeffrey N. Pritzker, and a Libertarian, parole commission hearing officer Leo Wayne Dymowski.
Baltimore Sun reporters Timothy B. Wheeler and Quinn Kelley contributed to this article.