Cardin says thanks but no thanks

REP. Benjamin Cardin's answer to the invisible forces that are coaxing him to run for governor is this: Flattery will get you nowhere.

Oh, the 3rd District Democrat would like to be governor, all right. But not this time around. According to his astrological chart, the planets aren't properly aligned and the moon's out of position. Maybe some other year. After all, Mr. Cardin only turned 50 last week.


What's uppermost on his mind these days is national health care. He's for it full-bore. In fact, he was author of the leading health-care bill in the House of Representatives last year, and many of its components have been incorporated into the health-care package assembled under the guidance of Hillary Rodham Clinton. Mr. Cardin also served as an adviser to Ms. Clinton's health-care study commission.

It's estimated that it will take a full year to nudge a health care plan through the Congress, and the handicappers hope to have the package wrapped up and on President Bill Clinton's desk before next year's elections.


Mr. Cardin's the No. 2 man on the health-care subcommittee of Ways and Means. He stands to move up even further in seniority if Rep. Daniel Rostenkowski, D-Ill., the Ways and Means chairman, is indicted for having transgressed the law. Mr. Cardin is the golden boy of Ways and Means and a favorite of Mr. Rostenkowski's.

Another reason Mr. Cardin has decided to remain in Congress is that he and his nominal boss, health-care subcommittee chairman Pete Stark, D-Calif., don't see eye-to-eye on health care, and as the resident expert, Mr. Cardin wants to protect the Clinton administration's program.

Ben Cardin himself started the Cardin-for-governor talk. Late last year, just after he was re-elected to a fourth term in Congress, Mr. Cardin began toying with the idea of running for governor, even to the point of commissioning a poll.

Shortly thereafter he abandoned the idea, choosing instead to serve in Congress under a Democratic president.

Lately, however, Mr. Cardin, through no fault of his own, has become the man in the middle of dueling editorialists at The Sun and the Washington Post.

A couple of weeks ago, The Sun published an editorial praising Mr. Cardin's credentials and saying, in effect, that he should run because he's from Baltimore, and as the state's Big Cheese in Annapolis, he'd be there to protect the city's interests.

The Sun attributed the unusual attention to a boardroom campaign by "movers and shakers" in the business community who are trying to enlist Mr. Cardin as a candidate.

With a predictable political twitch, the Post responded with a homespun editorial of its own mimicking what the worldly Washingtonians view as The Sun's xenophobia. The Post extrapolated from The Sun's editorial that Baltimore's great fear is having a governor from another area of the state, especially from the uppity suburbs around Washington.


So what's Mr. Cardin's response to all of the sudden attention? It's very flattering. Maybe another time.

It wasn't always that easy for Mr. Cardin to resist. Way back in 1986, when he was speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates, Mr. Cardin wanted very badly to become governor.

He formed a committee, raised a ton of money, hired the usual assortment of consultants and functionaries and actually campaigned for the job. But once again Mr. Cardin got the sticky end of the lollipop. The attorney general, Stephen H. Sachs, wanted to be governor. And so, too, did Baltimore's mayor, William Donald Schaefer. So Mr. Cardin did the prudent thing. He backed away from the race for governor and got himself elected to Congress.

The moral of the story goes far beyond in-your-face editorials in rival newspapers. The attention Mr. Cardin's enjoying illuminates just how unsettled the Democratic contest for governor is and how unsure voters feel about the candidates who have announced.

There's been talk of pushing Donald P. Hutchinson, the former Baltimore County executive, into the race. There's even a whisper that Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, D-5th, is considering trading the House of Representatives for the State House. But it seems unlikely that Mr. Hoyer would give up his position as fourth-ranking member of the body that gave us the cable regulation bill.

Montgomery County has never elected a governor, and Prince George's hasn't produced one since Oden Bowie in the 1860s. Two of the three announced Democrats are from the Washington suburbs, the third from Baltimore County. And all of the Republican mentionables are from outside the city.


So with Mr. Cardin (whose base, if not much of his district, is in the city) sidestepping the contest, it could be that for the first time since 1969 Baltimore will be without one of its own in the State House.

It'll be interesting to see how the other half governs.

Frank A. DeFilippo writes here on Maryland politics.