SALISBURY -- To his Republican critics, and even some fellow Democrats, Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes has been the groundhog of Maryland politics. Their complaint: People saw him only every six years, when he needed their vote.
If the charge was once valid, it does not seem so anymore. Two years into his fourth term and with his next election at the turn of the century, Maryland's senior senator appears to be as active as ever, if not more so.
Since winning re-election in 1994, Sarbanes has been a staple at ribbon cuttings, parades and picnics from Oakland in the far western corner of Maryland to his boyhood home of Salisbury on the lower Eastern Shore.
"He's out everywhere," says Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Democrat from Baltimore. "He has been more aggressive and more actively involved in the last two years."
In Maryland political circles, Sarbanes, 63, is constantly rumored to be leaving the Senate, perhaps for a seat on the federal bench or even the Supreme Court. But Sarbanes says he is too old for a Supreme Court appointment, and his increased visibility suggests he won't be leaving Capitol Hill anytime soon.
"For all the talk of retirement or stepping on to another position, he sure doesn't act like a guy who's hanging up his hat," says D. Bruce Poole, a Democratic state delegate from Western Maryland.
Not everyone sees a change in Sarbanes. Joyce Lyons Terhes, chairwoman of the state GOP, says he is as elusive as ever. "As far as I'm concerned, he's still asleep on the job," she says.
Those political observers who do see a difference offer two main theories for the increased Sarbanes sightings. Some say that he is signaling potential challengers -- notably Baltimore County Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who talks openly about a Senate run -- that he won't go without a fight.
These same observers also think Sarbanes may be trying to show people that he is fully recovered from surgery he underwent last year for prostate cancer.
Sarbanes dismisses these explanations as so much intrigue and offers a simpler one: After the Democrats lost control of the Senate in 1994, he had less power and responsibility in Washington and more time to spend in the state.
"If you're in the minority [party], you're getting frustrated a lot of the time, and you figure, 'I might as well get out in the state and really sort of see what's going on,' " he says.
Sarbanes also says that by attending higher visibility functions and publicizing his appearances more, he may have added to the perception that he is more active.
"We were always getting criticized because a lot of times we'd go out and around, and no one knew we came," he says.
For years, GOP critics have called Sarbanes Maryland's "stealth senator." During the 1994 campaign, Republican nominee Bill Brock struck a nerve by claiming that he had spent more time in Salisbury than Sarbanes had.
"This is an absolute falsehood," the normally soft-spoken Sarbanes angrily retorted. "I'm in and out of Salisbury all the time."
Sarbanes, who does little to draw attention to himself, is often compared unfavorably with fellow Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, who is seen as more dynamic and active in the state.
But Sarbanes has been popping up in unexpected places.
State Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller was surprised when Sarbanes showed up earlier this year at a function saluting agriculture in Prince George's County -- a distinctly local event that wouldn't normally attract a U.S. senator.
"It's just an unusual event for Senator Sarbanes to attend," says Miller, a Prince George's Democrat and the main speaker that day.
As to the charge that Sarbanes is often AWOL from Maryland until campaign season, Miller says: "That might have been a much more legitimate criticism 10 years ago, but I think in the last election cycle he's certainly been much more visible."
Sarbanes is one of the great Horatio Alger stories in Maryland politics. The son of Greek immigrants who ran a restaurant in Salisbury, he compiled a sparkling resume -- Princeton, Harvard Law and a Rhodes scholarship -- before moving quickly through the State House and the House of Representatives.
Maintaining a low profile
Sarbanes has maintained a low profile since his election to the Senate in 1976. He has often focused on important but obscure issues, such as the selection of ambassadors, while working quietly for his core constituents, which include federal workers and organized labor. He is also known as an advocate for Greek interests.
In 1994, after 18 years in the Senate, Sarbanes was poised to take over as chairman of the Banking Committee, where he would have had great influence over the nation's financial services and securities industries.
But the Democrats lost control of the Senate. Although Sarbanes easily beat Brock with 59 percent of the vote, losing the chairmanship was a big blow.
"I had a lot of expectations that got dashed," he says.
Those close to Sarbanes say he became angry as Republicans took aim at social programs, and his spirits rose as President Clinton began to mount his political comeback. When the Banking Committee began investigating Whitewater, Sarbanes became the president's greatest defender, sparring with and even shouting at panel Chairman Alfonse M. D'Amato, a New York Republican.
A die-hard Roosevelt liberal, Sarbanes warmed to fights over issues dear to his heart, such as raising the minimum wage, said Michael Davis, Sarbanes' former campaign manager.
"I think he's been energized by what Clinton and the Democrats have been able to pass in Congress," Davis says.
Traversing the Shore
Some of that energy was evident a week ago as Sarbanes traversed the Eastern Shore, cutting ribbons and touring local projects. Although some find him dour and distant on Capitol Hill, Sarbanes showed the warmth and personal touch that have made him a deceptively good campaigner.
While inspecting Salisbury's new police station, he ran into the mayor's daughter, who had worked on his first Senate campaign, and asked how her mother was recovering from a recent stroke.
In Salisbury, he also visited a couple who had recently bought house in a deteriorated community through a local homeownership program. "Keep it up," he told Emily and Milton Howard, beaming with approval and hugging the pair. "I'm proud of you."
Last week's events had obvious political benefits. At a ribbon cutting for an addition to a marine lab in Oxford, scientists heaped praise on Sarbanes for getting the $750,000 in federal funds to build it. The next day, the Easton Star-Democrat put the story on its front page.
In other instances, though, Sarbanes has attended functions this year for which there were no clear political rewards. One Sunday in October, he drove to Emmitsburg in northern Frederick County to speak at a ceremony honoring firefighters from around the nation who had died in the line of duty.
There was no press coverage. Of the more than 1,000 people present, almost all had come from outside Maryland.
For a man so often rumored to be leaving the state political stage, Sarbanes shows no signs of departing soon and has at least one good reason to stay. At the end of 2000, he will become the longest serving senator in state history by about two months, replacing Millard E. Tydings, who served from 1927 to 1951.
"I have a sense that there are lots of people around who somehow want to be senator, and they are trying to figure out how to get me to go do something else," Sarbanes says. "I'm perfectly happy being senator."
Pub Date: 12/16/96