In the midst of his long, slow tease about whether he will challenge fellow Democrat Gov. Parris N. Glendening's hold on the State House next year, the Baltimore congressman suddenly seems to be everywhere the action is on Capitol Hill.
One night he's brokering a deal between the White House and Republican congressional leaders on Medicare reform -- working out the details over the static of a car phone. A few days later, he's behind closed doors at a Democratic caucus trying to prevent a rift between liberals and conservatives over tax cuts.
Last week, Cardin was center stage again, taking the lead for his party on the thankless task of rewriting House ethics procedures -- and winning a nearly unanimous vote of support from a bipartisan task force.
After his five mostly quiet terms in Congress, time and talent have combined to propel the former speaker of the House of Delegates into a position to show off what he's really good at: bringing diverse views and difficult characters together to forge a consensus. He says he's getting a lot more done -- even with Republicans in control of Congress -- than he ever did when his own party was in power.
So, why would he give it all up to make a risky challenge to Glendening?
"This is the perfect time to leave. I can go out on a high," Cardin says. "I've completed my health care agenda. Got done what I wanted to do on ethics. I have nothing else to do but go fishing."
Such talk is part of the tease. Cardin insists that he has made no decision and won't for another couple of months, at least. But he's serious enough to set up an exploratory committee within the next few weeks to pay for a poll that may give him the critical information he needs about his prospects.
He's getting a lot of encouragement from old friends who believe this may be the moment for him to grab for a prize that they say has always seemed his destiny.
"If he runs, I'll send him a contribution check and a note apologizing for my part in the 12-year delay," promises former state Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs. His competition with then-Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 1986 squeezed Cardin out of the race and redirected his career toward Washington.
Much less enthusiastic are Glendening allies, who say Cardin is being used as a rallying point for the governor's critics in the General Assembly, the Baltimore business community and political circles throughout the state.
"A lot of the people urging Ben to run have their own agendas, but he's smart enough to know that," says Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Southern Maryland Democrat whose political loyalty lies with Glendening, though Cardin has become a closer friend. Hoyer is urging the 53-year-old potential challenger to wait until 2002, when he says Cardin might have a cleaner shot at the job.
There's not much debate on the issue among Cardin's other colleagues in Washington. They don't want him to go.
"He's solid, he's reliable, he's trustworthy; he doesn't let his own ego get in the way," says Chris Jennings, President Clinton's health care policy adviser, who credits Cardin with cooling hot rhetoric on divisive issues so that compromise is possible. "He would be a real loss."
Republican leaders pay Cardin the high compliment of seeking his support to give the patina of bipartisanship to their most sensitive reform efforts, notably Medicare. In return, they let him write much of the legislation.
Among Cardin's contributions to the Medicare bill was a package of preventive medicine benefits -- including ' mammograms and Pap smears, as well as screening for colon cancer, prostate cancer and diabetes. Rep. Bill Thomas, a California Republican who chairs the Ways and Means health subcommittee, adopted Cardin's benefits package as his own on the first day of Congress this year and made sure money was available for it in the balanced-budget deal with the White House.
"When I was in the minority and Ben was in the majority and there seemed no prospect that would ever change, he treated me with respect, bringing me into the process," Thomas recalls. "I've tried to return the favor."
Cardin is only the second-ranking Democrat on Thomas' subcommittee, but he is far more influential than the senior member, Rep. Pete Stark, a California Democrat with a less flexible approach.
"No one is better at working things out than Ben," says Thomas. "I don't know what I would do without him."
Policy and politics
As a delegate in Annapolis, Cardin was quickly recognized for his instinctive grasp of the legislative process. He was only 35 when he became House speaker. In the more competitive
Washington arena, Cardin has gradually become known as a legislator who is brainy enough to excel at policy as well as politics.
Cardin finally broke into the national spotlight early this year as a member of the House ethics committee that required Speaker Newt Gingrich to pay a $300,000 penalty for his part in a fund-raising scheme that violated House rules.
Again, Cardin was not the most senior Democrat on the committee, but he was the one GOP committee members found they could work with most comfortably on what for them was a particularly wrenching task: sanctioning their party leader.
"Only a handful of members have demonstrated the ability to be effective in the minority as well as the majority, and Ben is one of them," says Rep. Nancy L. Johnson, a Connecticut Republican who chaired the ethics committee during its two-year investigation of Gingrich. "He was one guy who was willing to hang in there. I have a lot of respect for his judgment, his intellect and his political savvy."
Cardin says he gets "ribbed a little" about this close association with Republicans, "especially when I get an amendment passed." Earlier this month, he was the only Democrat to win a change to the House GOP tax bill -- a $150 tax break for tutoring expenses.
He is getting plenty of criticism from watchdog groups, though, for his role as co-chairman of the task force that developed new procedures for dealing with ethics complaints. These groups are particularly unhappy because the task force rejected their suggestion that outside groups be given a greater role in the ethics process.
"This is the Corrupt Politicians Protection Act," declares Gary Ruskin, director of the Congressional Accountability Project, an organization affiliated with Ralph Nader.
But Cardin says he achieved his goals of making the ethics committee more bipartisan, of assuring that the staff be nonpartisan and of streamlining the process for handling complaints. He believes those changes may have been what spooked Gingrich and other GOP leaders who tried to suppress the task force report last week.
"I think anybody would have to agree that this is at least an improvement on the current system," he says.
Issue of integrity
Ethics -- or more precisely, integrity -- is an issue on which Cardin supporters believe Glendening is vulnerable to a challenge. Polls suggest that the governor has an unusually high negative rating, which Cardin backers attribute to the controversies early in Glendening's term over campaign fund raising and the fat pensions Glendening and top aides were granted -- but later turned down -- after he left office as Prince George's County executive.
"He's not trusted; even when he does the 'right thing,' he's seen as doing it for political reasons," Sachs says of Glendening. "By contrast, there's a wholesomeness about Ben. You get the sense that he really cares."
But Cardin says he won't run a campaign that highlights Glendening's shortcomings, preferring to tout his own record instead. As for what his specific message would be, Cardin demurs: "I don't have that game plan in place."
Glendening backers warn Cardin that their man may not be as weak as he thinks.
After an admittedly bumpy start to his term, the governor turned a corner this year, his supporters say, with a successful General Assembly session that put a new emphasis on policy initiatives -- such as tax cuts and the Smart Growth program for managing suburban sprawl -- rather than politics.
"The more he's seen as Parris the governor, rather than Parris the politician, the better he does with voters," says Lance Billingsley, a Prince George's lawyer who has long been the governor's top political adviser.
Cardin's ears have been filled with sweet talk from such key political figures as Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, whose support could tip the balance in a tight primary. Both Duncan and Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, a critical Glendening backer in 1994, say they are keeping their options open on whom to support in the 1998 race.
But Billingsley points out that Glendening will have the benefit of both a strong economy and at least a small budget surplus next year, which might be used to heal wounds with folks such as Duncan, who believes his county was shortchanged on school aid this year.
Meanwhile, Cardin seems deeply conflicted. Because of the seniority system, he has gone about as far as he's going to go in Congress for the foreseeable future. Yet, a challenge to Glendening might mean early retirement.
"I don't plan my future," says the congressman, who has cake-walked into every job so far when the previous occupant moved on -- beginning with the delegate seat he claimed from an uncle in 1966.
This time, though, might have to be different.
Pub Date: 6/22/97