Paul S. Sarbanes, the low-key liberal Democrat who became Maryland's longest-serving U.S. senator, announced yesterday that he would not seek re-election when his fifth term expires in 2006 - a declaration that jolts local politics and sets up a scramble for the state's first open Senate seat in nearly two decades.
Sarbanes, 72, said his decision to give up his seat was based not on his frustration with the growing ideological divide in Congress or on health problems, but on his age.
"The Senate is a six-year commitment, and I'll be 74 at the end of this term," Sarbanes said at a news conference in downtown Baltimore. "When I ran for office, it wasn't my intention to stay there until they carried me away."
The decision ends months of speculation about the political future of the Eastern Shore native and longtime Baltimore resident.
It spells opportunity for a number of current and former Maryland politicians who could vie to be his successor, and it injects questions into next year's race for governor.
Five of Maryland's six Democratic congressmen said yesterday that they are seriously considering running for the seat.
Another top Democrat in Maryland, Kweisi Mfume, the former NAACP president and former U.S. congressman, issued a statement that praised Sarbanes but sidestepped his own plans.
His spokeswoman said he would have more to say Monday.
Two expected Democratic candidates for governor, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, said yesterday that they have no interest in seeking Sarbanes' seat.
For Republicans, Sarbanes' decision means that their candidate will not have to face an incumbent for the first time since 1992, when Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski was first re-elected.
"Today's announcement by Senator Sarbanes provides Republicans a wonderful opportunity to gain another seat in the United States Senate," said Sen. Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina, chairwoman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Chance to organize
Sarbanes said he typically doesn't announce election plans this early but did so to give potential candidates a chance to organize.
"Obviously, if I'm not going to run, I need to make that announcement and give the others interested an opportunity," he said.
Though he has no plans to endorse anyone, he said there are "a number of very able Democrats."
"I'm confident one of them will be elected to the U.S. Senate in 2006," he said.
The son of Greek immigrants who ran a restaurant in Salisbury and a resident of Baltimore since 1960, Sarbanes graduated from Princeton University and Harvard Law School and was a Rhodes scholar.
He began his long political career with a single term in the state House of Delegates in 1966.
He then served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he introduced the first article of impeachment against President Richard M. Nixon.
In 1976, he was elected to the U.S. Senate, where he has been ever since.
Praise from colleagues
His service drew praise yesterday from his colleagues in the Maryland congressional delegation and the Senate.
"He is a leader steadfast and duty driven," Mikulski said in a statement. "He always puts principle above politics. He is a workhorse - not a show horse."
The hallmarks of Sarbanes' tenure were his understated style and behind-the-scenes efforts on behalf of often unglamorous issues.
Some of his fellow liberals faulted him at times for not being more outspoken, and Republicans tagged him as the "stealth senator," an appellation he joked about yesterday.
"They say I'm the 'stealth senator,'" Sarbanes said, as his staff and aides laughed. "And, of course, I'll just point out that one of the most powerful weapons we have in our military arsenal is the stealth bomber."
He said he's happy to let others bask in the limelight.
"We try to do our work in a serious and substantive way - we try to produce results," the senator said. "I've found that if you let someone else take credit, you can get the results."
Linked to Oxley
One of Sarbanes' most noted efforts came in 2002. In response to the financial collapse of Enron, he helped write a corporate-accountability law, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, one of the most sweeping revisions of securities laws since Congress created a regulatory framework for the stock markets in the 1930s.
Sarbanes later joked about his name being forever linked to that of Rep. Michael G. Oxley, an Ohio Republican who worked on the bill in the House.
In his 10-minute address yesterday, the liberal senator condemned the Bush administration's "tragic and misguided policies," mentioning specifically what he termed the "radical attempt to undermine the Social Security system."
'Ideologues' in D.C.
Responding to a question later about growing Republican power in Congress, he said, "It's a frustrating time there because we are dealing with ideologues. Regrettably, they know what they think, they don't want to be confused by the facts."
Sarbanes recalled being the target of attacks by the National Conservative Political Action Committee during his first senatorial re-election campaign in 1982.
"We kept it on the high road, the people responded and we prevailed," he said.
His style drew bipartisan tributes yesterday. Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, praised Sarbanes' "integrity" and the "grace and dignity" of his leadership.
Sarbanes underwent surgery for prostate cancer in 1995, 10 months after winning election to a fourth term.
But he said yesterday that his health is fine.
Expressing dismay over the state of politics, Sarbanes said there's too much mean-spiritedness and too much emphasis on fund raising and elections.
"What's regrettable is that the focus is 90 percent on the running and winning of office and 10 percent on governing, what you do when you get there," he said. "That ratio is way out of bounds."
Leaving office is something Sarbanes had been thinking about for "quite a while," and he reached the decision after discussions with his family, he said.
"There were arguments on both sides; we felt this was an appropriate time," said his wife, Christine Sarbanes, who attended the announcement along with the couple's two sons, Michael and John Peter.
A third child, Janet, lives in Los Angeles and did not attend.
When he leaves the Senate, Sarbanes said, he would like to teach, lecture and write. He also promised to vigorously support whichever Democrat runs for his seat.
On the job
In the meantime, he promised to be equally vigorous during his remaining time in the Senate.
"My term doesn't end here," he said. "There's still about two years to go. I expect to be very active and very strong."
Sun staff writers Laura Smitherman and Julie Hirschfeld Davis contributed to this article.
Lead sponsor of the 2002 corporate accounting overhaul, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, creating a board to oversee those who audit public companies and requiring executives to take personal responsibility for accuracy of financial statements.
Top Democratic negotiator in 1999 bolstering the Community Reinvestment Act, which requires banks to make loans in poor neighborhoods.
Led 1986 filibuster against legislation transferring authority over BWI Airport to a regional authority.
Introduced 1974 article of impeachment charging President Richard M. Nixon with obstruction of justice.
Excerpts of Sarbanes' remarks
I am deeply grateful to the people of Maryland, who have honored me with the privilege of representing them in elected public office for nearly forty years. Throughout my years in public service I have always sought to provide the people of Maryland with dedicated, independent representation, based upon intelligence and integrity: representation that gives people confidence that elected officials are there to serve the public interest. ...
I am also deeply grateful to all the many individuals and the institutions that first helped me to formulate these principles and who over the years have worked with me and supported my efforts to advance them. Foremost, my parents, who came to this country as immigrants from Greece. From them I first learned about the meaning of a democratic society, and the potential it offers to move up the ladder of opportunity on the basis of ability, hard work and conviction.
The Salisbury community, which gave my parents an opportunity to build a new life in their adopted country, and where I grew up and went to school. My teachers and my coaches always encouraged me to do my best, to care about the community I lived in and to think about the larger world.
The great city of Baltimore, where my family and I have lived and worked since 1960, where I was first elected to public office and for whose people we have a deep and abiding affection.
My nearly 36 years in Congress have been challenging and fascinating, and it is a source of tremendous satisfaction to travel the state and see so many improvements in every region that I have played a role in bringing about.
It would never have been possible for me to meet all the responsibilities of my office without my staff that has served so well here in Baltimore, in Washington and in field offices around the state. ... ...
I am grateful beyond measure to my wife, Christine, and to my children, their spouses and children. It has been my great good fortune always to be able to turn to my family for counsel and support when difficult decisions were to be made. This is true of the decision I have announced today. ...
My staff and I will work hard to continue to serve all Marylanders to the very best of our abilities and to oppose the tragic and misguided policies of this administration, especially the current radical attempt to undermine the Social Security system.