NORTH POTOMAC — NORTH POTOMAC-- --Though Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin has been a high-ranking figure in Maryland politics for 40 years, most of the people in the well-appointed living room in this Washington suburb knew little about him.
With just 15 minutes to win their support for his Democratic Senate nomination bid, Cardin told the guests at a house party about some of the issues that matter to him most: pension reform, health care and education. Unlike other politicians, who might roll up their shirtsleeves and easily offer up a poignant family story or joke during a casual Sunday afternoon barbecue, the congressman stuck mostly to policy.
It was vintage Cardin: dry, but important.
As he campaigns for Senate, Cardin, 62, faces the challenge of convincing a statewide audience that his even-keeled temperament and behind-the-scenes skills make him the best choice for higher office, even as other candidates - Democrat Kweisi Mfume, the former NAACP president, and Republican Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, a Bush administration favorite - draw national attention to the prospect of a contest pairing two black nominees.
The primary poses a stylistic challenge for Cardin. Short and stocky, a reader of mysteries and an avid poker player, he must overcome the appeal of Mfume, a smooth orator whose tale of personal redemption is the stuff of ready-made inspiration.
Cardin is banking on his reputation as a thoughtful, solid lawmaker who understands the nuances of complicated legislation and how it affects people's lives.
First in the Maryland State House, where he became the chamber's youngest-ever speaker, and later on Capitol Hill, he earned the respect of his peers by mastering an insider's game.
"Ben is solid; he's not controversial," said Arthur C. Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council. "When you're controversial everybody knows about you, right? When you're not controversial, when you've done your job and excelled in your job, that doesn't necessarily get you a lot of publicity."
But publicity is what Cardin needs now, having abandoned a safe congressional seat in an attempt to replace retiring Democratic Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes. And he acknowledged as much during his talk in the North Potomac living room - where some attendees seemed to struggle to keep their eyes open and others said later that they were impressed by Cardin's message.
The event was one of many "Barbecues for Ben" held around the state. But the candidate had a new slogan in mind, one that would convey excitement.
"'Buzz for Ben,'" he said, imploring attendees to grab bumper stickers and lawn signs before they leave. "We wanted it to be 'Buzz for Ben.'"
While Cardin's few detractors see a guy with a long but uninspiring career and an unassuming demeanor, his supporters call him a worthy successor to the leader he is trying to replace. They say his accomplishments - from limiting Maryland teacher pensions during a time of runaway 1970s inflation to co-authoring federal legislation that allows higher contributions to retirement accounts - are born of an ability to grasp complex subjects.
"He really is Paul Sarbanes," said Gerard F. Devlin, a former Prince George's County delegate and judge who served with Cardin in the General Assembly. "He's got all of the intellectual ability."
Sarbanes, the longest-serving senator in Maryland history, gravitates to the kind of issues - such as corporate accounting reform - that beguile Cardin. But Sarbanes never rose to leadership positions, and his Capitol Hill profile is low.
"With Cardin you certainly don't have a show horse, but you have somebody who, I think, is more comfortable in that larger public setting than I think Sarbanes has been," said Norman J. Ornstein, a congressional expert and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "This is not a guy who is going to elbow people aside to get to a camera. This is a guy whose primary goal is to make good legislation."
While Cardin might be cerebral, it was his family name, not merit alone, that launched his career.
Voters in then heavily Jewish Northwest Baltimore might not have known Ben well when he first ran for the House of Delegates at age 22, but they knew the Cardins.
An uncle, Maurice Cardin, had served in the General Assembly since 1951, and it was that seat that Ben Cardin would win in 1966. His father, Meyer M. Cardin, had also served a term in the House and was an associate judge on the city Circuit Court.
"It's a respected name," said former Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg, a Baltimore native who served as Senate president when Cardin was House speaker. "It gives an edge."
Benjamin Louis Cardin was born Oct. 5, 1943, into a traditional Jewish family that valued work and education and considered politics noble.
He was raised in a two-story, single-family home on Sequoia Avenue in the Ashburton neighborhood, where his mother's Friday night Shabbat dinner drew the extended family for chicken and chatter. The Cardins worshiped regularly at Beth Tfiloh, one of the nation's largest Orthodox congregations.
The Cardin boys - Ben is two years younger than brother Howard - shared a bedroom until they went to college. Howard Cardin, a Baltimore attorney, said their schoolteacher mother and lawyer father made sure they knew that education was paramount.
"You got your homework done before you did anything else," he said.
Cardin met his future wife, Myrna Edelman, at Liberty Elementary School. They were in the same class at Garrison Junior High but did not start dating until the 10th grade, when he was at City College and she attended Forest Park High School. Until then they were just friends.
Their first date - Dec. 5, 1958 - was a high school fraternity party. They became inseparable, much to the dismay of their parents, who thought they were too young for such a committed relationship.
"I look back, and I say, 'How did we not change?'" Myrna Cardin, a former fourth-grade teacher in Baltimore County schools, said over iced tea in a Mount Vernon restaurant. "I just knew life was going to be exciting. I had so much confidence in Ben. I didn't worry."
City's 1961 yearbook shows Cardin was vice president of his senior class. He played clarinet in the concert band. Dark-haired and serious, Cardin appears in the book's "Scholastic Hall of Fame." He ranked eighth, with a 94.4 percent average.
Cardin majored in economics at the University of Pittsburgh - he says he went there because he wanted to experience life outside of Baltimore. He was elected president of Pi Lambda Phi, then a Jewish fraternity.
Richard Minker, a fraternity brother, said Cardin always gravitated to leadership positions - not out of greed or to show off, but because he enjoyed being involved. It is Cardin's commitment to service, much in keeping with the teachings of his Jewish faith, that guides him, Minker said.
"You can be easygoing, which he is, but the fact is that when he takes on something, he takes it on to the best of his ability," said Minker, a commercial real estate broker in Fort Worth, Texas. "He's got no ego, no airs about him."
Ben and Myrna Cardin married Nov. 24, 1964, in Reisterstown and honeymooned over a long weekend in New York City. The following Monday, Cardin was back at the University of Maryland Law School, from which he would graduate first in his class.
Elected to the House of Delegates while still studying law, Cardin began a rapid rise. Within eight years, at age 30, he was chosen by Democratic leaders as chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee.
A family and commercial lawyer while he was in the General Assembly, Cardin said in an interview that he handled corporate leases and mergers as well, projects that would not have cost him long hours in court or conflicted with his state responsibilities.
He also said that he and his brother sat on the board of B. Green and Co., a family grocery business started by his maternal grandfather. Cardin's most recent financial disclosure form lists assets between $1.5 million and nearly $3.8 million.
When House Speaker John Hanson Briscoe left the Assembly, Cardin jumped at the opportunity to run for the chamber's top position.
As one of the leading Baltimore-area lawmakers, he had the support of delegates from the state's population center. It was 1979 and, though others expressed an interest, Cardin lined up enough votes from fellow party members to win the job easily.
At a time of reform efforts and attempts to rein in the state capital's good-old-boy network, Cardin appointed the first woman and the first African-American to standing committee chairmanships - moves he makes certain to mention on the campaign trail.
"He challenged, and I think successfully changed, a lot of perceptions of the roles of women and minorities, and people from Montgomery County, while still sustaining this spirit of collegiality and informality," said state Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp, then a Democratic delegate from Montgomery County.
As speaker, Cardin was keenly aware of his members' priorities, no matter how provincial, said Devlin, the former Prince George's lawmaker. Delegates had Cardin's ear whether they needed the sales tax lifted on crab pots in Charles County or to ensure that a public hearing was held before days were transferred from one racetrack to another.
"You had the regular guys and the smart guys, and he was sort of both," Devlin said.
The position of House speaker is one of Maryland's most prominent political posts, so it was natural for Cardin to began thinking about higher office. But he approached opportunities cautiously, and he began to develop a reputation as a politician loath to take risks.
Cardin turned down the opportunity to run for lieutenant governor in 1982, when Gov. Harry R. Hughes was looking for a replacement running mate. And though he pondered a run for governor in 1986 against Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer, his pollster told him he did not have a prayer.
Instead, Cardin decided to run for Congress that year, when the 3rd District representative, Barbara A. Mikulski, launched her U.S. Senate bid.
John A. Pica Jr., a former Baltimore state senator who considered running against Cardin in 1986, said he was discouraged from it by several members of Congress, including Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Southern Maryland Democrat. Cardin had also lined up Baltimore's most formidable fundraisers, such as political boss Irv Kovens, Pica said.
"It was not a tough election for him, I'll tell you that," said Pica, an attorney. "The red carpet was laid out for him."
Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg of Beth Tfiloh was invited to Washington for Cardin's swearing-in. He said he was struck not by the pomp and circumstance of the day's events but of where he found Cardin just a few hours later - at temple in Baltimore, honoring his mother. It was the Hebrew anniversary of her death.
"He had come to recite the memorial prayer," Wohlberg said. "This was on one of the biggest days of his life. He had become a congressman. He left that to fulfill his responsibilities as a son. I'll never forget that."
Cardin went on to win re-election every two years, never taking less than 63 percent of the vote.
In Congress, Cardin set out early to land a seat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee, which handles tax legislation and trade, welfare and Social Security-related policies. He lobbied methodically behind the scenes, meeting with every member and the committee's powerful chairman, Illinois Rep. Dan Rostenkowski.
In 1989, when Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri left the committee to become majority leader, Cardin took his place.
Cardin takes pride in having co-sponsored a series of pension reform proposals with former Republican Rep. Rob Portman of Ohio. Together, Cardin and Portman, now director of the president's Office of Management and Budget, offered plans to streamline retirement systems and allow people to commit more money to their IRAs and 401(k)s.
"He understands complicated issues," Portman, who is not endorsing in the Maryland race, said of Cardin. "He's got a good grasp of how to deliver for people because he can move things through the process. His record speaks for itself. He's achieved a lot."
Cardin's overall record is in line with Democratic Party values. He voted against the war in Iraq and the Bush tax cuts. He has supported campaign finance reform and voted against a ban on what opponents call "partial-birth abortion."
Although he also broke with organized labor to support the North American Free Trade Agreement, he still managed to win the AFL-CIO endorsement of his Senate bid - a sign of support from the state's rank-and-file Democrats.
Former Republican Rep. Bill Archer of Texas, who served as Ways and Means chairman, said that Cardin "more than any other Democrat worked on a bipartisan basis."
"What really came through is he just didn't have the partisan tinge that most of the members did," he said.
On the campaign trail, Cardin points to his bipartisanship as an example of his ability to get things done.
But perhaps his most valuable tool is the woman who often stands by his side.
Over Cardin's four-decade career, Myrna Cardin has become the congressman's most treasured political asset. His stump speech is filled with policy, hers with the passion for her husband's work that some say they'd like to hear from him.
In an interview, Myrna Cardin easily exudes emotion about Ben and other family members. A brunette with a broad smile, she cried twice during a 90-minute conversation - first talking about the family's love for Cardin's father, a man who she said "lived in a suit" and ate ice cream daily.
Up until Meyer Cardin's death in July, two days shy of his 98th birthday, Ben Cardin would stop by his father's house daily after work to talk about the Senate campaign.
"He would do anything to protect his boys," Myrna Cardin said.
Her second cry came during a discussion of the 1998 death of the Cardins' son, Michael. Michael Cardin took his life in his Baltimore apartment. Both Cardins said they had no idea that he was struggling emotionally.
Myrna Cardin said Michael, who was 30 when he died, was "a free spirit" and was close to his father. A graduate of Wesleyan University in Connecticut and the University of Maryland Law School, he was a fixture on the campaign trail.
The Cardins said they keenly feel the absence of Michael and Meyer Cardin in their lives, especially as they fight this campaign - a battle both would have enjoyed.
"It's something you never get over," the congressman said. "I think of Michael every day. He keeps me going. I had him for 30 years."
The Cardins are also parents to Deborah, education director at the Jewish Museum of Maryland, and grandparents to Madeline, 6, and Julia, 2.
If Cardin is victorious in his Senate bid, it would represent a win for a hard-working but quiet advocate. The "mensch," as Wohlberg called him.
Recent polls have shown Cardin in a close contest with Mfume, with many voters undecided. Money for television ads, a solid campaign structure and high-profile endorsements give Cardin more than a fighting chance. And in the North Potomac living room, those who heard him said they liked his pitch.
They said Cardin felt approachable and "down to earth," and that he might be the type of unflashy, substantive leader the nation needs during uncertain political times.
Matt Von Hendy, a 42-year-old Rockville librarian, summed up their views: "I was actually pleasantly surprised."
Sun reporters Andrew Schneider and Fred Schulte contributed to this article.
Benjamin L. Cardin
Democrat Date of Birth: Oct. 5, 1943
Education: University of Pittsburgh, B.A. in economics, 1964; University of Maryland School of Law, 1967.
Professional experience: Maryland House of Delegates, 1967-1986; House speaker, 1979-1986; United States Congress, 1987-present; member Ways and Means Committee, ranking member on the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (the U.S. Helsinki Commission), vice president of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Parliamentary Assembly.
Personal: wife, Myrna Edelman Cardin; daughter, Deborah Cardin, son, Michael Cardin (deceased); two granddaughters.
CARDIN // ON THE ISSUES
Cardin received a 100 percent rating from NARAL Pro-Choice America in 2005. During the most recent congressional session he voted to allow military personnel and their dependents overseas to use their own funds to obtain abortions in military hospitals. He voted against a bill that would have prohibited the transportation of minors across state lines to obtain abortion services without the consent of a parent or guardian.
The National Education Association gave Cardin a 100 percent rating in 2005. This year, he voted for a bill that would have lowered the interest on student loans and increased grants to Hispanics and African-Americans.
Cardin voted against the 2002 resolution allowing the use of force in Iraq but for a subsequent funding measure. He has said he wants to draw down troops there and has criticized the Bush administration for spending money on the war that would be better used for homeland security. He voted for the re-authorization of the Patriot Act, which was sponsored by Republican Sen. John E. Sununu of New Hampshire.
In 2005, Cardin supported the interests of the AFL-CIO 92 percent of the time. The group endorsed his Senate bid earlier this year. He has also received top ratings from the Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. This year, he urged passage of a bill to increase the minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.25.
Cardin voted for the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993 but voted against expanding it to the Caribbean. He voted against the Central American Free Trade Agreement in 2005 because he believed it would have put Maryland jobs and U.S. labor standards at risk. He has twice opposed a trade pact with Oman.
SOURCE - Ben Cardin for Senate, Project Vote Smart, candidate interviews.