Sarbanes takes narrow lead

The Baltimore Sun

John P. Sarbanes, an attorney and political novice, held a narrow lead last night in the highly contested race for the 3rd District congressional seat, as problems at polling sites delayed results.

Sarbanes, the son of retiring U.S. Sen Paul S. Sarbanes, was tightly grouped with former Baltimore Health Commissioner Peter L. Beilenson and state Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, the only elected official among the eight Democrats vying for the nomination.

Voters and political observers said Sarbanes' name gave him a tremendous edge in a race in which Democrats with similar stances struggled to distinguish themselves in policy.

With more than 60 percent of precincts reporting, Sarbanes held a lead of about 5 percentage points. Beilenson appeared to be second, with Hollinger close behind him. None of the top three candidates had declared victory or conceded defeat by early this morning. The other Democrats were far behind.

"We don't have final, final results, but I'm feeling optimistic," Sarbanes, 44, told supporters at Timbuktu Restaurant and Lounge in Hanover. "We'll keep pushing through the night, and, hopefully, we'll get a good result."

The seat was left open when Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin stepped down to run for the Senate seat, setting off a frenzy to fill a rare opening in the state's political establishment.

The oddly shaped, diverse district sprawls across Baltimore and Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Howard counties, making campaigning difficult.

Also running in the Democratic primary were Oz Bengur, a businessman and former treasurer of the state Democratic Party; Andy Barth, a former WMAR-TV reporter; Kevin O'Keeffe, a former high-level government aide in Baltimore and in Anne Arundel County; Mishonda Baldwin, an attorney who served with the Army in Iraq; and John Rea, a businessman and perennial candidate.

On the Republican side, John White, president of an international health care nonprofit, had a narrow lead over Gary Applebaum, a physician and former chief medical officer for Erickson Retirement Communities.

But in a district that is heavily Democratic - and therefore likely to send a Democrat to Congress in the November election - observers have said the real battle was in the primary.

Sarbanes of Towson is an attorney at Venable LLP, where he is chairman of the health care practice. He has also been special assistant to the state superintendent of schools and is a 16-year board member of the nonprofit Public Justice Center.

He waged an aggressive campaign, raising nearly $1 million with the help of his father's extensive national network of donors, including the Greek-American community.

The quiet and deliberate Sarbanes released detailed plans on such issues as health care and education. He refrained from attacking his rivals, even when some questioned his lack of political experience and implied that he was riding on his father's coattails.

Initially, Sarbanes distanced himself from his father. But in recent weeks, the elder Sarbanes has appeared in a television commercial, a mailing and on the campaign trail.

Last night the elder Sarbanes said he hoped his political reputation had helped his son. "We represented the people for three decades, and I think they are happy with what we did," he said. "But it's his campaign, not mine. He has proven himself on his own merits in this campaign."

Hollinger, a state lawmaker for nearly three decades and a registered nurse, had the advantage of a base in the Pikesville area. Beilenson's 13 years as an aggressive and high-profile health commissioner gave him the bonus of media exposure in the Baltimore market.

On the issues, the candidates differed little. Most called for universal health care, immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, energy conservation and reform of the Medicare Part D prescription drug plan.

Beilenson and Hollinger promoted their experience, records and health care credentials, hers as a legislator and registered nurse, and his as head of a large bureaucracy and as a public health physician.

Bengur hammered away at the Iraq issue and highlighted his business expertise and his son's military service overseas. O'Keeffe emphasized his blue-collar roots. Barth fashioned himself as the group's only "outsider," and Baldwin spoke of her diverse experiences, including service as an Army intelligence officer.

Sarbanes' name appeared to strike a chord with many voters.

Walking out of Grace United Methodist Church in Homeland, Tom Hurst said he voted for Sarbanes "because of his dad."

"If he came from that family, I just felt like he is honorable, like his dad," said Hurst, 81, a retired businessman. "His father's record had an influence on me. Name recognition, I guess, made a difference."

Others said the name might have piqued their interest but that they also liked Sarbanes' stances on issues.

Victoria Matter, 37, of Homeland said she voted for Sarbanes because of his moderate position on immigration.

"It was a middle-of-the-road approach," said Matter, an immigration attorney.

Still, the family connection helped. "He obviously came from a very political family," Matter said. "He's not in it for the wrong reasons. They are a public service-oriented family."

At Pikes Diner in Pikesville, where the Hollinger campaign had gathered, most supporters had left by 12:30 a.m.

"Daddy was doing his job for him," Hollinger said of Sarbanes. "I'm proud that I ran on my own name and with my own record."

Sun reporters Chris Emery, Liz F. Kay, Nia-Malika Henderson and Phillip McGowan contributed to this article.

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