Though he says he was helped by his father's reputation, John Sarbanes says he wants to forge his own political path

The Baltimore Sun

It was early in the campaign last year for Maryland's open congressional seat, and John Sarbanes was in Boston for a fundraiser. Appearing before an audience that included classmates from Harvard Law School and fellow Greek-Americans, he spoke about how the nation's reputation in the world depended on a foreign policy that was respectful of other countries.

That talk - not just the ideas, but the reasoned and deliberate way he expressed them - put at least one old family friend in mind of Sarbanes' father.

"God, I was just struck by how many of those very same qualities he has," said former Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, who helped to organize the event. "Not a lot of flash, but quietly eloquent. And bright as a whip."

It's a common reaction among those encountering the son of five-term Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, and one that can cut both ways. If the younger Sarbanes benefited during the election campaign from one of the most respected names in Maryland politics - and he agrees that he did - he now assumes his first elected office facing high expectations.

It was Paul Sarbanes, after all, who in his first House term introduced the first article of impeachment against President Richard M. Nixon. Paul Sarbanes who responded to the Enron and Worldcom scandals by shepherding the accounting reform package that bears his name. Paul Sarbanes who was elected to a state-record five terms in the Senate - and probably could have won a sixth if he had run for re-election last year.

As John Sarbanes prepares to take his father's old seat in the House of Representatives, he acknowledges the challenge ahead.

"I think those expectations would be more burdensome if I didn't have a confidence and a pride in the things that I've been doing myself," the 44-year-old Democrat said. "Coming to this after almost 20 years of being in professional life, and feeling like I've accomplished something, gives me a confidence and a readiness to meet those expectations - or at least try."

Sarbanes was sworn in yesterday to represent Maryland's 3rd District, which includes parts of Baltimore and Baltimore, Howard and Anne Arundel counties. He says he will bring to Congress the interests he has pursued professionally: health care, the focus of his law practice with Venable LLP in Baltimore; and education, in which he immersed himself during seven years as special assistant to the state superintendent of schools.

As a member of the Committee on Education and the Workforce, his agenda will include the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act. Sarbanes lauds the goals of the act, which requires public schools to show student improvement in math and reading or face sanctions, but he wants it to be better-funded and more flexible.

He favors universal health insurance coverage - he would start by looking at how programs such as Medicare could be expanded to cover more of the population - and talks about protecting the Chesapeake Bay.

"There's a real opportunity - and this applies across the board now, not just on the environment - to have Maryland be a showcase of innovating public policy," Sarbanes said. "It is right in the backyard of Washington, and it's facing many of the same issues that are a challenge across the country."

As a liaison to the Baltimore City Public Schools for the state Department of Education, he helped to develop a program to attract principals who have been successful elsewhere to jobs in the troubled urban district. State Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick described him as "highly sophisticated in the way he participated in meetings and dealt with staff."

Sarbanes was raised on politics. He was 4 when his father was elected to the House of Delegates and 8 when his father entered Congress.

"Obviously, public issues were the central focus in the conversations in our household," Paul Sarbanes said. "He's had a keen interest in those issues for a long, long time."

John Sarbanes led the student Democrats at Princeton and at Harvard Law School, and he worked on his father's campaigns. But he says the idea of running for office remained remote.

"The possibility of elective office was always sort of abstractly present because you grow up in it, how could it not be?" he said. "But it was never a driver for me."

Sarbanes chaired the health care practice at Venable, representing nonprofit hospitals and senior-living providers - and, he says, learning the pressures that such organizations face from rising costs and nursing shortages.

And he has served 15 years on the board of the Public Justice Center, including three as president. The Baltimore nonprofit provides legal support to the homeless, immigrants, low-wage workers, prisoners and others.

"John has done his public service through a different route," said Mike Davis, a Venable partner who managed Paul Sarbanes' past three campaigns. "He didn't get into the family business at an early age, but he's always been committed to public issues."

Eventually, the family business would have an opening. When Paul Sarbanes announced last year that he would not be seeking a sixth term, Democratic Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin declared his candidacy for the seat. Sarbanes lives in Cardin's district.

"The more I looked at it, the more attractive it became as a chance to try to make a difference on these things that I've been involved with," John Sarbanes said.

Though not as experienced politically as longtime state Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, or as prominent as former Baltimore Health Commissioner Peter L. Beilenson, he joined the crowded Democratic primary field as a front-runner.

Opponents groused that he had an unfair advantage. A flier that mentioned his support of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act - legislation named for his father - might have sown confusion about which Sarbanes was running, some said. When he won the primary by seven percentage points, at least one credited his father's reputation: Hollinger said she had never before had to run against a U.S. senator.

"It was an awfully good name," said Stephen Hess, author of America's Political Dynasties: From Adams to Kennedy. "It must be an awfully good Rolodex, too, both in terms of raising money and workers."

Sarbanes says it is impossible to know whether the name put him over the top, but it did help.

"There was a curiosity factor, you know, 'Who is this guy whose name is Sarbanes?'" he said. "And then when people asked the question, then it was my responsibility to say, 'Here's who I am.' "

In the heavily Democratic 3rd District, Sarbanes took two-thirds of the general election vote against Annapolis businessman John White.

He has resigned from Venable and joined fellow freshmen at orientation in Washington (key advice: hire good staff, don't sweat your committee assignments, wear comfortable shoes). And he has been staffing his office. One hire: Johnathan Davis, chief of staff to Paul Sarbanes, will fill the same position for John Sarbanes.

Sarbanes has been speaking with Cardin, who has represented the 3rd District for 20 years. And he has been drawing on his father.

"It's very exciting for his mother and for me," the elder Sarbanes said. "We're gratified that he wants to do public service in this committed, full-time way and that he has a strong sense of wanting to contribute to building a better and just society."

Donald F. Norris, director of the Maryland Institute for Policy Analysis at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, says Sarbanes faces substantial challenges in his new job.

"He's got to uphold that name and uphold that tradition," he said. "But he's also got to uphold another name and another reputation: He's in Ben Cardin's House seat. And he's got all the challenges that all newbie legislators have. He's going to be a back-bencher for a while. He's going to have to make his way carefully through Congress and establish himself in whatever way he does it, and that's not going to happen overnight."

Hess says winning a safe seat should give Sarbanes the opportunity to grow into the position.

"He doesn't have to be a show horse," he said. "He can learn the job, take his time, work himself onto the right committees, and eventually ... do very well for himself and his constituents."

Married with three children - he met Dina, his wife of 17 years, at Harvard - Sarbanes plans to commute to Washington from his Baltimore County home.

The 3rd District has produced Maryland's past three U.S. senators: Paul Sarbanes, Barbara A. Mikulski and now Cardin.

But John Sarbanes says he is focused on the job ahead of him.

"My horizon is really limited to trying to learn my way around the House of Representatives and try to do a good job," he said. "I mean, frankly, the House of Representatives right now is the place to be. That's where the action is going to be, based on the new majority and the leadership that we have over there."

matthew.brown@baltsun.com

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