Sarbanes known as idealistic, unrelenting, grass-roots activist

The Baltimore Sun

The tall white guy, the son of the esteemed senator, with a degree from Princeton and a Marshall Scholarship, was an unlikely apparition in the West Baltimore neighborhood of Upton that summer 15 years ago.

Few thought that Michael Sarbanes, the newly minted lawyer out of New York University School of Law who showed up on their doorsteps, would stick around for long.

But the Community Law Center lawyer galvanized the community, helping it use the city's new drug nuisance law to shut down a drug-infested apartment building.

"I thought with the name Sarbanes that we'd have a snotty-nosed kid trying to make a name for himself," said Ernest Green, 69, vice president of the Upton Planning Committee. "But when he sat down and talked with us, and we planned our strategies, he became more of a friend and a neighbor than a politician."

Fifteen years later, the 42-year-old is making his first foray into politics, running for City Council president.

Sarbanes will face City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake and City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr. in the Sept. 11 Democratic primary. Those who know Sarbanes describe him as independent and idealistic, ambitious and unrelenting. But most of all, they say, Sarbanes is a grass-roots activist. It's not just his work; this is his life.

"He's very genuine about his desire [to] help," said Mike Morrill, former Gov. Parris N. Glendening's chief spokesman. "He lives his life the way he practices his politics. He doesn't just talk about building communities, he's lived in a community and built those communities."

Sarbanes and his wife of 13 years, attorney Jill Wrigley, chose to live in Irvington, a Southwest Baltimore neighborhood that is economically diverse and predominantly black, where he clears gang graffiti off signs, picks up trash in front of vacant houses and takes local children to church. The couple adopted their two older children, 14- and 12-year-old brothers, from Ethiopia, and their youngest, a 3-year-old girl, is African-American and from East Baltimore. ("Race was not a barrier," he said.)

"Both my work experience and my personal life have been very focused on overcoming the racial divide," said Sarbanes. "My own family and life doesn't fit the usual stereotypical box of how people are divided."

Critics point out that Sarbanes has never held public office and is running because he has ambitions to be the mayor. They say he's relying on a name that resonates with voters, who elected his father, Paul S. Sarbanes, to the U.S. Senate five times and most recently his older brother, John, to Congress.

"I think he'd have tremendous difficulty going into a legislative body that he's never served on before and leading the legislative body, where you'll have many more people who've had a lot more experience," said Joseph T. "Jody" Landers III, executive vice president of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors and a former city councilman.

Sarbanes brushes aside such criticisms, pointing to his 15 years as an activist -- as well as his experience in state politics. He won't rule out a run for mayor, but he says his is an "ambition of service, not position."

"This is what appeals to me, what I'm being called to do," said Sarbanes. "I don't regard the City Council president as a steppingstone to something else. I think it's the most underutilized position in the city."

Sarbanes' work experience is varied: Community Law Center lawyer, top aide to former Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and, most recently, executive director of the Citizens Planning and Housing Association.

"Michael has a tremendous passion to serve and to help others," said his father, who retired last year. "There's just a core there of integrity and independence of judgment and commitment."

Sarbanes grew up in Baltimore -- first Bolton Hill, then Guilford -- the second of three children.

A year after he was born, his father was elected to the House of Delegates. "I can remember having the front hall of the house filled with stacks and stacks of binders, transcripts for the Watergate hearings," he recalled. His father presented the first article of impeachment against President Richard M. Nixon.

At Gilman School, Sarbanes excelled at athletics and academics. After graduating in 1982, he enrolled at Princeton on an ROTC scholarship.

Juggling his time between the football team and his ROTC commitment, his schedule was so busy that his former roommate recalls nights where Sarbanes would go to sleep in his uniform so he could run to drills at 5 a.m. He became politically involved and headed a campaign to pressure the university to divest its endowment holdings from South Africa.

Eduardo Bhatia, his roommate, said he met Sarbanes at a Latino student group's events, and several years later Sarbanes was chosen as chairman of a race relations committee.

"Even though he was not an African-American, even though he was not a Latino, he was chosen by Latinos and African-Americans to lead because he could bring everyone together," said Bhatia, now the governor of Puerto Rico's federal liaison in Washington.

Sarbanes won a Marshall Scholarship to study at Oxford University and then enrolled in New York University on a scholarship. He returned to Baltimore in 1992 to become the Community Law Center's attorney. For several years he helped neighborhoods use the city's drug nuisance abatement law to reduce drug activity.

Sarbanes worked for the city for two years before being tapped by Townsend for the state's Office of Crime Control and Prevention. After four years, he became one of Townsend's policy aides and then her deputy chief of staff until she left office in 2003.

His office led the HotSpot program, a national crime-fighting strategy that he lists as one of his main accomplishments, but which met resistance from some city leaders. He also notes his efforts to increase funding for after-school programs and drug treatment.

Martin O'Malley, then mayor, criticized HotSpot as having marginal results. The city's police commissioner and police union resisted devoting officers to targeted areas.

But studies show that violent crimes rates in the targeted areas dropped by more than 30 percent between 1996 and 2000, more than double the state average.

Sheldon Greenberg, director of the Johns Hopkins University's Division of Public Safety Leadership, said the program was a success, and Maryland, one of the first states to use it, became a model.

"Michael gets community development, and he gets linking public safety to sustainable viable neighborhoods," said Greenberg. "Not just going in and programming your way through some pretty show-and-tell activities and then getting out. Michael gets angry with those kinds of programs."

Sarbanes then became executive director of CPHA, a nonprofit organization that deals with regional transportation and housing issues. He lobbied for a regional rail plan, created an association for people who provide housing to recovering addicts and helped run a resource center to train neighborhood leaders.

His main accomplishment, he says, was the passage this year of a housing bill that requires developers to include affordable units if they receive city aid.

Passage of the legislation required assembling a coalition of leaders and took years of negotiation. "Michael was quite a leader on that issue," said Denise Duval, a CPHA board member. "He built a coalition that was powerful, and it was broad. It certainly wasn't just about Michael, it was about everyone working together to try to get something done."

Still, some say that with 100 amendments, loopholes and modest funding, the bill might be mostly symbolic. Others worry it could hamper development.

Landers, who is supporting Rawlings-Blake, said the bill seeks to create a formula to require mixed-income communities. "I don't believe it's going to stimulate growth and development, and that's what we need, not to put obstacles in the way," said Landers. "It's the most expensive way to develop affordable housing."

Landers said Sarbanes was difficult to compromise with. "One of the questions raised in my mind was, 'Can he really listen?' Can he take in [a] multitude [of] sides to an argument or an issue?"

It's not unusual for Sarbanes to be running late. His wardrobe relies on familiar staples. A bold red tie with multicolored stick figures is a common repeat. "UNICEF," he explains, "children".

His news conferences sometimes appear to be hastily thrown together, but he always has an eclectic mix of people around him.

A recent West Baltimore event included former gang members, ministers such as the Rev. Willie Ray, a mother whose son was shot to death and Raymond V. Haysbert, a black businessman.

Ray led Sarbanes past old men sitting on folding chairs outside, who mumbled his last name in recognition, like an old friend or family member.

"To reclaim our blocks in the city we need to tie into the power of congregations," he told the small group, wandering past rows of vacant houses.

"We can transform blocks," he said. "It can be done. Here's the great opportunity." The small group around him nodded in affirmation, with hope that maybe, just maybe, the man before them could help make it happen.

Michael Sarbanes

Born: Jan. 28, 1965

Job: On leave from job as executive director of the Citizens Planning and Housing Association, a group that develops regional and neighborhood policy; former deputy chief of staff and policy aide for former Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend; former director state's Office of Crime Control and Prevention; former director of Baltimore City Comprehensive Community Program; former Baltimore Community Law Center attorney.

Education: Gilman School, 1982; Princeton University, B.A., 1986; New York University, J.D., 1992.

Election history: None.

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