Not long after a 33-year-old Baltimore lawyer declared his candidacy for the Maryland House of Delegates, The Sun’s editorial board looked the political newcomer over and decided he might amount to something someday. Calling his a “candidacy of more than routine interest,” The Sun decided that Paul S. Sarbanes, a Salisbury native, Princeton Phi Beta Kappa, Rhodes Scholar, Harvard Law honors graduate and former assistant to John F. Kennedy’s top economic adviser had distinguished himself by choosing to run for a seat in General Assembly’s lower chamber instead of “seeking high elective office.” How refreshing to witness “such a display of political modesty,” The Sun observed in an editorial headlined, “The Bottom Rung.”
Peter Marudas, Mr. Sarbanes’ former chief of staff (and a onetime Evening Sun reporter) still chuckles about it today. One thing is for certain, the Oxford-educated Mr. Sarbanes might have had impeccable academic credentials, but politically, he was an outsider without, at least initially, the traditional sponsorship of a city Democratic club. What he brought to the table instead was an easygoing manner, a love of learning and desire to explore the intricacies of public policy and yes, a dose of humility. The son of Greek immigrants, he grew up washing dishes and mopping floors in his family’s diner, the Mayflower Grill on Main Street, and the life of a business open seven days a week.
“Long hours and no pay,” recalls Mr. Marudas who shares ancestry (down to the village in Greece) with his former boss. “His parents had passed along a work ethic.”
In Annapolis, Mr. Sarbanes proved himself to be his own man. He sought to ban “walk around” money. He secured a seat on the Judiciary Committee, leaving behind the more prestigious Ways and Means. He even got into a squabble with then-Gov. Spiro Agnew who had called one of his political reform bills “Sarbanality.” The upstart delegate coined a new term for submitting a “know nothing” budget and stooping to name-calling: “Agnewsticism.” Keep in mind he had been in public office all of 14 months.
“He was just a dignified, intelligent person. Always thoughtful and a hard worker,” says U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, who was elected to the House of Delegates the same year. “He just took enormous pride in his work.”
Elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1970 and then the U.S. Senate in 1976, Mr. Sarbanes continued to demonstrate how hard work could trump money and connections. To win his Senate seat, he had to dispatch Republican incumbent John Glenn Beall Jr. after besting Joseph Tydings in the Democratic primary. Both came from political dynasties — Beall, the son of J. Glenn Beall who represented Maryland in the U.S. Senate from 1953 to 1965; Tydings, the adopted son of Millard Tydings who held the same post from 1927 to 1951. In the end, it was the guy who grew up in the Eastern Shore diner who won 59 percent of the vote in the general election.
While representing Baltimore in the House, Mr. Sarbanes was chosen by Judiciary Committee Chairman Peter Rodino to introduce the first Article of Impeachment, an obstruction of justice charge, against Richard M. Nixon in 1974. But it was during his five terms in the Senate (the longest of any Marylander until his fellow Sen. Barbara Mikulski came along) that he really made his mark, particularly in his committee work in foreign relations and banking, including as Senate sponsor of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 that protects the public from fraudulent accounting in wake of the Enron and WorldCom scandals. He also played a major role in the Panama Canal Treaty and, closer to home, he was instrumental in efforts to protect the Chesapeake Bay and to find a way to dispose of dredge spoil to preserve thousands of jobs associated with the Port of Baltimore.
Colleagues remember him fondly as a “senator’s senator,” but Ms. Mikulski thinks of him as her “champion.” It was, after all, Mr. Sarbanes who took her aside and showed her the ropes of the Senate, who helped her secure a plum committee assignment and was sure to touch base with her every single day. “Working with Paul was one of the great joys of being a member of Congress,” recalls Ms. Mikulski. “You never needed to worry about hidden agendas with Paul. It was always a clear, straightforward agenda, and we were a very good team.”
How fitting, then, that one of his most lasting legacies can still be found in Maryland’s 3rd House District where his son, John Sarbanes, has made the same daily commute from Baltimore to Capitol Hill since 2007 to serve in his dad’s old seat in the House. Like his father, he is reform-minded, a careful thinker and a lawyer (his siblings Michael and Janet having chosen the teaching path instead). And from the start, he became accustomed to people on the Hill telling him, “if you can be one-quarter as good as your father, you’ll do a great job.”