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Longtime lawmaker Paul Sarbanes of Maryland was unpretentious ‘stealth senator’ who championed civility, Chesapeake Bay

Longtime U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes was remembered Monday as a son of Greek immigrants who championed Chesapeake Bay preservation and other Maryland causes while remaining an unpretentious “stealth senator” in a body known for self-promotion.

“He was not a press conference kind of guy. It was unique,” said former U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, for whom Sarbanes served as a mentor after she was elected in 1986. “He was one of the most unpretentious colleagues I ever knew. Paul and I called ourselves the ‘Diner Democrats.’ We would razz [Jay] Rockefeller and [Ted] Kennedy. We called them the ‘Dynasty Democrats.’”

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Sarbanes, 87, died Sunday night, said his son, U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes, who represents Maryland’s 3rd Congressional District.

Sarbanes had been living at Roland Park Place, a retirement community in North Baltimore.

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“He watched the Georgia Senate debate the night he passed away,” Mikulski said Monday after talking with John Sarbanes. “I knew he was not well.”

John Sarbanes’ congressional office did not disclose a cause of death or where his father died, but said in a statement Sunday night that the elder Sarbanes “passed away peacefully this evening in Baltimore.”

In his 30 years in the Senate, Sarbanes worked on bay restoration and the protection of the estuary’s trails and waterways, helped protect consumers’ privacy in banking, and became a key figure in high-profile congressional investigations from Watergate to Iran-Contra to Whitewater.

A workhorse with a consistently liberal voting record, Sarbanes in 2000 became the state’s first U.S. senator to win a fifth term. Democrat Millard E. Tydings had served four terms, ending in 1951.

“Our family is grateful to know that we have the support of Marylanders who meant so much to him and whom he was honored to serve,” John Sarbanes’ statement said.

Republicans called him a “stealth” or “phantom” senator. It’s an image Sarbanes was at peace with. He laughed about it during a 2005 interview with The Baltimore Sun and hinted his invisibility had been part of a strategy over the years. Stealth, Sarbanes said, is “one of the most important weapons in our military arsenal … If you let somebody else take the credit, you can get the result.”

“He was not a flashy senator,” said Maryland Senate President Emeritus Thomas V. Mike Miller. “He was not a show horse.”

“He was not known for putting in a lot of bills — but what bills he did put in, he made sure they got passed and he made sure that they were pieces of legislation that had a positive effect on our state and on our budget,” said Miller, a Democrat.

The senator’s Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 established an independent oversight board to rein in accounting abuses. It also restricted the ability of accounting firms to provide consulting services to public companies they audit.

The bill helped protect “Main Street investors,” said Democratic U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen, who was elected in 2016 to succeed Mikulski. He said Sarbanes was “a role model for me.”

Sarbanes also worked to expand affordable housing and to stabilize the Social Security and Medicare trust funds.

Gov. Larry Hogan called Sarbanes a “passionate advocate” for Maryland and ordered the state flag be flown at half-staff on the day Sarbanes is buried. The Republican governor noted that his father, Larry Hogan Sr., served on the House Judiciary Committee with Sarbanes during the Watergate scandal. The elder Hogan also unsuccessfully challenged Sarbanes for his Senate seat in 1982.

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The Watergate scandal broke in the middle of Sarbanes’ freshman House term. Sarbanes drafted the first article of impeachment against Republican President Richard M. Nixon, accusing Nixon of obstructing justice. Nixon was accused of multiple abuses of power, including the use of government agencies to harass political enemies and to interfere with an FBI investigation of a break-in at the Watergate headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.

Later, on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, staff director Antony Blinken, now Democratic President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee for secretary of state, said he watched Sarbanes in action.

“A fierce intelligence married to deep principle — and the best questioner on the committee,” Blinken said Monday in a tweet.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, who won Sarbanes’ seat when he retired, said his predecessor “set new, needed standards for transparency and good governance.”

“Maryland mourns the loss of an incredible public servant and champion of the Chesapeake Bay,” Cardin tweeted Monday.

The Chesapeake Conservancy recognized Sarbanes’ efforts to improve the bay’s health. He was a member of the nonprofit group’s board of directors.

“While in the Maryland General Assembly, he co-authored the legislation that enabled Program Open Space, and while in the U.S. Senate, he co-authored the Environmental Protection Agency’s Chesapeake Restoration Act, both of which have been instrumental in helping to restore the health of the Chesapeake Bay,” conservancy President and CEO Joel Dunn said in a statement Monday.

“Senator Sarbanes often said, ‘If a state could have a soul, Maryland’s would be the Chesapeake.’ Last night, the Chesapeake lost one of its most dedicated advocates.”

Born in Salisbury on Feb. 3, 1933, Sarbanes was the prototype of the self-made American. He grew up around the restaurant owned by his parents, Spyros and Matina.

Sarbanes and Mikulski were “retail,” said Mikulski, whose parents owned a grocery. “We were raised on ‘Good morning, can I help you?’ Everything he did was based on civility. He insisted on intellectual rigor and a respect for others.”

Sarbanes helped Mikulski land a seat on the powerful Appropriations Committee, advocating for her with then-Democratic leader Robert Byrd and advising her on strategy.

Sarbanes landed a scholarship to Princeton University and went on to become a Rhodes scholar. He graduated from Harvard Law School in 1960, the same year he married his British-born wife, Christine.

Sarbanes entered politics in 1966 with a successful bid for the Maryland House of Delegates, and four years later won election to Congress. After three terms in the U.S. House, he moved to the Senate, defeating former Sen. Joseph Tydings in the primary and unseating Republican Sen. J. Glenn Beall in November.

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Sarbanes’ wife, a retired educator, died in 2009.

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“Life was not the same for him when Christine died. They were just like a dream team,” Mikulski said. “He said, ‘On every Friday night, we get carryout Thai food from Greenmount Avenue and we read poetry to each other.’ It brings tears to my eyes just to tell that story.”

After his wife died, Sarbanes took her seat on the Enoch Pratt Free Library’s boards of directors and trustees.

The couple had another son, Michael A. Sarbanes, and a daughter, Janet M. Sarbanes.

The family will hold a private service — no date was yet given — that will follow public health guidance related to the COVID-19 pandemic, John Sarbanes’ statement said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this article.

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