WASHINGTON – Rep. Benjamin Cardin’s recent high-profile role on the committee investigating the House speaker’s ethical lapses could raise his fortunes in Congress or in a future bid for statewide office, party activists and political analysts say.
In The Washington Post alone, for instance, the Baltimore Democrat was cited since December in more than 20 articles, which were circulated to half a million Maryland readers.
“This is a net gain for Cardin, no doubt about it,” said Del Ali, vice president of Mason-Dixon Political/Media Research, a Maryland-based polling firm. “It’s only going to increase his name recognition and positive standing among Democrats.”
Added University of Maryland political scientist James Gimpel: “Ben Cardin would be a very exciting [statewide] candidate. But he is also gaining ground on Capitol Hill.”
Cardin, 53, a six-term congressman and former speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates, is credited with crafting a palatable compromise this year to punish House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., for unethical conduct.
Cardin was the ranking Democrat on the House ethics committee and was assigned to its investigative subcommittee. He worked with Republicans to devise a compromise punishment for the speaker, who admitted to recklessly pursuing a tax exemption for political purposes and misleading investigators. The House in January agreed to the compromise: to formally reprimand Gingrich and fine the speaker $300,000.
Forrest Maltzman, a political scientist at George Washington University, said Cardin came off as “measured, principled and full of conviction.”
As party strategists lay the groundwork for the 1998 governor’s race, Cardin’s name has been surfacing as a possible Democratic challenger to Gov. Parris Glendening – along with Maryland House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr.’s.
Cardin’s press secretary, Susan Sullam, said Cardin is not encouraging such talk. “We’ve been talking to death about this,” she said. Cardin is focusing his energies with the new Congress, she said.
But neither has Cardin denied the possibility of a gubernatorial bid.
Maryland Republicans, such as state party chairwoman Joyce Lyons Terhes, don’t hesitate to talk about the possibility of Cardin running for governor. Cardin’s work on the Gingrich case “has people thinking … he may run,” Terhes said.
Clearly, a Cardin challenge of Glendening could play to the Republicans’ advantage. University of Maryland political scientist Paul Herrnson said a Cardin candidacy could create a “divisive” Democratic primary, which could weaken the winning candidate as he or she heads toward the general election.
“Cardin is brilliant and has enormous integrity,” said George Leventhal, Montgomery County’s Democratic party chairman. “I strongly hope he does not challenge our governor. It would be very damaging.”
Already, some well-known Republicans are aligning themselves for a gubernatorial bid. Former state Del. Ellen Sauerbrey, who lost to Glendening in 1994 by a fraction of a percentage point, is a top Republican possibility for 1998.
“It’s no secret Ellen’s going to be our nominee,” said David Blumberg, chairman of the local Baltimore County Republican committee.
Other Republican names being mentioned include Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker and Anne Arundel state Sen. Robert Neall.
Because of the potential for harm to the party, some Democrats would prefer to see Cardin stay where he is, in Congress.
“Cardin is doing a tremendous job on tough issues … and is climbing the leadership ladder there,” said Rich Parsons, executive director of the Democratic state party.
Within three years of his 1986 election, Cardin won a coveted Ways and Means Committee seat, and is quickly moving up in seniority there. He also sits on the powerful House Budget Committee, which sets spending priorities for the nation.
And assignments to the ethics committee are made by the House leadership and indicate a high level of trust, respect and upward mobility. Cardin just completed a six-year term – the maximum – on the committee.
Of course, if Glendening’s stock with the voters were to plummet during this 90-day session of the General Assembly, Democratic interest in a Cardin challenge could grow.
“Watch for where Glendening is in March,” Ali said.
Ali said Glendening had “serious problems,” in his first term. They included seeking state subsidies for two new football stadiums and allowing a corporate executive, who was seeking a major state contract, to pay for the governor’s travel expenses.
“But he is making good moves” now, Ali said of the governor.
Glendening is focusing on his initiatives and the legislative session, not on 1998 politics, said his spokeswoman, Tori Leonard.
If Cardin does decide to explore a statewide candidacy, he could use money raised in congressional races to do so, said Rebecca Wicklund, director of candidacy and campaign finance for the Maryland State Administrative Board of Election Laws.
For instance, he could use some of the $100,000 remaining in his 1996 congressional campaign fund to create an exploratory committee or conduct voter polling on his name recognition and popularity. However, state election laws would allow Cardin to transfer only $4,000 of it to a statewide race, Wicklund said. -30- -30-